Today we buried our friend, Jocelyn Levner Nissenbaum, after a three year battle with cancer. When I say battle, I mean UFC-style battle. Or that kind where they're in the cages, if that's what UFC is. That's kind of how I picture Jocelyn. As a title fighter, wearing the big belt. She was small, but she was strong. The strongest. I've seen lesser stage cancers swallow other people up whole in a matter of months, nevermind years. On a reality level, I always knew she wasn't going to get better but I swear, I wouldn't have been surprised if she had lived at least another three.
Her friend Eileen asked everyone who knew her to share stories, as letters, talking to Sam, even as a teenager. The stories and letters will be bound into a book for Sam. Then, he can know his mom through others eyes when he can understand them and when he has been without her longer than he had her around. Also to know what she was like before she was sick. I didn't write ours as a letter, but more as a story, because it was just easier for me to tell that way. I'm going to re-post what I sent Eileen, a little more in depth here, and a little less "clean", below, so I can share some of Jocelyn with you. I don't have money and time to give, but I do have the gift of words...
The Diamond-Kule family met the Nissenbaums through the Glen Rock Jewish Center Nursery School. Ethan and Sam were in the 2's class together. We didn't really know each other well because we all worked. But we would see each other at birthday parties for other kids in the class. We got to know them a little throughout the year, but Sam and Ethan bonded strongly. They are both only children and that is a rarity it seems. At least in Glen Rock. Although Sam didn't live in Glen Rock, most of the kids in the class were from Glen Rock, Fair Lawn, and Ridgewood, and most were a sibling to one or more other kids.
Sam and Ethan started calling each other brothers. They even decided they were marrying each other, which now, would be legal, so theoretically, we could've been in-laws with the Nissenbaums. We figured we should get to know the parents better if the boys were going to be that close. Being parents of only children and not being bound to endless extraneous family obligations, both sets of us could do things more on the fly. We decided to meet up at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival close to the end of that first school year. We had an awesome time. It was a beautiful day. We ate and played down on the green by the water. We decided to just take a subway ride over to NYC and got ice cream. It was the boys first subway ride. Still having strollers made navigating the subway a little more interesting, but we made it. Bryan and I were thrilled to meet a "counterpart family" to hang out with. We found "our people"!
There was a D.A.R.E carnival near us about two weeks later. We invited them to go. They declined. Jocelyn was really "tired". I thought- who is too tired to go to a carnival? All of a sudden I was Monica on Friends when she and Chandler are trying to make friends with a couple who ditches them. I was like- "How can they not like us or want to hang out?? What's wrong with US?". I was kind of miffed. Then there was another carnival, this time in Glen Rock, where I figured they'd just show up at some point. They were sort of mysteriously absent. They didn't say they would be there, but it was definitely an event we didn't think they'd miss either. Egocentrically, I thought maybe they just really didn't like us. Apparently we had a totally different perspective of our Hoboken "date".
Then that Sunday night, we got THAT email. The one where Eric told us all that Jocelyn was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. That's where the rollercoaster began. Unfortunately, we didn't really get to know her as "healthy" for long. I'd say it was about a month before the news was out. If that- it may have been shorter. We jumped into friendship because that's what you do when your kid is "brothers" with their kid. We just hung out as much as we could. We barbequed, we spent a New Years Eve together, we ate a lot of pizza and went to Friendly's. Jocelyn still did stuff. She came to the boys' swim classes. She came to Mom's Night Out. She got her nails done. She was thrilled when she got a Coach bag as a gift. Our other friend, Cohen, and I went to doctor appointments and lunched with her. I cleaned her fridge out of the many rotisserie chickens they would never have enough time to eat. I folded a lot of the Nissenbaum underwear. Ethan taught Sam the words to Katy Perry's Firework.
Jocelyn wasn't a big talker. She was more of a quiet listener, who cut away all the nonsense to get to the point. She didn't need a lot of words to express her thoughts on a subject. Besides, Cohen and I talked enough for the three of us. But I felt like you were always getting the truth with Jocelyn. We could be totally inappropriate and make stuff funny that really wasn't. She and I weren't above using cancer to our advantage like when we wanted separate checks at a Moms Night Out with some boozy friends in a restaurant that doesn't do that. :::whispered::: "She has cancer...we may have to leave early...."
I'd gone back to work full time so I didn't have a lot of time to babysit, make meals, etc, so I felt like my only strength would be to help tell her story. I wanted to get her on a show like Ellen. I didn't know what exactly for. Maybe for money, help, something. I just wanted her to be able to have bucket-list worthy experiences. Ellen would've been that kind of moment. I wrote everyone. With her permission, I tried to take photos of her looking at her "most pathetic". We were laughing too hard so I had to keep stopping as she'd try to shrink into the couch and look sad. ::directing:: "Come on...you have to look skinnier and point your head down so the baldness is more apparent!". So when I look at those photos, I don't see them as a "sad, sick person". I think about the time we spent taking those and how we were able to goof around in the face of something so awful.
