My mom says that she wishes I were never born. And that if she could travel back in time and change one thing in her life, she would go back to Darren Hartwell’s apartment in Buffalo, New York on July 17th 1982. It was a Saturday night, and he was playing “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League on his new record player for her. If you ask me, that wouldn’t be my seductive song of choice. And I don’t think it really should be anyone’s.
Advice #1: Pick a good song to dance to. Don’t use music to convince someone of anything.
Age one, two, and three: I had a good temperament. Didn’t fuss, or scream in supermarkets. I didn’t throw spoons, and I ate my peas (even though I still don’t like them). My first word was “baby.”
My mom knitted me a pink cap that said “Mommy’s best friend.” I gave her hugs and kisses and I loved wearing my purple flowered pajamas.
Advice #2: Make life easier for others, and you will be happy.
Age four: I didn’t have many friends in preschool, but I spent a lot of time building block towers with this boy named Christopher. Together we made red fire houses, blue hospital buildings, orange rockets, and staircases that we tried to climb on. He always invited me to play with him, and would share everything he had with me. One day his mother took him home, and I never saw him again. If you were a boy, I would have named you Chris.
Advice #3: Make sure that when you are friends with someone you build things together. It is a good way to test the foundation.
Age five: I met my daddy for the first time when I came home from school. He picked me up and held me. I screamed so loud my throat felt raw an hour later. I was not happy. He was not my mom, and I did not like strangers lifting me up. (I still don’t like when people pick me up.)
Advice #4: New people and new things can be scary, but don’t close yourself off to them. Give them a chance. Let them lift you.
Age six: I liked seeing my dad around more. My mom started to glow. They held hands a lot, and talked about getting a house near the water. My dad gave me a stuffed bear and I named him Happy.
Advice #5: People change.
Age seven: We moved to Plymouth, MA. I didn’t mind moving. I had never made that many friends in school. But I brought Happy everywhere with me, so I did not feel lonely. A part of me knew all along somehow that New York wasn’t my home. But 25 Cherry Street in Plymouth was. People in our neighborhood started to call me Jenna. I used to be called Jenny or Jennifer back in New York. Jenna fit me more.
My dad and I played Candy Land out on our new porch, and had barbeques in our big yard when it was warm out. I also spent many hours in the street in the summer. Since we lived on a cul-de-sac it was safer. I loved using the sidewalk chalk I had. My favorite was blue. I’d draw houses and hearts. Sometimes stars.
Advice #6: Never stop until you find your home. Even if it is a person, instead of a place. Find them, and then never let them go.
Age eight: My dad took me fishing on the weekends. We drove to Cape Cod, and spent hours on the piers in Wellfleet. I liked touching the worms, but my dad never let my fingers near the hook. The fish were small, grey, and blue. Their scales were sharper than I imagined the hook to be. We always threw them back.
Advice #7: Visit the water often, and don’t be afraid to get dirty.
Age nine: This is when the pain started. My lower back pain. The stomach pain. The everywhere pain. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like someone was stabbing me in my lower belly. I pictured the big knife that my mom used to chop up vegetables for her stew. I tried to focus on the image in my head of my mom in the kitchen, singing as she chopped. I held on tight to Happy, and I started to sing to myself: “From a distance there is harmony, and it echoes through the land. It’s the voice of hope. It’s the voice of peace . It’s the voice of every man.” My mom’s favorite song.
I quietly called for my mom in the night, after I turned my tear-soaked pillow over. I didn’t want to wake her, but I couldn’t help but call for her. I thought that I was too quiet for her to hear, so I gave up. But I was wrong. She knew, and she came to me. I spent that night, and then many nights after that in the hospital.
Advice #8: You don’t always have to be strong.
Age ten: No one knew what was wrong with me. I had to be pulled from school.
Advice #9: You can be sad. But don’t give up on yourself.
Age eleven: Doctors told me I was extremely rare. A very rare case. So rare. That is all I heard. Rare, rare, rare. The word rare sounded so strange after a while. So did the word “ovarian”. When I heard “ovarian” I thought it was a type of doctor. There were so many types of doctors, and so many names. So I just assumed that when someone said the word “ovarian” to my parents, it was either the specialty of my doctor, or it was the name of the head nurse. I never knew it was a type of cancer, or that I could have this type of cancer. I didn’t know how to have cancer, or live with cancer, or die with cancer. I didn’t know how to be someone with cancer. I only knew how to be Jenna. Long, dark, curly haired Jenna who loved to run, draw, and ride her bike.
Advice #10: Be patient with yourself. Everything takes time. Let yourself adjust.
Age tweleve-sixteen: I was going to die. I had my bags packed in my mind, and made plans. Chemotherapy sucked. I had no hair. And I didn’t even want my hair anymore. There was a surgery– a painful one. I won’t go into details.
I overheard my mom talking to my dad. She said she wished I had never been born, and that she wishes she never met my dad.
“Seeing her in this pain is unbearable. This is my fault. I brought her here, and now she will die like this,” my mom sobbed in the hallway.
I read a lot. Mainly romance— I liked Sarah Dessen. I was homeschooled. In and out of the hospital. I thought about the future, falling in love, having a family of my own. I wanted to be a teacher.
Advice #11: Always have dreams.
Age seventeen-twenty: I didn’t die. I made it through.
I met Benjamin George Parker on April 2nd when I was walking on a stone wall across from White Horse Beach. He challenged me to walk the entire length of it, one foot in front of the other. I didn’t tell him my name until I reached the end. (My attempt at playing hard to get.)
Advice #12: Take one step at a time, and pay attention to who is walking next to you.
Age twenty-one through thirty-one: I became a third grade teacher. Ben and I married. He made me feel even more alive than the day my doctors had told me I was cancer free. He encouraged my ideas, listened to the lesson plans I mapped out, and never forgot the important things. My mom taught Ben how to make her stew, and my dad took him fishing with us.
Advice #13: Look for simple things.
Age thirty-two: Ben and I wanted a baby so badly. But I was dreading what the doctors would say. Because I knew deep down that something was taken away from me when I was a child. And that something was wrong. My parents never discussed it with me. But I think it was because they did not know anything for sure, and they didn’t want to scare me.
I learned today that you will never exist, Lila. I can’t have a child of my own. And I am so sorry for this. I am so sorry that I do not have any viable ovaries, baby girl. I am not made to create you. I can only create you in my mind. I can give you life with my own life experience, and advice. I named you Lila after my mother.
My mom says she wishes I was never born, but she doesn’t mean it. The pain of learning you cannot have a baby is so much to handle that it is worse than death. My mom wants to just go back, and protect me. Protect me from the cancer, the disappointment, writing this letter. She loves me more than anyone could possibly love someone. And I love you the same.
You will forever be a part of me, Lila. Even if Ben and I adopt— you are still my family, and a permanent part of my heart.
My last piece of advice: You are as alive as you feel.
With eternal love,