The message appeared as I was reading to my nine-year-old daughter Theadora over breakfast. She was perfectly capable of reading to herself, but neither of us yet wanted to relinquish this morning ritual. As I turned a page of Flowers for Algernon, I happened to glance up at my laptop. The message at the bottom of my Facebook page said simply: Miss you Jenny. Three words, infinite meaning.
I just heard from Jeni, I said to my daughter.
Is she okay?
I don’t know. Probably not. Probably she’s sad.
We all used to live in Bolivia, my family and Jeni’s family. Jeni and I met in an adult ballet class, whispering over the barre to each other between exercises. We had each lived in several countries by then, our lives as perpetual outsiders giving us plenty of common ground. We shared creative and political passions. We both married foreign diplomats. We had the same name. When she rang I’d say, Hi Jeni! And she’d say, Hi Jenny! And I would smile into my receiver.
Theadora revered Jeni’s daughter Kira, her middle child and only girl. She was four then, a year older than Theadora, and physically brave in a way my daughter was not. She was always the first to the top of any climbing frame, the first down a zipline. She had no fear. Theadora, who would never otherwise think to climb to the top of anything, followed Kira’s lead. All the way up.
We celebrated our kids’ birthdays together, as well as the American holidays of Thanksgiving and Halloween. We explored the infinite marvels of Bolivia. Some parents use their kids as an excuse not to travel, but Jeni and her husband Trond were the opposite, always game to throw all three kids in the car and set off for the jungle. One school holiday, we drove from La Paz down the hairpin turns of the long road to Coroico, where we hiked up muddy tracks unpassable by cars to stay in casitas in the middle of a rainforest. Our children chased each other around the outdoor eating area, knocked each other out of the hammock, and played on a tractor. Late in the afternoon we carried them one by one across a rickety wooden bridge over a deep and rocky gorge. I have photos of us all, looking tousled and tanned, in front of the waterfall on the other side. I also have photos of our naked husbands darting through the spray, as well as photos of our own naked bodies balancing on the mossy rocks, not wanting to be shown up by the men. That night, the small hands of our daughters together peeled cocoa beans in the jungle, ground them into chocolate.
Later that year, when my husband’s father died, he rang me to say we had just a few hours to get on a plane to England. I was sitting in Jeni’s car after a yoga class.
We just got back from Europe, I said. It’s a thirty-hour trip. Theadora’s just recovering from a cold.
Why don’t you leave her with us?
I turned to look at Jeni. This had not even occurred to me.
You already have three children.
She shrugged. Once you have three, what’s one more?
So I left Theadora in La Paz with Jeni and her family. I missed her painfully, but every time I rang Theadora was busy playing with Kira. Jeni sent me a photo of the two girls stark naked except for a couple pairs of Jeni’s cowboy boots. It was clear she was not suffering in our absence.
The day of the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Jenny rang me and we cried on the phone without speaking. When I went to her house to do yoga with her soon after that and was overcome with grief, Jeni curled silently around me on my mat, her belly breathing into my back.
Just, the children, I said.
We are lucky.
We are lucky.
When Jeni, Trond, Kira, and her brothers August and Jasper left Bolivia for a posting to Ghana, we were bereft. I had other friends, but no one who understood me even when we were quiet together. For months, Theadora pined. When she received a new rabbit for her birthday, she named it Kira.
We saw them all together one last time. I was on book tour in the US, doing a reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By coincidence, Jeni happened to be in the city for a graduate-school residency. Trond and the children were there as well. Shy with each other at first, Kira and Theadora didn’t take long to return to the rhythms of friendship. The last photographs I have of them together show Kira eating an ice cream cone while Theadora tries to braid her hair, and then Theadora nearly crushing her in an embrace.
A little more than a year later, Jeni wrote to me to say that Kira had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She and her family had just returned to Norway after several years in Ghana. My family and I had just returned to England from Bolivia and were staying in a hotel while we searched for a flat. Jeni wasn’t sure if the tumor was cancerous or aggressive. Her notes were short and stunned.
Theadora spent that day in our hotel room drawing a card for Kira, filled with the mountains of Bolivia and the women in their bowler hats and fancy skirts. Feeling helpless to do anything truly useful, I ordered Bananagrams and books of jokes for her kids. We sent them off to Norway, along with slippers in the shape of golden retrievers, Kira’s favorite animal, to keep her warm in the hospital.
The doctors told Jeni and Trond that their daughter had Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, DIPG, an incurable brain cancer. Kira had at most 18 months to live. There is nothing more we can do, they said after a round of radiation. Enjoy her while you can.
But it is impossible to give up on someone you love, no matter what the doctors say. Jeni began searching for clinical trials, anything that would give her more time with her daughter.
Every morning in London I stumbled to the bathroom thinking first of Jeni, who was unable to wake from her nightmare. I imagined myself in her skin, her heart. I forced myself into her pain as if that could inoculate me against loss.
Desperate to do something, anything, I spent afternoons compiling recipes of cancer-fighting foods. At Jeni’s request, I visited a Tibetan doctor to ask him to heal Kira. He offered a prayer for her and gave me packets of herbs that I put in the mail, but they never arrived in Norway. Theadora arranged her stuffed bunnies on the floor of her room to spell out Kira’s name. At night we lay in her bed together and imagined different creatures—nifflers, rabbits, unicorns, hedgehogs—made of white light consuming Kira’s tumor. We imagined it shrinking. We imagined it disappearing. We believed in our visions.
