When Life Gives You Pears

The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People

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By Jeannie Gaffigan

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The Big Sick meets Dad is Fat in this funny and heartfelt New York Times bestselling memoir from writer, director, wife, and mother, Jeannie Gaffigan, as she reflects on the life-changing impact of her battle with a pear-sized brain tumor.

In 2017, Jeannie’s life came to a crashing halt when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. As the mother of 5 kids — 6 if you include her husband — sat in the neurosurgery department in star-covered sweats too whimsical for the seriousness of the situation, all she could think was “Am I going to die?”

Thankfully, Jeannie and her family were able to survive their time of crisis, and now she is sharing her deeply personal journey through this miraculous story: the challenging conversations she had with her children; how she came to terms with feeling powerless and ferociously crabby while bedridden and unable to eat for a month; and how she ultimately learned, re-learned and re re-learned to be more present in life.

With sincerity and hilarity, Jeannie invites you into her heart (and brain) during this trying time, emphasizing the importance of family, faith and humor as keys to her recovery and leading a more fulfilling life.

Excerpt

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Foreword

by Jim Gaffigan

When I was asked to write the foreword for When Life Gives You Pears—which happens to be written by my wife, Jeannie, who is also the mother of my five children and my writing partner of seven comedy specials, two New York Times bestsellers, and one television series (The Jim Gaffigan Show)—I had only one question: “How much are you going to pay me?” Well, it turns out these “foreword” things pay like nothing. I know. Insane, right? So I guess my primary motivation for writing this has to be because Jeannie Gaffigan is loving, kind, talented, smart, and beautiful. I am excited for as many people as possible to read the story of this incredible woman, who writes with such humor and vulnerability about a time when she and I feared things were not going to be good. Not good at all. After having traveled down this path with my own family, I have come to realize that so many of us have gone through a loved one’s life-or-death medical crisis, but those accounts of how they kept themselves sane during such a scary time are rarely shared publicly. I wish I had a book like this book prior to going on our own journey.

I’ve never been one for hero worship. It’s always struck me as immature or naïve. Humans are, after all, human, and tend to disappoint. Yet there is always one exception to every rule. If there was one person who has lived up to the hype and the grand expectations, it would be Jeannie. Of course, I’m biased, but Jeannie has consistently left me in awe. This memoir brings to life some of that Jeannie magic that has dazzled her friends, family, and any community she has interacted with since her arrival on this planet, and somehow perfectly captures the unstoppable woman I have laughed with, loved, and fought with for the last twenty years.

There have been countless moments when I’ve been enchanted by the life force that is Jeannie. I’m not even referring to the bravery and tenacity she displayed in the face of the pear-shaped brain tumor and the seemingly endless recovery that this book so hysterically chronicles. I’m talking about the innumerable times when I’ve involuntarily mumbled “Oh my God” under my breath from a sincere bewilderment at who this human is and what she can accomplish. This book brings to life some of that Jeannie magic, which has dazzled her family, friends, and any community she has interacted with since her arrival on this planet.

I met Jeannie in my early thirties. After years of failure and frustration, I had finally found a cynical confidence and was ready to pursue a life focused on my career and only my career. Yet, with Jeannie I was instantly smitten. Like most people when they first meet her, I assumed she was a decade younger than her age and clearly in need of deep breathing exercises, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I pursued her and the more I pursued, the more I was left mumbling, “Oh my God.” Here was the first time.

Jeannie and I had gone on one lunch date prior to me arriving at the St. Patrick’s Youth Center on a spring afternoon. She had explained to me while sharing some overpriced eggs the day before that she was running a not-for-profit called Shakespeare on the Playground. I assumed she was another struggling New York City actor teaching some kids to fill downtime between inevitable rejections. She invited me to stop by sometime so I reluctantly went to the next day’s rehearsal to check it out. What I encountered stunned me. It wasn’t a few kids; it was literally a hundred middle schoolers. And these weren’t kids holding tap shoes and filled with theater dreams; these were street-smart kids from the nearby city projects who probably had never been inside a Broadway theater or any other one, for that matter. I looked around the room through the sea of children for any helpers and saw two weary adult volunteers from the theater world that Jeannie had caught up in the tornado that was to be my future life partner. I watched as this human cyclone choreographed and inspired the whole operation. There was no support from the school. No national organization behind her. Jeannie, the unemployed actress who did catering jobs most nights, was even paying for the kids’ snacks. Most impressively, the kids were engaged, interested, and having fun. Jeannie somehow thrived and excelled in the chaos. I had never seen anything like it. Her selfless service to these children made my cynicism melt away immediately. I remember observing her orchestrate the madness of humanity and thought, This woman can do anything. Maybe she can make me a better man. Maybe that’s important. Maybe that’s even more important than my career.

Well, long story short, Jeannie did NOT make me a better man. Some things are impossible. Okay, fine. The reality is that Jeannie’s influence on my life and career have been immeasurable. I guess in a way I’m like one of the middle schoolers in the St. Patrick’s Youth Center that Jeannie shaped: a rebellious kid with a little bit of Jeannie-good in me. As you read this story that she so generously shares, I hope that you get to experience a little bit of that for yourself.




