Maria J. Jensen Memorial Scholarship

Our family is proud to announce the creation of the Maria J. Jensen Memorial Scholarship at Waukesha County Technical College. The scholarship honors Maria’s enthusiasm for learning, her dedication to success, and her wish to inspire other women to improve themselves through education, no matter what stage of life they are in.

Women over the age of 35 who have financial need and a GPA of 2.0 will be eligible to receive $250 per semester in direct financial support.

Maria enjoyed her time at WCTC so much. She decided to return to school in her 50s to study accounting because she always loved mathematics and handling our family’s finances and investing. During her time at WCTC, she formed strong relationships with her teachers and mentors and forged friendships with students in her classes, even those many years younger than her. She carried a 4.0 GPA in her classes and was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, an achievement we know made her proud for the rest of her life. We have vivid memories of her nights of studying at the dining room table, poring over her notes and textbooks in preparation for her class meetings.

We are grateful to WCTC for the impact it had on Maria’s life and her self-esteem and hope that through this scholarship, we are able to inspire more women to succeed both in education and in the fulfillment of their goals. Thank you for helping us honor her memory and her passion.

To support the scholarship through an online donation, visit this page. Scroll down to “Named Scholarship” and click “Donate.” A new window or tab for PayPal will open. Enter the amount you’d like to give and click “Update Total.” You may be asked to log into PayPal at this point. Once you’ve made it to the “Review Your Donation” page, click on the link that says “Add special instructions to the seller.” Enter “Maria J. Jensen Memorial Fund” in the box that appears and click ahead to complete your transaction.

If you’d prefer to send a check, you can make it payable to “Maria J. Jensen Memorial Fund—WCTC Foundation” and send it to WCTC Foundation, Room C-213, 800 Main St, Pewaukee, WI 53072.

The Long Goodbye

Four years ago, I sat in a small doctor’s office in North Phoenix and listened as my mother’s pulmonologist explained to my mother why she was coming down with a persistent cold every few weeks. “Unfortunately, it is cancer,” she said. Although she was not a cancer specialist, she estimated my mother was at stage 3B or 4, but that an oncologist would be able to make that determination following additional tests.

She was 63 years old. Earlier that week, during a week of otherwise good health, she’d completed her normal 10-mile bike ride and attended fitness classes at her community’s recreation center. This woman had advanced cancer? It seemed unreasonable.

Over the next several weeks, she wavered through treatment plans, including none, holistic, and traditional, finally deciding to go chemo and radiation first. The chemo treatments–demanding 8-hour affairs that required she lay in a recliner covered in blankets while various chemicals dripped into her body through an IV–initially took a huge toll on her. This was the only time I remember her balking at her predicament. “The cure is worse than the disease,” she said, her body riddled with stabbing pains.

Fortunately, the treatments began to be less and less difficult, and eventually, she recovered and went back to exercising after just a few days. Throughout her years fighting back, she made fitness her top priority, eating well and doing plenty of aerobics with her core group of “fitness buddies.” She golfed, she spent time with her friends, she laughed often. She loved being alive.

She made astounding progress. Initially, her tumors shrank a staggering amount. Doctors, who initially gave her 6 to 9 months, were cautiously optimistic as they moved her to a care plan that would help her maintain her level of health while preventing a backslide. The first pill regimen she was on was great–but gave her bloody noses, mouth sores, and difficulty swallowing. She took it in stride but eventually managed to get into a cancer drug trial.

The drug trial was really effective…but again, had strange side effects. She reluctantly stopped the trial and waited for a new one to open up for her. In the meantime, she was again suffering from a nagging recurring cold…that morphed into pneumonia…that caused a fluid build up in her lungs…that caused her lung to collapse. She went to the emergency room and spent several days in intensive care getting help. This was three and a half years into her fight. A doctor looked over her chart and said, “Maria, I think you only have 6 to 9 months to live.” She’d heard it so much by then it didn’t even register.

But in the hospital, the drugs they gave her to fight the pneumonia ended up giving her an infection called C-Def, which attacks the intestines and, left untreated, is fatal. A large number of patients who contract this do not survive. But at this point, it was clear my mom was not a typical patient. She took on the treatment program, which caused bouts of debilitating nausea while she suffered from constant digestive problems, and eventually, several weeks later, came out the other side and was cleared by her doctors.

But the pneumonia et al had taken its toll on her body and health. She was done almost 40 pounds from her normal weight and she’d gone several months without cancer treatment. We all knew in the meantime her tumors were growing but we were hopeful she’d get accepted into another drug trial this year. And then, she was. On Tuesday of this week, we took her–weak, but resolved to give it a try–for one more chemo treatment to see if she could tolerate another course of treatment.

It went excellent–she had almost no side effects from the chemo. We think, though, that sometime Wednesday she suffered a mild stroke. For the last 24 hours, she was a little confused about when and where she was, had difficulty speaking clearly, lost the ability to walk and feed herself, and then faded into exhaustion.

