Time With Loved Ones

By Christopher Jenkins

This would be the first time I have made use of this blog it would seem. Honestly I have not written down something containing my actual thoughts in quite some time. Like anyone else, I have my own issues I deal with on a regular basis, though I know some have it much worse than myself. For my first blog, I may begin to open up about what drives and motivates my personality of today. One of the biggest elements that has altered my personality and my openness to others stems from the loss of my oldest and dearest friend some 12 years ago, that somebody being my beloved godmother. To understand how this loss could have such an outsized effect on me, perhaps it is best I start at the beginning though.

A long time ago, in the city of Carbondale, Illinois, there lived a wonderful elderly couple, their names being Logan “Neal” Spilman and his wife Patricia “Jeanne” Montgomery Spilman. Having little to no family left between the two of them, they chose to make their friends their family. By the late 1980s, they had been married for more than 4 decades, and yet they were unable to conceive a child of their own, Jeanne having miscarried twice in the past due to endometriosis. Neal, feeling that an adoption would never be quite the same and that they would eventually have to share the child with its true family one day, agreed to the two of them serving in the capacity of godparents to certain children of their close friends. By 1987, they had been married for more than 40 years and had a total of 8 godchildren, believing they had likely had their last. However, one day at the height of summer that year, on July 10th to be exact, there was born a child, a son, to Cindy Keller Jenkins, the younger daughter of their best friends George and Marilyn Keller, the latter of which was lost to Leukemia some 4 years prior. That child of course was myself. The two of them came to see and hold me the very next day, when I was less than 24 hours old. Knowing that I had lost both of my grandmothers to different cancers just a handful of years before my birth and knowing that my grandfathers had become aloof and withdrawn in the wakes of those deaths, the Spilmans elected to step into the vacuum left by their best friends and serve as godparents to me as well as surrogate grandparents.

For the first 9 years of my life, the three of us had a very happy life together. I spent most of my weekends with the Spilmans following a very bad mine accident that nearly killed my father, resulting in the need for my mother to leave me in their care often so as to help him recover. During those formative years, due to the unusually large amount of time they suddenly found they had with me as opposed to their 8 previous godchildren, the Spilmans began to shape and mold me as they would have with their own child, teaching me manners, what it means to be respectful of others, and to always be kind, have an open and compassionate heart, and above all to be gentle. We were what I suppose one would consider a very happy family for a time. However, it was not meant to last sadly. Less than a year following a glowing 50th wedding anniversary, in 1997, my godfather suffered one medical disaster after the next following the removal of an aneurysm, first needing an immediate triple bypass just hours after the aneurysm removal, then losing three of his toes due to the hospital staff not properly monitoring the toxin levels in his body, and finally culminating with the loss of his kidney function due to the hospital not properly medicating him in the wake of his surgeries and all the anesthesia he had to take in. The loss of his kidneys was the final blow that eventually resulted in his death by election on June 6, 2000, having grown tired of merely existing rather than living. This loss left my godmother and I quite sad, and his last words to me were a request for me to look after her after he was gone.

For 4 more years, Jeanne and I continued to spend time together, but those instances became fewer and farther between by my own design as I moved into high school and became increasingly ambitious in my academic career. I began to see her constant calls to me as a nuisance, not realizing at the time that rather than trying to bother me, she was actually trying to check on me and make sure I was doing all right. Knowing I kept a busy school schedule, she would even go to such lengths to try and touch my life as cutting out my favorite comics from the newspapers and sending them to me in the mail since I did not have time to keep up with them. At the time I rolled my eyes at this and barely gave these comics a passing glance, sometimes not even bothering to open them at all. There were also times I would intentionally not pick up the phone when it rang because I knew she would call every week around the same time and did not want to be on the phone for a long time with her. This would all change however in the summer separating my junior and senior years.

During the course of that summer, I received a warning from my father not to squander my time with Jeanne because he told me she would not be around forever. At the time I dismissed this, feeling that Jeanne had been there from the beginning and always would be. However, I failed to notice that my godmother’s physical appearance had begun to take a turn for the worse ever since she had sold their home a year earlier and moved into a retirement home. I also had two nightmares that summer, one in June and one in July, in which I dreamed of her death and the aftermath of it. I dismissed these just as random occurrences at the time. I also failed to take seriously the nature of some of her conversations with me that summer, specifically telling me what she wanted me to keep of hers when something would happen to her, almost as if she was trying to prepare me for something that was about to occur. I took her out to our favorite restaurant for her birthday in late July and parted ways with her, not realizing at the time that this would be the last time we would see each other outside of a hospital.

