By Derek Johnson
Last Thursday afternoon, a couple hours before kickoff for the USC game, my sister slipped into a coma and then passed away.
This brought an end to an ordeal with pancreatic cancer. The last months were torture for her to go through, with 7 surgeries in the span of ten weeks.
In her room at Virginia Mason Hospital, she and I had several opportunities to talk privately in September. We recalled childhood memories.
By numeric happenstance, we grew up in a neighborhood with an odd number of kids to play sports. So Jennifer became my so-called "sports slave". She sometimes hated it but by joining our games of football, baseball and basketball, we would have an even number of participants.
Following the games, I would retreat to our downstairs to kick back in the recliner and watch Canadian Football on ESPN, or reruns of Three's Company. As part of the sports slave deal, Jennifer was to serve me a tall glass of orange juice.
Years later, she made an admission. "You remember how you used to complain about all the bubbles in the orange juice?" she asked. "I used to spit like hell into your orange juice."
Back in those days, Jennifer also went through a phase of calling up local radio talk shows.
One of her favorite targets was the weekly show with then-UW coach Don James. One time Jennifer came to me seeking help. "I'm gonna call into the show," she said. "Give me something to ask Don James!"
We were playing the Houston Cougars that week. We had played them the year before and won handily, I said. But we had struggled a bit in the first half with Houston's veer offense. The game had been tied going into halftime. "Ask him if he's worried about defending the Houston veer," I said.
When "Jenny from Bellevue" finally got on the air, she posed her question to the coach. "My brother said you struggled with Houston last year," she said. "Are you worried you're going to struggle again?"
Coach James chuckled. "Well, I hope we have similar results to last year," he said. "Tell your brother we won 35-7."
As Jennifer hung up and emerged from the back room, I was horrified and laughing hysterically. "What the hell were you doing?" She smiled and shrugged.
Her crowning glory, when it came to calling into talk shows, happened on Sportsline, which was hosted on KIRO Radio by the late Wayne Cody.
During one interview with an obscure bowler, Cody almost seemed to plead for callers to phone in. When it was all said and done, they took four calls during the interview. Three of them came from a "Jenny from Bellevue."
As we entered adulthood, Jennifer lived in her world and I lived in mine. But we always got together each fall to watch a couple of Husky games, and a couple Seahawk games.
We shared some good times. Like when Michigan came to Husky Stadium on September 8, 2001. Jennifer and I sat together in the south grandstands. Late in the game, it looked certain the Dawgs would go down in defeat. But then Omare Lowe blocked a Michigan field goal attempt. Roc Alexander picked it up and ran about 80 yards for the touchdown. Husky Stadium went nuts. My sister and I hugged in a manner best described as violent. I say violent because a few minutes later, Jennifer was cradling her forehead. "Hey DJ," she said. "I think you head butted me."
Somehow, it had happened. The welt remained on her forehead for another week or two. We laughed about that many times in the years that followed.
We also sat together for the 2001 Rose Bowl in Pasadena. We each wore buttons to the game. Mine said, "The Dawgs are Back in Town!" Jennifer's button said, "Happy Neu Year!"
We enjoyed seeing Marques Tuiasosopo lead the Huskies to victory over Purdue. We had our arms slung over each other's shoulders while Coach Neuheisel addressed the stadium crowd after the game, and when he shouted up to the press box to the paralyzed Curtis Williams, "This one's for you!"
As the Willingham and Sark years came and went, we always watched a couple games together each season. As I began writing books about Husky Football, they accumulated one-by-one on her bookshelf.
Her best football memory came from when she sat with our dad for the 2009 USC game. "The crowd rushed the field, DJ!" she said to me afterward. "It was sooooo cool!"
By September 2014, I drove down to her place in Renton to watch the Seahawks play the San Diego Chargers. She had started chemotherapy for her recently diagnosed cancer of the pancreas. When the door swung open, she was bald. She was walking unsteadily. As was often the case, she talked my ear off during the game. Several times I politely asked, "Sis, can this wait until halftime?"
Her visits with the oncologist in May of 2015 revealed that she would probably live another 1-2 years, but with hopes of being one of those who live another five years.
She faced this with courage, determined to follow the doctor's instructions and also enjoy the time left. She began planning a "Summer of Jennifer", which included plans to travel to Dallas with a friend to see the Seahawks play the Cowboys in October.
But during the summer, complications arose. A persistent fever was revealed to be caused by lesions on her liver. She had to go off chemo for several weeks to bring the fever down. As this occurred, the cancer advanced dramatically. By the time chemo started up again, she was in dire straits.
Her physical decline occurred rapidly. She spent most of August and September at Virginia Mason Hospital. During one of my visits, she said, "I had all these things planned for the summer and I didn't get to do any of them."
By this point, she was bed-ridden and growing thinner by the day. On the wall was a giant card signed by dozens of friends and co-workers. We cleared the air on a couple issues and misunderstandings, and left nothing unsaid. I shared with her a couple Bible verses, a Walt Whitman quote and some personal thoughts. She said she liked those and asked me to repeat them when the time drew near.
She tried watching Husky and Seahawks games, but could not stay awake long enough for all four quarters.
She had undergone seven surgeries in ten weeks, but the time for surgeries was almost done. Her liver numbers hadn't come down so there would be no more chemotherapy. On September 17th, she spent her 41st birthday going through a final surgery. This procedure would merely prolong her life a few more days or weeks.
On the night of October 2nd, I was at Pop Keeney Stadium in Bothell, covering the Woodinville-Bothell football game. Woodinville had stunned Bothell for the victory. Just as I entered the joyous locker room, I got a text from my dad. "Your sister is fading fast." It was such a stark contrast to see the Woodinville players reveling in one of the greatest moments of their young lives, while my sister's life was coming to a mournful conclusion.
The next morning, which was my birthday, she sent a semi-coherent message in what would be her final text message to me. "Happy Birthday! Big birthday toda!y"
I visited with her several times over the next week. Although fatigued and on morphine, she could sustain conversations for a few minutes. We discussed spiritual matters. I repeated the quotes she had requested, and I told her that if I ever write another book, I will dedicate it to her. She smiled and raised a rail-thin arm to slowly give the thumbs-up sign.
This past Thursday, she slipped into a coma at 2PM. A couple hours later, right before kickoff for the UW-USC game, she passed away.
Watching the Huskies beat USC was a somber time. It's hard to root with a grieving heart. But the Huskies prevailed with the startling win in the Los Angeles Coliseum. I smiled while watching Steve Sarkisian lose control on the Trojan sideline.
When I talked to Dad the next day, we both had the same thought: Maybe just maybe, Jennifer had been smiling upon our Huskies Thursday night.