One early August morning in 2019, I sat on the edge of my couch and wept. The tears came softly at first, then with vigor, I tried to keep my noise down. My daughter Noemie –not even one yet–and wife Safura were both still asleep. But I failed. The bawling eventually woke Safura. Alarmed, she jumped out of bed and found me sobbing in our dim living room with my iPhone glowing inches from my face. “What’s going on?” she wondered.
I was watching a short video of Auntie Jane that her son Pete posted on Instagram. “Look,” I told her as I stretched out my arm to show my screen. Auntie Jane was ringing the Chemo Bell at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Making it chime means that radiation treatment is over and has been proven effective. It’s the end of a troubled era and the beginning of what ideally will be a positive one.
At that point, Auntie Jane had already spent major holidays in hospital beds and been fighting Cholangiocarcinoma, cancer in her bile duct, for two years.
My method of dealing with it–even after spending hours in her hospital room one Christmas–was prayer and denial layered with heavy amounts of positivity. I knew she’d pull through. And in that moment on my couch in Los Angeles, it seemed as though my manifestations and requests of the heavens had been answered with a glorious Yes. So I cried with joy. No one–certainly not a person so full of goodness as she was–deserves for their body to betray them in the manner that cancer debilitates. Still, she soldiered through grueling treatment and beat the beast. Ding, ding, DING!
Time passed and things returned to normal. Until they weren’t.
In the winter of 2020, we learned that the cancer returned, this time stronger. It reached further, spreading to her kidneys and liver. If I was angry, I imagined Auntie Jane being furious. It’s moments like those that would make even the most faithful follower question God. Oddly enough, when I called her to tell her that my mother, her little sister, shared the sad news with me, she seemed to be in a better mood than everyone.
“It’s okay, she said calmly. “We fought it before and we’ll fight it again.” I marveled at that when I got off the phone with her. But I also thought that she was lying, at least partially. I believed that she’d win her second cancer battle, sure. But I could not believe that there wasn’t at least a bit of fury inside her. Maybe even fear, too.
If there was, I never saw it. I’m still astonished when I think about how gracefully she handled the next two years. When most people would move away from the church after seemingly being punished with an incurable disease, she leaned even more into her scriptures.
One night during a late text exchange, I asked what she’d been reading since she had to spend so much time at home in solitude. “The Bible,” she said. I asked her to share what verses she was reading and within seconds she invited me to become her “friend” on The Bible app. From then on I’d get notices each time “Jeanette Angeh” completed a book, finished a program, or saved a verse. I can tell you with absolutely no exaggeration that there were days that I got up to 10 alerts and emails about her accomplishments in The Bible app. She studied that thing like there was an exam coming up.
– On the week of Dec. 5, 2021, she read Corinthians 10:24: “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.”
– On Dec. 7, 2021, she read Romans 5:3-4: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
– Jan 9th. 2022 – Matthew 28:5-6: “Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus.”
– In March – James 5:15: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.”
In revisiting what Auntie Jane read during arguably her darkest moments, as chemotherapy restarted and zapped weight from her body, as infusions kept her stationary, and hope dwindled–I can now see that she studied Christ and became more Christ-like.
Despite what she was enduring, she never stopped doing everything that made her my favorite aunt, my second mother. Last July she texted Safura and I selfies from the hospital as she underwent immunotherapy. In the photos tubes are taped to her chest, but she’s smiling, wearing a pink kitten headband. She called the medicine being pumped into her veins “the blood of Jesus!”
When she shaved her dreadlocks off in October 2021, she sent us another selfie. “Happy Thursday,” she wrote, punctuated by a heart emoji. I quickly called her and joked that her immediate homework would be to update her Memoji, which still featured her animated self with long hair. She let out a huge laugh.
One week later she sent a congratulatory message for buying our first house, along with a Costco coupon for wall outlets with USB ports. “These are on sale,” she said.
When we’d speak, she’d only spend seconds talking about herself before pivoting to something going on in my life. Seeing Noemie brought her so much happiness. She called her “My endorphins.” (Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers). For Christmas, she sent me money via Cash App to buy a gift for Noey on her behalf. When I was slow to accept it, she texted me days later to make sure I took it. “Cash it before it expires,” she typed. “Thank you, darling.”
I visited with her in person for the last time in March. I went to her house for breakfast. It was the first time I’d seen her in years because of Covid travel restrictions. It was also the first time I’d seen what cancer had done to her body with my own eyes. Normally an athletic build, she was skinny, wearing a striped shirt we bought her months prior. It dangled from her shoulders like it was on a hanger. Still, she hugged me with all the love she could.
“Today, I have an appetite,” she told me. Taking small bites of the fruit and french toast I put on her plate, we talked for hours at her dining table. Though I never spoke at length. Early on, she cut me off in the middle of a sentence. “I forget a lot of my thoughts now,” she revealed. “So I have to interrupt you or I won’t remember.” I understood and played it cool. But I felt so bad for her. Seeing her so diminished hurt me deeply. Later, she pulled out a pair of gloves to wear, mentioning that her hands were always freezing. If only for a split second, I felt that chill, too. Regardless, I couldn’t help but admire Auntie Jane.
As treatments came and unsuccessfully passed, she became brutally honest. She’d miss a phone call from me and shortly after text to say that she was exhausted and would have to call me later. Or she’d answer the phone and instead of nonchalantly saying everything’s fine, she’d tell me precisely what was hurting at that very moment. But she never complained!
She simply expressed her truth and kept on pushing–never allowing herself to sulk in the misery of a knotted-up stomach or a throbbing headache. I’ve seen people complain much more about much less. Auntie Jane gave it all to God, persevered and then went away with Him in May.
I’ve heard many speak kindly of loved ones they’ve lost to cancer. I’m not the first to feel this kind of pain and I unfortunately won’t be the last to mourn a sufferer’s last breaths. A popular thing to say is that Cancer didn’t beat the person who passed. That line of thinking never quite sat well with me. “If they’ve died, then they lost,” I’d always think plainly. Where’s the victory in that?
But then I scroll through all the text messages I have from Auntie Jane or recall our chats over the last few years, and I have some rethinking to do. Every day, she found a way to smile in cancer’s face, to grin at its futile attempts to darken God’s light and her spirit.
I understand that saying now. Auntie Jane never lost. With God, she’s still winning. She’s at peace. She’s free. Again, I’m crying tears of joy.