By this point, my mother had outlived 95% of the patients who receive the same diagnosis.

We had every hope that her symptoms, which we initially chalked up to sleep deprivation and the chemo, would abate and she would bounce back as she always did. Throughout everything, I expected her to recover. Not just to recover, but to thrive. She was that tough. She meant business! By Thursday afternoon, we began to fear the worst and gathered around her in the living room, holding her hand, talking with her, comforting her.

Even as she receded, the core parts of her were still there. If she burped, she politely excused herself. When I complimented her and said, “You’re going great, Mom,” she smiled and said, “Thank you.” And, as she always had my entire life, she raised a hand to her forehead to comb her bangs away with her fingers.

Her mind bounced around for a few hours. Her eyes would glaze over but then become suddenly alert. “I love you guys,” she said, her voice slurred by upbeat. “Is this my wedding day?” she asked later, confused. “Your glasses are really in right now,” she told me kindly. After some quiet time passed, she told us, “I’m 12 years old,” and then “people lie to me a lot–grown up people.” (It was when she was 12 her family emigrated from Belgium, initially telling her they were merely taking a vacation.) She moved back further and further until we couldn’t reach her anymore, and then we were fortunate enough to get her to Hospice of the Valley, where the staff worked with us to keep her comfortable and provided us with a lot of emotional support.

This morning, my dad called and woke me to say the nurses felt the end was near. I made it to her bedside, where my dad, brother, and I called our immediate family so they could speak to her before she passed. The ending came so quickly. It was too late and too soon. We wanted more time. We wanted more health. We wanted to know she was safe.

We sat in the room with her for a long time afterward. After a while a low flying plane, its engines sighing loudly, broke that silence.

You can read about my mom’s experience in her own words by reading her blog.

Thank you to everyone who sent their wishes and thought of us today–we are grateful for your love and support.

Have Scion, Will Travel

I’m smack in the middle of a long roadtrip. This week I’m visiting family in Detroit and in a few days I’ll be back in DC.

So far, I’ve put 1700 miles on my car. That’s almost as far as it was when I moved from Phoenix to DC.

Beau and I drove overnight from DC to my parents’ place in Wisconsin, about 18 hours of driving. We had to time it right so we could hop on a ferry to take us there, so it meant leaving at 2:30 in the afternoon and getting there at 6 am.

We were there for almost a week (swimming, taking nature walks, and I even got to give a little reading to a big crowd!) and then drove to Milwaukee to visit old friends (Brewers game, tailgaiting, local bar, brunch, art museum, frozen custard), and then Beau flew off on his own while I made the trek to Detroit.

It’s times like these when I think maybe I should have been a trucker. I love driving. I love road trips. Fortunately, so does Beau, and he’s a good passenger.

Arden’s with us too, so she had her first lake experience (she was not a fan) and for the past few days has been riding shotgun with me.

Finding Fiction

I made a quick trip back to Phoenix to spend time with my family on Mother’s Day (some of you know my mom has been fighting an illness for the past few years, so these things have become more important) and had a fantastic time with everyone. While it makes me homesick to exist so fully in two different places, it’s part of the process for now.

Aside from the personal, the interesting part of the trip was that I spontaneously wrote a short story called “Rhinoplasty.” I conceived of, wrote, and finished 18 pages of prose over the weekend, writing most of it on the plane home and then finishing it up once I was back in my apartment.

Is it good? I don’t know. But it felt good to do something different, to work in a longer form, to tell a story (lyrically, to some degree) and inhabit characters in a different way. I have another story in progress about small-town zombies that I hope to get back to soon as well.

Tourism Begins at Home

I was mostly away from blogs this weekend while I entertained my father, who came to visit me for a few days.

He hadn’t been to DC since the 50s, so on our agenda was doing a smidge of the monument thing. He especially wanted to see the Vietnam Memorial, having been a hair’s breath away from being deployed when he was in the National Guard in the 60s. Some of the men he went to basic training with did end up going to Vietnam. Their names are on the wall.

Of all the DC monuments, this makes the most compelling argument toward remembrance. While other monuments seem to glorify or celebrate the achievements of war, the Wall’s austere simplicity tells another story. The wave of names is overwhelming; to consider each life lost this way is a really devastating proposition.

You have to go below ground level to read the names, which are listed in the order the soliders were killed in the conflict. The wall is made of black stone polished to the point where, as easily as the names, you can see yourself in it. It is both funereal and self-reflective, asking the viewer to imagine her or himself among the names.

It is easy to dehumanize what is nameless; quite another proposition to have only names.

We did Lincoln, part of the National Mall, and in the end I think we walked about six miles.

The rest of the weekend was fun and pretty mellow; we saw Burn After Reading, ate at a lot of good restaurants, and drove out to the Eastern Shore for a day, where we experienced “The Crab Capital of the World.” I thought that title belonged to Manzanita Hall at Arizona State University!