At CSP, we consider February 4th a national pink & green holiday in honor of our beloved Jen Bunich who we lost seven years ago today.
I reached out to Britt Yett – BFF of “the other Jen P” who we lost one year ago. I couldn’t think of a better person to honor and celebrate on this Smarty-Hug-Your-Girlfriends-Day! Make sure you take some time out today to schedule a lunch, a wine night or a mani/pedi with the wonderful women in your life. It truly takes a village.
I have been blessed and graced with amazing friendships in my life – quite literally from the beginning. I was born a twin, so my first and best friend came into this world with me! From elementary school to high school, college to the “job” years, each stage brings clear images of faces…and smiles and memories…to mind. But as we progress through the years, those friendships ebb and flow. Some remain steadfast and true (granted, my poor twin has no choice), but others fall fate to inevitable obstacles – distance, new jobs, new ideals.
Motherhood was a huge obstacle to my friendship life. I had less time for all the things that bring health to relationships – phone calls, visits, coffee chats, basic hygiene. I had a loving, supportive husband, but let’s face it – he got me into this mess. For long stretches every day, I was at home with small children, which essentially equated to caring for zoo animals. Adorable, yes. But the NEED! The boredom! The sameness of it all! Don’t get me wrong. I love and adore my children, but I just wasn’t cut out for the 0-3yr stage (I am rocking 5yr and 7yr, just so you know!). I ran my small business from home, I cooked from home, I did laundry from home, I nurtured from home. All without a shower most days. It was hell. And I felt sure I was the only person who was in hell.
My kids went to a half day preschool program. I saw the other preschool moms. It is possible I am exaggerating, but I am pretty sure they all showered daily, wore matching clothes, packed gourmet, colorful lunches, were all a size 0, and had designer bags. They did NOT forget that there was no carpool and show up greasy haired, wearing slippers but omitting the bra. I was sure I was the only person not wearing a bra.
My physical self shocked me. I had been an athlete my whole life. I had related to the world through activity and sport. Now, before you get the wrong idea, being a female jock is not all it is cracked up to be. It doesn’t make you super popular. You are not changing out of a sweaty uniform to don a homecoming queen dress. But it was my path – the one that connected me to the world. And during young mommy hood, it was missing. I was soft, out of shape, overweight. I have never been a wisp of a girl, mind you, but I was unrecognizable to myself. I was sure I was the only middle aged woman who still related to the world that way and suffered when it was missing.
In 2009, Jen Pagani was in her own bit of hell. Jen had stage III inflammatory breast cancer and had been in the fight of her life for two years. She had two small children and was parenting every waking moment. She wasn’t wearing a bra because of discomfort related to a mastectomy and radiation. The ravages of lymphedema, scar tissue, and fatigue meant she was denied her previously physical, active, life.
She understood real suffering. I was playing at it.
She was handling hell with grace and courage. I was not.
She never held that against me.
I heard about Jen at our preschool – Christ Lutheran Children’s Center. Her youngest son Luca was in my oldest son, Connor’s, class. Eventually, during a quieter portion of her treatment regimen, we met. We talked. I made her dinner and happened to include most of her favorite things. Her thank you email was so honest and real and heartfelt and surprising, I have never forgotten it. We began to email regularly, then playdate, then just mommy date. We began to laugh and to walk. We must have walked hundreds of miles over the years.
To look at us walking, you would have picked me to be the sick one. She glowed, I glowered. She strode, I shuffled. She encouraged, I panted. And right there, early, early into our relationship, I had my “A-ha” moment. I was walking next to a woman fighting tooth and nail FOR her life. I was fighting AGAINST mine.
Well, as you might imagine, my pity party came to a quick close. I exercised more, complained less. I found the energy to strap on a bra before going in public. I never fully embraced the “at home” part of my day (after all, any of you who know me understand keeping an orderly house is not second nature), but I could see through it. I got out of my own way.
This is sounding very dramatic. I am prone to the dramatic. But it happened in just that way. Who knows why Jen let me in. After all, she had tremendous friends and tremendous support and in truth, didn’t really need more. Her hands were nice and full. But there was a part of each of us that resonated with each other. We were cut from the same cloth. And I needed her and was not afraid to be vulnerable. It says a lot about her spirit and her grace that she could see my need and not run in the opposite direction.
But she didn’t. And, that, my friends, is friendship. It is grace. It is compassion. It is opening your heart. It is believing that good things are always possible and taking a risk to find it. She believed in me. She believed that my dark was temporary.
Let’s face it. There were times Jen was the needier one. She faced down monsters so many times. And she needed her many friends and her dear husband, Joe to pull her “off the ledge” as she put it. But there was always balance. And when it was my turn, she demanded to be the one pulling me of the ledge. Now, my ledges were so very minor compared to the sheer drop offs she faced. But I never insisted she take a break and sit one out and she never pointed and laughed at my silly ledges. Well, maybe sometimes she did. But she still pulled with all the strength she had. I think asking her for help was my bit of grace.
I understood early on that I might lose my dear new friend. But I understood very clearly that you cherish friendship and intimacy. You step into the fray. There were hard days. But there were SO MANY good ones. I did sun salutations on a beach at dawn with Jen. We traveled to Arches National Park where we saw beauty and nature thriving in the harshest of conditions. I witnessed the love she had for Joe and those two boys. I laughed and laughed with her and was able to see that beautiful smile until the end. And I know she saw mine.
Jen, through the harshest of circumstances, understood the value of loving the life you had. And she shared it willingly – not by preaching or finger pointing, but by example. She worked hard to accept the changes in her life. She decided charity and love were her only option after so many showed it to her. (If you don’t know about the GoJenGo Foundation that she and Joe founded, please take the time to know this organization – gojengo.org.)
Jen really was a hero and I try to spend time every day honoring her legacy. But in the quiet times, she is just my friend. In every sense of the word. The relationship we shared (because friendship is about what lies between two people) changed my life. For the better. For always. And I am so lucky to have had her. God knows, I miss her.
My wish for all of us is to love deeply and trust implicitly. Find someone (or someones) who will give everything they have to pull you off the ledge. And let them. Be vulnerable, not isolated. Be courageous, not fearful. Step into the fray and be a friend.
To find out more about Jen’s legacy, the GoJenGo Foundation, please visit www.gojengo.org. Their largest annual fundraiser, the RunJenRun 5k is right around the corner on March 7th, so sign up to help spread Jen’s spirit to those who need it most!