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Memoir of illness full of gallantry and wit

“It was crazy. The surgeon told me the tumor was the size of a pear, which is scary but also confusing. I was like, ‘Did he go to med school or farmer’s market?’”

That’s part of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s bit on YouTube about his wife Jeannie’s brain tumor. 

When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People (Grand Central Publishing, 2019, 305 pages), Jeannie tells the story of her battle with a brain tumor that was indeed the size of a pear. Diagnosed in 2017, Jeanne endured an emergency operation and then spent months in recovery, unable to swallow, fed by tubes, enduring various physical therapies. Mother of five young children, a comedic writer in partnership with her husband, hooked into a hectic schedule, Jeannie saw her busy life grind to a standstill, forced as she was by her illness to spend months in bed or a chair.

In this memoir, Jeannie describes the challenges of those long months, frustration battling with hope, conversations with her children before entering the hospital and the sadness of being separated from them during her prolonged stay there, the importance of her religious faith — her husband in one of his performances describes her as a “Shiite Catholic” — and the outpouring of love and support given her by family and friends. 

She also explores her past, especially her life with Jim. Here again she blends humor with drama. 

She recounts, for example, seeking counsel from a therapist when she had trouble committing to marriage with Jim. After telling the therapist she was afraid Jim might “steamroll” her life, Jeannie shares with readers what happened next:

“She looked at me through her thick-lensed glasses. ‘Close your eyes. Picture yourself in five years. In ten. Is Jim there?’ I closed my eyes. Jim was there. He was always there. If I lived in a mud pit, life would be fun with Jim. As our session ended, she handed me an illustrated cartoon of a woman sitting on a bench. She was covered in cobwebs and had the face of a skeleton. The caption below said, ‘Waiting for the perfect man.’”

Her take on Jim’s proposal is equally humorous. When he came to her parents’ house to meet her family at Christmas, after all the gifts were opened Jim pulled out a small box containing his deceased mother’s engagement ring, dropped to one knee, and asked Jeannie to marry him. 

“And that’s how Jim steamrolled my life. And I let him. The oldest of nine children (Jeannie), the ultimate caregiver, marries the youngest of six (Jim), the ultimate care-getter. A match made in codependent heaven.”

This wry humor runs throughout her account of her illness as well.

Just before the operation, for instance, Jeannie and Jim have less than a minute “to make the ‘pull the plug’ decision.” If she is brain dead, Jeannie tells Jim, he has her permission to take her off life support, but then adds “one caveat before I signed my name: If Jim got remarried to some climbing, comedy fan-girl skank, my vengeful and capricious ghost would haunt him forever.”

Because she was forbidden to take any food by mouth — she could easily aspirate it — Jeannie became obsessed with eating. On her first venture out of her room Jeannie saw a large photograph of various fruits hanging on the wall in the hallway. Her reaction?

“Saliva began to pour from my mouth. I was attached to the IV, but the suction tube was back in the room. Drool was running down the front of my gown. Whose idea was it to hang a giant photo of succulent fruit in the ICU hallway? Adolf Hitler?”

But there is more than humor in Jeannie Gaffigan’s account of her ordeal, and we can see it in the above quotations. She is a woman of spirit and courage whose battle for recovery taught her many life lessons: a deepened sense of patience, an expanded belief in God, a greater love and appreciation for her family and friends, and perhaps hardest of all, to release control of her life and responsibilities to others. Those of us who suffer some illness, even something as minor as a bad cold, know well the frustration inactivity can bestow. Jeannie shares that frustration and sometime pessimism throughout her account. In her “Introduction,” she writes, “I wish I could say that through this journey I always saw the opportunity in the crisis, and that I faced adversity with optimism and a positive can-do attitude, but that’s not what happened. I needed a lot of people to help me make pear-ade.”

When Life Gives You Pears is an invaluable guide from a patient’s perspective of what to expect from major surgery. Jeannie tells us what it’s like to be intubated (torturous), how the Intensive Care Unit is filled with “the methodical beeping of the medical machinery with flashing numbers and graphs that you are tethered to by IVs and tubes,” how slowly the time passes, how much she admires some of the doctors and nurses. She includes a list of rules for family members helping in the hospital, including such admonitions as “Don’t silently check your email for hours,” “Don’t say ‘It’s not so bad,’” “When the patient walks, Don’t push them,” and a raft of others. (My favorite: “Don’t make a rules list about your family and publish it in a book.) 

Jeannie Gaffigan’s inspirational memoir on family, illness, hospitals, and setbacks serves as a powerful reminder of what is truly meaningful in life.

Highly recommended.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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