The Camino

Buen Camino, dear Jessica.

Jessica Jahnke died two nights ago, in Seattle, much too soon. If you've ever read my writing in this space, you know that Jessica was my role model for courage and defiance in the face of cancer. You won't remember -- but I do -- that Jessica sought me out several years ago. She was doing what she loved, traveling in her Nissan pickup. She was cheerful despite the fact that the truck was pretty much all she had left in the world after her cancer returned, her insurance ran out, and her condo foreclosed. 

Jessica had a plan to walk the ancient Camino de Santiago in Spain, where she also had family. She was not deterred by the metastatic tumor pressing on her spine. "The doctors told me that if I fall down, it could end my life," she said. "So I don't fall down." She told me this in the midst of a two-mile walk.

Jessica did find her way to the Camino. By then she was too sick to walk the distance. She went back home to Seattle. True, she was dying, but no way was she losing the battle with cancer. To struggle as Jessica did, with all the joy and heart you possess—that's not losing.

I spent the day with Jessica not long ago. She was just getting the hang of the motorized wheelchair that had been lent to her. She was delighted to be out of bed. Although her right hand was clumsy -- the tumor that had already deadened her legs was now numbing the hand as well -- Jessica made that wheelchair obey.

Without our friends, Jessica and I would not have met again. Phil Todd, chair of our Well Again board and my stalwart friend, bought my airline ticket. Thank you so much, Phil. The extremely capable and kind Seattle-based cameraman Brian Miller volunteered his day and his world-class equipment to help me film Jessica at her best, as she told us the story of her cancer journey. If you are ever filming in Seattle, please hire Brian and pay him double. 

I asked Jessica what she expected to find on the far side of death. That was the only question she turned aside.  "I don't want to say," she told me with an uncharacteristically diffident smile. "I don't want to be disappointed."

Jessica, if there's any justice, the disappointing part of your journey is all done. I see you on a new Camino full of endless sights and sounds and friends at every albergue. On this Camino, you won't fall down. Not ever.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Masover and Monserrat Riu Jover.

Jessica is on the road!

My friend Jessica Jahnke is one of the baddest cancer heroes ever.  Here's how a longtime friend describes her:

"I met Jessica in 1979, we worked together in a disco, 'cause we’re that old. Still being here to be ‘that old’ is a blessing. We are both cancer survivors.

"Jessica was one of the most interesting people I had met back in 1979. She was born in Silverlake, CA, and her mom moved her to Barcelona, Spain, when she was 6, going on 7. Jessica has lived in Spain, Egypt, England, New York State, California, Vermont and Washington. What an incredible resume… Jess is a fun and adventurous woman, with a great sense of humor and zest for life! Sometimes I feel like she doesn’t fully understand how remarkable her life is, she is an amazing woman. She feels things deeply, so when you are loved by her, you are loved. I am honored to call her family. I love her bunches!! Always and forever."

--Janice Wheelock

Pictured above at the Oregon Country Fair with her beloved Nissan truck and her Burro camper, Jessica has been telling Stage IV where to get off.  Despite constant pain, she made the drive from Seattle to volunteer at the Fair, just as she has for the past 20 summers.  Further complications prevented Jessica from driving coast to coast.  But not before she sent us pictures of this field of flowers or these sociable geese.  And just because she's stopped driving, doesn't mean she's stopped moving. Next on Jessica's list is a flight to Barcelona, her childhood home.  From there, if she can, she'll join the amazing walking pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  

Who's going with her?