Listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go

e. e. cummings–

 Janet Lynn Gray died on —  

Cancer claimed her body, but her indomitable spirit lives on.

IMG_1515She was born Janet Lynn Brush in 1943 in Antioch, California to Pauline Brush (nee Hough) and Maybert Brush. She was their second child, brother Carl having appeared on the scene a year and a half earlier. Pauline was a nurse, “Bert” a teacher.

When Janet was still a toddler, Bert secured a school administrative position in Mount Shasta City, and the family spent about seven years in beautiful environs at the foot of that majestic 14, 000 foot jewel of the Cascade range. It was during this time that sister Sally Ann was born in nearby Weed.

In 1952, Bert changed jobs once more, and the Brush’s moved to Willows, a small town in the heart of the Sacramento Valley, about ninety miles north of Sacramento. Here, Janet grew up and graduated from high school.

IMG_1513She entered San Francisco State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential. She found that teaching didn’t suit her very well, but she found that John (Jay) Manley, a teacher at Berkeley High School, suited her quite well. The two married, and she concentrated on raising their two sons–Christopher, now of Kailua Kona, Hawaii, and Geoffrey, of London, England. That’s Geoff on the left, Chris on the right.

The marriage dissolved after ten years, and Janet became a single mother. She and Jay remained close, and made a loving parental team as they raised their sons. Mentored by her younger sister, Sally, she launched a pioneering career as a plumbing contractor. The two siblings founded Shakti Plumbing. In a protest against patriarchal tradition, they changed their names from Brush to Gray, their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Sally also changed her first name, becoming Samantha, but Janet stayed with her original.

Plumbing was, and is, a man’s profession.  She fought both prejudice and physical challenges to succeed in the trade, but her strength and perseverance prevailed. She had a long and successful career of it until her illness forced her to retire in early 2014.

Not to forget her artistic side, she was a sterling photographer, as the picture at the top suggests, and our family albums teem with her fine work.

She had been losing weight for some months when doctors finally diagnosed her with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in June of 2014. Lymphoma is a blood-borne disease, which means the cancer is everywhere and anywhere in her body, making the it inaccessible to both surgery and radiation. Thus, her oncologist, Dr. Pai, launched an aggressive series of chemotherapy treatments.

After the fifth of six scheduled treatments, the tumor had shrunk, but not disappeared. Janet had continued to lose weight, dropping to about ninety pounds. Her condition made further treatments inadvisable,  and was referred to palliative care with the hope that she could gain enough to endure more chemotherapy. She was unable to do so, and in early December, she entered Kaiser Hospice.

Even as she declined, Janet continued to demonstrate that independence and strength of spirit that typified her life. One nurse predicted she wouldn’t make it past Christmas, but on she sailed into the new year. Others declared her finished at various times during the ensuing months. No one thought she’d survive till April 28 to blow out birthday candles on her seventy-second birthday. But blow them out she did.IMG_0277

Astoundingly, Janet remained cheerful to the end, regularly expressing gratitude to all who helped make her comfortable, and displaying her wry humor throughout. Just a couple of days before her death, ago, three of us had made an amateurish job of turning her over in bed, forcing her to endure some tugging, pulling, pushing and cursing. When the task was finished, we asked her if she was okay. “I’m fine,” she said from a half-drugged sleep, “How about you guys?”

Finally, even her incredible will to live couldn’t hold out against the disease that had long since claimed her body. Her sons and niece Erin (and family), came from afar many times during her decline. She died at home, surrounded in body and spirit by family and friends who admired and loved her and will cherish her memory.

The family sends thanks to all the people at Kaiser who helped Janet and the rest of us through this ordeal. Oncologist Ashok Pai, his nurse, Linda Omi; Palliative care Doctor Bonnie Chin and her nurse, Mary. Especially important was the Hospice staff who made it possible for Janet to live out her final months in her apartment rather than an institution. Most especially, we will remember and remain grateful to nurse Gabriella Porter, Social Worker Huldah Cannon, and Chaplain Perry Pike. They helped us negotiate the emotional and bureaucratic straits that at times threatened our family caretaking ship.

In the end, there is no end, only a transition from a world through which Janet made her way in championship fashion.  e.e. Cummings’ words describe her journey well:

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

And Janet never did.

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