The Howells Group Blog

Your Wild and Precious Life

mary oliver, quote about life, life well lived, love, friendship, cancer, colon cancer, Jenni Harwell, Jennifer Harwell Art


I had not planned for this part. Leaving the driveway of her home was unexpectedly hard. It felt so final; somehow even more final than leaving the church after the funeral. Jenni wasn’t coming back. I would not see her again until I joined her in heaven. Endings are hard, especially with someone who is part of your soul.

In the initial grief and shock, I found purpose in gathering my scattered senses together, finding a few clothes and music to stuff in a suitcase and flying to Birmingham. There was never any question that I would be there for Jenni’s family if the cancer got the upper hand. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I knew she was dancing on fragile hopes; and we were dancing with her. Stage IV folks do get a reprieve. Miracles absolutely happen. But I had helped her out of that hospital bed back in in Nashville in early June enough times to know her body had waged quite a battle, and this cancer was advanced and relentless. I was in the room when the latest scans revealed the pain in her side was the inevitable spread. Colon cancer spread to lungs to liver and beyond and eventually to her brain, which ever so quickly took her life. None of us wanted to hear it, but somehow I feared that our tearful goodbye in June might be final.

Some of the most tender times in our 50 year relationship were in that Nashville hospital. So often in our relationship, Jenni served me, listened to me and willingly let me be “center stage”. She was the most supportive friend anyone could possibly have. I marvel now at her patience. I could be (and still can be) so self oriented. But in her infinite grace, she loved the good parts of me and overlooked the rest. This hospital stay when I visited I sang to her; read scriptures to her and shared what I’d been learning in seminary about the lament Psalms. The fact that God can handle all our anger, fears and disappointments comforted us both. We remembered multiple chapters of our friendship with laughter and gratitude. And she gave me the privilege to bathe her too slender body that needed warmth and comfort. This was the most intimate of trust she gave me that day. As I trickled the warm water over her back, arms and legs we both cried. Washing in service was what Jesus did; and what he’s instructed us to do. A bath in a hospital room became a precious sacrament between us.

I’m heading home to Oregon now. My family, my home, my work and commitments. My concerns and obligations seem minuscule compared to what I’ve just experienced. It will be oh so comforting to fall in my husband’s arms and rejoice in the gift of being together. These times remind me, remind us all how terribly thin the line is between here and heaven. And like Jenni’s passing, death can descend in a heartbeat. But I ask myself “What is the message from this experience of losing my dearest friend? How should this inform my next life’s chapter? What’s the new canvas my artist friend would have me paint with the time that I have?” Her memorial service told the story of Jenni’s life as one so well lived and one who loved so well. People of all ages and walks of life shared their testimony of Jenni’s profound impact. She was present to a wide variety of people. She had long and deep friendships and made new ones regularly. The constant line of food and flowers delivered at the door was testimony to this . She helped so many break through limitations by teaching them to paint. She celebrated others. She gave herself freely. Yes – we wanted many more years with her – but the life she put in her 57 years truly counted.

On the way to grieve, help, sing and do what I could to support her family, I reread a book by Richard Rohr entitled “Falling Upward; A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life”. He asks the question, borrowed from poet Mary Oliver,”So what will you do now with your one wild and precious life”? This is the question. For me. For us all – no matter what chapter of life we find ourselves in. He observes that many of us by the time we reach mid life, or earlier, have spent years constructing a safe and predictable existence. Sometimes it’s a tower of self importance and so called “success”. But so called safety can imprison us and keep us from the greater gifts; gifts of growth, service, stretching experience and new insight.

Tonight, now approaching the Dallas airport, en route to Portland, I ask myself – “Am I willing to leave and start a new chapter without knowing the precise destination ?”

I’m pretty positive my friend Jenni is encouraging me on from heaven, in her honor, to embrace the adventure as she did….


  1. Posted August 14, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Great food for thought from my long time friend whom I don’t get a chance to see very often. I’m still asking Our Lord what His plan for me is in my late seventies. I would love to sit on the floor and play with my Great Grandaughter for hours. Our priorities change as we age. I still have a couple of friends that I’ve known for at least fifty years. Your writing about your dear friend, Jennie enriched my being today and for always. Thank You.

  2. Posted August 15, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Beautiful and poignant. We need more writers like you.

  3. Ann Linley Armstrong
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink


    My name is Ann Armstrong. I knew Jenni from Friends Church in Newberg, Ore. I deeply sadden to hear about Jenni’s illness and passing. She was a remarkable woman and I loved her.

    Funny how time flies by so quickly. I remember Jenni writing me about a young man she was dating, John Bacon. She wrote and told me about their first kiss. A lot has happened since then.

    Karen, how are Jenni’s children doing? I know that Justin and Emily got married. How is Josh?

    Please send me an email. I would love to hear how kids are.

    Karen, I know how close you and Jenni were. I am so grateful you were with her at the end.


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