Late one night in late August, we received a visit from our town policeman, telling us that Jeanne had suffered a heart attack and was in the ER in Carbondale, the hospital’s calls being unable to reach us due to me being online (dial up Internet of the day) that night reading about the coming Star Wars Episode III. We rushed to Carbondale and found Jeanne awake and responsive, having been shocked back four times with the paddles. Despite the immense bruising on her chest due to these shocks, Jeanne seemed fine and as though she would make a full recovery, the hospital staff telling us that miraculously the heart attack had done no permanent damage to her heart. However, the next day she took a very bad turn for the worse for some unexplainable reason, and the staff told us that she was trying very hard not to live. They were forced to intubate her, rendering her unable to speak but leaving her semi-conscious. It was in that moment I realized I had not shown her all the love and devotion she really deserved from me in those years following my godfather’s demise, and I was so very sorry for it. A few days later, she mouthed through the tube to me that she wanted to die and begged me to let her go. This was and remains to this day my worst memory of all, watching this woman who had cared for me since infancy and who had been my godmother, grandmother, friend and confidante all my life literally beg me to let her die through a plastic tube. I tried to tell her how sorry I was for my willful neglect of her in those last few years, but faltered when trying to tell her what I was apologizing about. She shook her head no and tried to tell me not to be sorry, as if she already knew what I was trying to say and was absolving me of my guilt. She also extracted a promise from my mother to take care of me after she was gone. A few days after that encounter, I finally found enough footing to tell her that I would be fine and that it was all right for her to let go if she so wished. Shortly thereafter, she went into a coma from which she would not reemerge. That last night I got to spend a few minutes alone with her comatose body, and I went home with my mother so I could be up for school the next day.

That same night, I had what I still consider to be the strangest dream I have ever experienced. I dreamed that I was standing on the clouds high above the world, and beside me was Jeanne. Not far away was a an unusual clock, one that had 17 numbers on it instead of the usual 12. The clock was very close to striking 17 the way a usual clock would strike midnight. My godmother turned to me and told me not to be sad for her, that she was going to finally rejoin her family, friends and husband that had long been gone already. She told me not to despair because we would meet again one day, and to look forward to that day but to also live a happy life for her. My godfather suddenly appeared, alongside a staircase ascending to somewhere I could not see. He extended his hand toward her, and she gave me one last hug and then let me go. The clock suddenly struck 17, and the clouds that were supporting me gave way beneath me, causing me to fall. I would not realize until much later that I happened to have turned 17 years old just a little over a month before her death, leading me to believe the clock represented the time I had with her. The last thing I saw was the two of them walking away toward the staircase hand in hand. I fell for what seemed forever, before suddenly waking up in bed. I heard my mother in the kitchen on the phone with the hospital, and it appeared that Jeanne had passed away just a short time earlier. To this day I am not truly sure when the last time was that I saw her, whether it was in her hospital room or in that land above the clouds. I would like to think perhaps she came to say goodbye to me before she departed this world forever, but alas I do not truly know.

Her death took a terrible toll on me, because I realized too late that I was the only thing she had left in this world that she really cared about, and I felt that my willful neglect of her had broken her will to live, culminating with her death. In more recent years I have come to realize however that truly she had wanted to go for a while since the death of my godfather, and that she was continuing to live only to teach me how to live without her. When she felt her obligation to me was complete and she got a confirmation from me that I would be all right, only then did she finally let go. Not a day goes by that the two of them do not enter my thoughts somehow, and I know now I learned a very hard lesson with her death: to value your time with your loved ones while they are here and to not waste it. I learned this too late to capitalize on my time with Jeanne, but in the years following her death, I have tried to make the best use of my time to spend with those still with me, namely my mother and father. It is my hope that everyone realizes that hard truth, so they do not suffer the same remorse and guilt I have suffered in the wake of my godmother’s death. Do not take your loved ones for granted, because they can be here one day and suddenly gone the next.