In Memoriam: Irene Janz (1947-2009)

Saturday evening, we decided rather last minute to go to a movie. I’d heard good things about My Sister’s Keeper and it was in the “cheap theatre” to boot, so off we went and watched it, and then, not many minutes after we were home again, we got the phone call: H.’s sister, Irene, had died, from her cancer. Just about an hour ago, they said.

While we were both crying during the movie, then, over the cancer death of fictional Anna.

I don’t mean to make a big deal of that coincidence. Whenever there’s bad news, things otherwise ordinary are thrown beside things that aren’t ordinary, and everything feels strange. Or maybe significant. I felt briefly guilty, maybe a little silly, that we’d been doing that, over a story, while this — a real death — was happening elsewhere.

The movie is a tear-jerker, no doubt about it, but on second thought, I know that in fact we were crying for Irene. We emerged from the theatre a little rueful over our mutual emotion. “Whoa, that was quite the movie to pick,” we said to each other, “under the circumstances.” We knew Irene’s cancer had returned with a vengeance, we knew the meaning of palliative care, we knew what was coming.

And we hadn’t realized the movie was all about that.

There’s been no end of other pictures running through our minds. Always her in the middle of it, someone who had energy for two, someone to whom the word housewife, or homemaker if you prefer, was a calling as wide as the Chaco of Paraguay, where she lived. Cooking, sewing, gardening, doing crafts, teaching Sunday school, hosting people, babysitting, running a milk farm for a while. Whatever was needed, she seemed able to do it. And a little extra. In 1984, when we were leaving the Chaco after our two-year sojourn there, we celebrated son S.’s eighth birthday at their place. Irene made him a chocolate cake and decorated it with a map of Paraguay.

We were crying for you, Irene, and for ourselves. The truth of the story and the truth of your dying were very much the same. Too young, too soon, but you, like Anna, yielded and ready, telling us not to mind, telling us you would be all right.

But we do mind, Irene Janz. And we’ll miss you.IMG_1256