With Apologies to Jo

Let me first say that I am pretty sure that my friend Jo would absolutely hate me writing a blog about her.  She had that side that liked to keep things private, and didn’t want herself to be the center of attention.  She was humble to a fault, and never one to set herself out as special.  But to those of us who knew her, she was incredibly special indeed.

I first met Jo when she was volunteer coordinator at the Open Door Clinic, a free clinic that used to be in Statesville, NC (where I live) and used volunteers at night to offer services to people without health insurance and who could not get to the clinic during the day.  All of the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, clinic coordinators (my job), and other positions were volunteers.  Trying to staff a clinic each week was difficult.  Most medical professionals are overwhelmed these days, would say they offer enough indigent care at their own offices, and frankly are exhausted and ready for non-medically related entertainment or tasks at the end of the day.  Still Jo would keep at them and find staffing for the clinics.  While a doctor was essential each night, many of us from time to time would fulfill one of the other roles under the doctor’s supervision.  Yes, even I got to be a nurse once in a while (while I was fine at weighing and temperatures and taking medical histories, I never could quite master the old-fashioned blood pressure cuff if the digital one was not working.)  We’d usually see about 25 people in a night, and almost always we would have at least that many waiting in line as we arrived. 

In tow each time Jo would show up, would be her daughter Molly.  A single mom, a major reason Molly was with her was that she was too young to stay by herself.  But Jo could have opted not to be there when the clinics were staffed, and yet she showed up often.  She cared about how the clinics were running and she also said that she wanted Molly to grow up helping people.  She didn’t want to shelter her from the real world.  And Molly did.  When she didn’t have homework to finish up, she would find a job to do at the clinic.  Normally you would find her in the pharmacy.

I loved seeing Jo and Molly together.  A lot of single moms seem burdened by their children.  Jo delighted in Molly.  When we were no longer working together at the clinic, time would pass between the times we would see each other.  Her eyes would light up as she would tell me what was going on with Molly.  The brains, the athletic ability, the confidence to be herself even as a teenager, the willingness to work hard, go after her dreams, and look out for people who were in need…..all were sources of great pride and she would give me updates each time I would see her.  She never looked at her with rose-colored glasses, but she looked at her as she was and genuinely liked her.  They were a team. Jo encouraged Molly, even throughout her illness, to experience life.  She supported her fully in that. 

Sometimes the qualities she worked so hard to foster in Molly would drive her crazy….the independence, the adventurous spirit, the confidence she had in who she was.  But you could tell she was so proud of this interesting person she had raised.  I know at the end Jo was not always comfortable that this compassionate child she raised sometimes put her own needs aside to care for her mom.  She had not thought that she would have to be the recipient of that caring heart she had fostered in her from the start.  But I know she was most grateful for it, too.

Jo was a massage therapist, and those of us who had a Jo massage will tell you that it was amazing!  I remember the first time I went to her I was a bit afraid.  I love massages and yet am very picky about them.  What if my friend was not very good at it?  It makes me laugh now.  I should have known that with her heart for people she would develop her skills based on her knowledge of their needs.  She gave me the best massage of my life…..and also talked to me about things to do to lengthen the effects.  She didn’t just see the massage as an hour in time….she wanted it to help make your whole life better.  I’d leave with my bag of bath salts and her instructions about using them.  Life would be very good indeed.

The years seeing Jo fight breast cancer have been difficult, but also inspiring.  There were days when I didn’t see how she could live another day…..and then I would see her a week later and she would be doing so very well.  I hate cancer so much, and seeing Jo fight it reminded me of that fact over and over again.  Her goal was to see Molly’s high school graduation.  She was told it probably wouldn’t happen.  That made her furious…. she was determined that she would, and she did.  And she saw a lot more of  Molly’s life.  She always defied expectations.  You expected that from her. I somehow always thought that she was just going to beat it.  That she would be able to hang on for a cure.

There’s an irony that Jo died in the month of February, the month pink is everywhere.  While some women embrace the pink ribbon symbol of fighting breast cancer, it made Jo cringe.  She used to make me giggle when she would talk about it.   Many well meaning people would give her things in pink to spur on her spirit in her fight with breast cancer.  While she so appreciated their attempts at kindness, she also had an internal war against the pink campaign.  She generally would find some way to destroy whatever the object was.  I think that pulled out a really great energy in her and was very representative of the individual that Jo was.  She was unique.  She was fighting that battle on her own, mostly privately, and pink was just not the color that symbolized her fight.  Though maybe in another way it did…..she scorned pink and she scorned cancer robbing her of life.  And as much as she was able, she didn’t let it.  She worked hard to live life to the full.

I remember hanging out at Relay for Life with her a couple of years ago.  Relay wasn’t really a comfortable place for her…she was a quiet presence there.  She wasn’t feeling great that night herself, but when she heard I was suffering from a migraine, she said “Put your chair here and give me your feet.”  She massaged my feet and the headache subdued.  It was a sweet time of quiet talk, a little laughter, and also a lot of silence.  She was a friend who brought you peace and serenity, but also a good dose of  piss and vinegar.

I loved Jo and it makes me angry that our world is without her.  We should find a cure for this horrid disease.  And we should have a system that gives quality healthcare to all people, and that also embraces both traditional medicine and the non-traditional.  I believe Jo survived as long as she did because of her knowledge of massage and other alternative treatment.  Both the medical community and the insurance community should know more about it, should hold more respect for it.  I think it would save lives, and lower healthcare costs.

While Jo hated the color pink and the symbol of the breast cancer fight, I don’t share the depth of her passion against it.  The cynical side of me will internally roll my eyes right along with Jo, the optimistic side of me will not.  If it takes the color pink to raise awareness and fund more research and find a cure for this horrid disease, yea for the color.

The color pink will forever remind me of you, Jo, and as it does it will make me laugh as I know how you hated it…..but I assure you, it will not be the only color that represents you.  It is joined by a rainbow of all kinds of other bright and bold and serene and soft colors that show the wonderful sides of you that made you a wonderful friend to those you knew and didn’t know.  You were someone to be admired, and a person who will continue to change the world through those of us who were privileged to know you and those whose lives your children and grandchildren will touch.  Cancer may have conquered your body, but never the spirit of who you were and will continue to be.  I will miss you, friend.

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