Eventually Jeni found a place for Kira in a clinical trial in Mexico. For the six months they were there, she never left Kira’s side. She watched as her daughter endured terrible suffering, losing the ability to move, speak, and swallow. Jeni’s father came down from Texas to look after them. Trond and the boys visited from Norway as often as they could. Every photo Jeni posted on Facebook, where she had gathered a supportive community from across the globe, showed the two of them entwined. Every photo showed Jeni smiling for her daughter. Smiling when there was nothing to smile about.
Kira died two days after Theadora’s eighth birthday and three days before my 48th. She was nine years old.
I told Theadora over breakfast, right after I heard the news. She sobbed until she left the flat. All three of us did.
It’s good she has to go to school, my husband said. Otherwise she might not stop.
When I arrived in Norway for Kira’s funeral, I ran into Jeni’s father on the train to her town. We talked the whole journey, of Kira and Mexico and Jeni. For ten hours after Kira died, he said, Jeni held her slowly stiffening body. Would not let go of it even when it no longer contained what made it a daughter. When the men came to take her girl—those round brown eyes, those sharp elbows, that soft skin—the girl she birthed too few years ago, she carried the body downstairs herself, could not relinquish this last
It’s unbearable, to see Jeni suffering… I said.
Her father looked at me. Jeni’s suffering is only beginning.
I’ve wanted to see you for so long, Jeni said when I hugged her, her small body quaking with tears. But I never imagined it like this.
She was both herself and eviscerated and transformed by grief. We sat upstairs together on her bed and looked out the window at the heart made of candles that her neighbors had lighted in the snow of her backyard. When the children gathered to sing, we cried.
She talked to beings of light only she could see, other little girls who lost their bodies, said Jeni. So why can’t she talk to me now? I just need to know where she is.
Energy is conserved, I stupidly respond, my words slipping off the cliffside of grief, its unscalable sides. She must be somewhere.
No. Jeni is emphatic.
I can’t feel her anymore,
I can’t reach her.
When we walk into the church, the little white casket under its blanket of flowers, the rainbow of candles, the balloons tied at either end of the chancel, the portrait of Kira, sunny, smiling, and
nine years old,
land like a blow.
The day after the funeral and the unthinkable finality of the coffin’s descent into the frozen earth, I spent the day with Jeni and her family. We took a walk through the snow with her mother, stopping at a café for something warm to drink, though Jeni didn’t want to come in, wanting to avoid awkward and painful conversations about how she was doing. Later, we talked with her boys while they played video games. Jeni spent an hour braiding my hair all the way around my head. I thought how Jeni no longer had anyone’s hair to braid.
After I said goodbye to Jeni and Trond at the Asker train station, I watched from the train window as they walked away, holding hands.
I kept that braid for a week, to feel Jeni’s hands on my head.
The morning I got her Facebook message, I grabbed my phone and walked to Chiswick House and Gardens. Once inside the woods, I rang Jeni. I didn’t think she would answer. I knew she didn’t like talking on the phone, not anymore. But I felt her message had given me permission. I worried I had not been calling enough, that I had not been doing everything I should be doing for her.
When she heard my voice, she began to cry.
I don’t know why it makes me so emotional to hear your voice.
I asked what she was doing and how the boys were doing and how cold it was in Norway. She told me how her boys had made friends with other kids who had lost siblings, told me the ways grief lived in all of them. We talked about Kira. She asked about Theadora. I only hung up when my battery was running out. I didn’t want to lose her voice.
The thing with this crazy year, with our ridiculous schedules, with everything— my husband and I had both been working seven days a week, London always bankrupted us—is that I am failing all the people I care most about, the people I most want to be there for.
But Jenny, I always knew you were there. She sounded surprised.
I was flooded with relief. She knew I loved her. She knew.
I just want you to know how much you’re always on my mind. That every morning when I wake up I think of you and I imagine how you are waking up and what you are waking up to, and I know how lucky I am to have Theadora and she knows how lucky she is to be alive… I trail off, tearful again.
Jeni was quiet.
That is a heavy thing for you to carry, she said.
I didn’t know what to say. Didn’t she want me to carry it? Only then, only when she says those words, do I recognize my assumption that she wanted me to accompany her into the pain. Somehow, despite everything I know about her, it never occurred to me that she could want me to wake up happy. That she could want me to enjoy my own daughter instead of constantly imagining her demise. It never occurred to me that she could be so generous, from the depths of such darkness.
But she was. She is.
Lighter, I sit down to work. But before I begin, I turn to the photos of Kira and Theadora together, sitting in a hammock, playing in the ice cream store. There is one video that Jeni shot while Theadora was staying with her family in La Paz. It shows Kira, Theadora, and Jasper in the bath, making funny noises and pouring water on each other’s heads. The sound of Kira’s silliness is a balm. To see her breathing, to hear her voice.
One of the most beautiful parts of that movie is the brief sound, towards the end, of Jeni laughing.
Jennifer Steil is an award-winning bisexual author and journalist currently living in Uzbekistan. Her third book, Exile Music, a novel exploring the lives of Austrian Jewish musicians who seek refuge from the Nazis in Bolivia in 1939 is forthcoming from Viking May 5, 2020. Her first book, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (Broadway Books 2010), is a memoir about her tenure editing the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. Her novel The Ambassador’s Wife (Doubleday 2015) has won awards. She is now writing a novel about an underground Bolivian community of LGBTQ artists.