I harassed the living SHIT out of Gavin DeGraw, on Twitter for Jocelyn (with her blessing), pretty much from the time of her diagnosis, until about a year before she passed, to do some kind of benefit. They knew each other from their hometown. I was hell bent on trying to get his attention. This poor guy. I just would not let it go. I was totally nice, and respectful. I just couldn't let it go. To his credit, he did "follow" me and he DID call her. She called me in extreme excitement to tell me he called and left her a message. We wanted to scream because she didn't answer the phone, not knowing the number, and it was him. Of all the calls to skip. We didn't get a concert, but he did make her smile.
We did a joint birthday party for Ethan and Sam for their big #4. I thought it would be less expensive to share a party but Jocelyn was so popular and so loved that it became like a Kardashian bash. It was the Party of the Century. I think there were thirty-eight kids there. Complete chaos, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. It was so great that so many people came out to celebrate for Joce, Sam and Eric. If she was going to go at that point, I just wanted them to have had that last big party memory.
She was never self-conscious about how she looked either. She always wanted to look nice and put together, as any woman would. But she didn't wear wigs or make a big fuss about her lack of hair. She went out, having little to no hair, where you could clearly tell it wasn't a fashion statement.
One time, we went to lunch with Cohen also. We went to a little rustic diner kind place in Franklin Lakes after Jocelyn had some kind of treatment or she'd been in the hospital. She still had the hospital bracelet on. The young waitress came over to take our order. She saw the "bracelet" and asked if Jocelyn if she went to a big concert for NYC that happened the night before. Jocelyn just deadpanned- "No, I have cancer". We all then just looked at each other and dissolved into a fit of laughter. It was just so stupid. The question, the answer, our reaction. But it was just par for the course. Sorry waitress girl, it was just one of those moments.
We went to Hershey Park as a four family/only child brigade in the summer of 2014. It was the Steins, the Kastins, the Nissenbaums, and us. Even on one of those scooters for people who are unable to walk the park, Jocelyn was still able to have a good time. We had awesome weather and all four kids couldn't have been happier. That was our last real hang out as families. She started clinical trials, was back and forth to Boston, and Bryan and I were working around the clock. Sam and Ethan weren't in school anymore because Oakland has full day kindergarten. Ethan & Sam stopped taking swim at the same time at the Ridgewood YMCA. We'd see each other almost every week and catch up during swim. Then there was no more swim. It just became a crazy time.
But she knew I was always thinking of her, and she knew if she needed anything she could get in touch. We were the kind of friends who could just pick up whenever, have a short text conversation and pick up again in a month. You just always feel like you will have more time. Our last conversation was funny. It was text of course. The bank across the street from my store got robbed of $112,000 by a woman in a pink wig with a fake gun. I had been sitting right in my usual chair, where I can see the bank from my seat. Bryan saw caution tape, county police, and we still weren't paying much attention. Then we heard the bank was robbed. It was all over the news. I got a text from Jocelyn asking if I was ok. I hadn't texted with her in awhile. She had seen the robbery on tv. I told her that I hadn't even known and was just going about my business. I told her what I'd heard. Then I said- "I am an asshole. I'm sorry I have been missing in action". Of course she said not to be silly and that I am not an asshole. She just wanted to check in and make sure I wasn't being held hostage or something. Then we joked a little and that was that.
She was sick but checking in on me. And that's really who she was. Someone who thought about others first. I also really think she always felt she was going to beat this. I never heard her talk about dying or wanting to discuss what would be after she was gone. So if she didn't seem to make any "after death" plans for living like you see in tv and movies, it's because she didn't think that way. I've known plenty of people who have had cancer but I've NEVER seen someone fight so hard to kick it. She was like a superhero. Every time we thought she was down for the count, somehow she rallied. She got three years out of that diagnosis. That's like unheard of with her kind of cancer. She wanted to live. She wanted to be there for Sam. She wanted to be there period. She definitely thought she was beating this, I think, until her last breaths.
I wish I'd gotten to know her for longer as a healthy person. I can see by how many people loved her she must have been super fun, the life of the party, and someone up to try almost anything. Her friend Eileen really gave a superb eulogy, giving us a keen glimpse of who Jocelyn was pre-diagnosis. Thank you Eileen for that eye into her soul. Eric's, as said through his brother, was also perfect. In summation, there was a story about another woman around the same age as Joce, who had some profound quote by someone famous about cancer. Jocelyn's "goodbye quote" was- "Fuck cancer!". THAT, was the Jocelyn that I knew. The one who was purely tickled to wear the shirts I made that said "Shrink those F*ckers!!" (in reference to the tumors). She had a potty mouth like me, but she was also so chill. Even as a sick person, she still was pretty go with the flow and didn't get bogged down in minutiae. She was happy to just be anywhere, get out, and be near any fun going on. She loved to gossip, gossip & celebrity magazines, bad TV and candy- especially m&m's. Those were our shared bonding likes. I will always think of our ridiculously inappropriate jokes, cursing like sailors, her OCD about organization- especially when Ethan and Sam tried on every article of clothing Sam owns- more than once, and how much she loved her kid.
Jocelyn, you will be thought of often and sorely missed. Fuck Cancer. Seriously. Right in the ear. Forty-one is way too soon. But I'm glad you're finally at peace, with no more pain.
If anyone wants to contribute to a fund for Sam and/or a scholarship in Jocelyn's name- the information is below:
"Fallsburg Central School District"
Send c/o: Dan Grecco
PO Box 124
Fallsburg, NY 12733