In Praise of a Friend Dying Young: Jen McCann Black

by Mo Guernon
June 4, 2019

She was petite. Yet her stature touched the sky.

Jen McCann-Black was blessed with virtues that elude most of us: dignity, magnanimity, kindness, resilience, integrity, and courage. She was, among other things, a devoted wife, an adoring mother, a loving daughter and sister, a loyal friend, and a cherished teacher. Jen was a strong and determined woman who confronted life’s challenges, including her cruel illness, with awe-inspiring equanimity.

I last saw Jen towards the end of her seemingly endless captivity at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. As I stepped into the room, I was warmly welcomed by a bedridden young woman who was a shocking shadow of herself; she was in constant discomfort and fatigued by the relentless disease that ravaged her body. Yet she welcomed the visit.

She began our conversation by asking about my family — her selflessness once again readily evident. Throughout our hour together, there was not even a fleeting hint of self-pity, complaint, or rage at the injustice of her fate. Cancer could not weaken her spirit.

In response to my hesitant inquiries about how she felt, she responded in a measured tone. When I reacted enthusiastically to the news of her approaching release, she freely admitted her anxiety about returning home because of the complications it would cause her caregivers. Her eyes, though, seemed to suggest that she knew Pawtucket would be her final destination before reaching her eternal home.

It is common for friends and family, encountering the imminent demise of a loved one, to offer awkward or inadequate words of encouragement even when a miracle cure is beyond the imagination. That’s what I did. “Put on some weight and get stronger,” I urged Jen. “You will beat this,” I insisted.

I said it with a smile that I mysteriously mustered at a moment when I was about to lose my composure. I had an overwhelming desire to lend her at least a modicum of hope. Her countenance, though, seemed to convey that she knew better.

People typically don’t know how to speak honestly with the dying. I am one of them. My feelings, when she told me she needed to nap, were of unfathomable heartache for her, Matt, Michael, and her parents for whom I repeatedly prayed since her grim diagnosis. I reached for her right hand and held it tenderly in both of mind. “I’ll see you again when you get home,” I said in farewell. She smiled faintly. My instinct, however, told me this was our final parting. And it was.

Jen always gave of herself selflessly to the suffering and the least among us. In doing so she inspired us all.

If anyone deserved longevity and the very best that life has to offer, it was Jen. And because of that, none of us can ever make sense of the tragedy that befell her.  Attempting to do so inevitably leads to a dead end. All we can be certain of is that the world we inhabit is inscrutable and often unjust.

Jen’s emotional anguish at being robbed of her future was undoubtedly her constant companion, tempered somewhat by daily reminders of the love of her family and friends. The very thought of being deprived of the joy of seeing Michael grow up and her distress at the possibility of not being remembered by him had to be the source of unimaginable agony.

Emerson, upon the untimely death of his friend Thoreau at age 45, wrote a fond tribute to the nobility of his neighbor’s short life. And on those rare occasions, like this one, when a truly extraordinary individual I have known and loved has passed on to the other side, my mind always returns to this particular passage that undeniably holds true for Jen. I have, therefore, taken the liberty of substituting her name in the passage. This is the modified excerpt from Emerson’s elegy that might provide us with a sliver of solace in this, our own moment of intense grief:

“There is a flower known to botanists, one of the same genus with our summer plant called “Life-Everlasting”… which grows on the most inaccessible cliffs of the Tyrolese mountains, where…the traveler, tempted by its beauty, and by her love…climbs the cliffs to gather, and is sometimes found dead at the foot, with the flower in her hand. It is called …by the Swiss Edelweiss, which signifies Noble Purity. Jen seemed to me living in the hope to gather this plant, which belonged to her of right…But she, at least, is content. Her soul was made for the noblest society; she had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, she will find a home.”

A rare malicious cancer burrowed into a heart that was too pure for this flawed world. Yet Jen suffered stoically, with dignity and courage. The lives of those of us who were privileged to know Jen were touched by an angel. And all of our lives – family, friends, colleagues, and students — are richer because of her.

As we now bid Jen our final heart-wrenching farewell, we should try to take consolation that her memory will survive for all of our tomorrows and that she will live on in Michael. As he grows, we will see Jen in his features, his smile, his personality, his goodness, and his indomitable spirit.

Then we will remember Jen in the full bloom of her life, and those memories will get us through for the remainder of our own days.

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