Introduction

Don’t you hate it when you have perfected a magnificent schedule and then suddenly you get interrupted by an enormous brain tumor? That totally sucks, right?

As an overwhelmed mother of five with a touring comedian husband and a career as a writer and executive producer, I already felt that one more thing would be the wafer-thin mint that made me explode. The surreal diagnosis of a life-threatening pear-sized mass in my brain that required an urgent craniotomy with absolutely no idea of what kind of life I would be facing afterward was something that I hadn’t exactly left room for in my daily itinerary. As a self-confessed control freak, I had to face the fact that I was confronted with something completely out of my control.

Ironically, “Tumorgate” turned out to be the catalyst for the radical revolution I desperately needed to reconstruct my priorities. As I am now making my journey through the recovery process, rather than asking, “Why did this earthquake destroy my house?” I find myself saying, “Awesome! I needed to get rid of a lot of that old junk anyway and wow, everyone, thanks for helping me build the new home of my dreams!”

Here I reflect on how this potentially tragic prognosis strengthened my faith in God, deepened my love for my family and friends, and renewed my hope in humanity. So, what I’m saying is that it’s light reading. By the end you’ll be all, “Boo-hoo! I want a brain tumor too!”

Of course, you don’t have to have a brain tumor to come along on my journey. I hope my story will be valuable to everyone because life as we know it and as we have become comfortable with does not last forever. Folks who already have their priorities straight and who find love and gratitude in every little moment may be like, “Yup! This book affirms all of my beliefs, but I don’t find it redundant because this girl is kinda fun-ee!” And for those people who are all like, “Why would I want to read a book about a disgusting brain tumor? It’s never going to happen to me!” I would say, maybe it’s not going to be a brain tumor, but it’s going to be something because life is not in your control and the longer you live, the more things start to get crazy. Maybe it will just be a creepy cat that one day appears at your door and then follows you around for the rest of your life and then you’ll be all, “Thank God I read Jeannie Gaffigan’s brain tumor book because it prepared me for this. Even though I’m terribly allergic to cat dander, I will learn to love this cat. I’ll just get some Zyrtec and put a scratching post in my living room because this cat is going to teach me something!”

And one more little thing: I’m not going to push the God thing down your throat. Let’s just get it out of the way that my husband describes me as a “Shiite Catholic” and I am a true believer in the power and majesty of the one true God, and those of you heathens who don’t get it, you’re going straight to H.E. double hockey sticks. Just kidding. Through my diagnosis and recovery, I found myself relying heavily on the power of miracles. I believe that a supernatural force was carrying me through the darkest and most difficult moments of this time in my life. So if anyone has a problem believing in this sort of nonscientific metaphysical reality, let me rephrase it in an attempt to make it more palatable for you: during my diagnosis, surgery, and recovery, “The Force” was strong with me.

I wish I could say that through this journey I always saw the opportunity in the crisis, and that I faced adversity with optimism and a positive can-do attitude, but that’s not what happened. I needed a lot of people to help me make pear-ade. I’d like to dedicate this book to everyone who helped lift me out of this potential undoing. Even if I didn’t mention you by name, you know who you are, and I know where you live. (I don’t know why I wrote that last bit; it was kind of scary.) Most of all, I would like to thank my husband, Jim Gaffigan, who let me silently yell at him while he carried me through the storm.




The Pear

“I just have one question: Am I going to die?”

I sat in the neurosurgery office at Mount Sinai Hospital, looking at a giant screen that displayed the inside of my skull. I could see a brain with what appeared to be an inverted pear-shaped glob deep in the center of it, the smaller end sinking into my neck like a cork. I thought, I’ll never eat a pear again. I never was a huge fan of them anyway. They are either too hard and taste like nothing, or delicious but an absolute mess. Pears are sort of a metaphor for life. I guess I do like pears. Just not pear-shaped tumors.

I was strangely calm, almost numb. My husband, Jim, sat beside me and we stared slack-jawed at the screen, like it was our latest binge on Netflix; we’d just gotten to the part where they discover the thing that killed the victim was an alien that burrowed into her brain and sucked the life out of her.

The doctor’s words were floating by in the air and disappearing like smoke signals from someone trapped on a desert island.

“Meningioma…,” “or schwannoma…,” “embolization…,” “cranial nerves…,” “lengthy surgery…,” blah, blah, blah. It was all gibberish. I’m normally a note taker in everyday life, but I just sat there, passively waiting for my sentencing. Was I going to die? That was all I needed to know.

There are always those questions that you don’t want to hear the answer to, like that incredible stress you feel when you receive the letter that might be your child’s acceptance or rejection by the one school you really want them to attend. You might finger it with the trepidation of Charlie Bucket as he peels open his last chance at winning Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. Or you might put the sealed letter on a makeshift altar surrounded by candles and pray that God will change the contents to suit your fancy. You might even choose not to open it because this major thing that will change your whole life is ultimately something that you really don’t want to know about.

I probably should have felt like that, but frankly, what I experienced was the opposite. It was life or death and I needed to know right away, I guess so I could plan accordingly.

I knew the real answer to my question was “Yes.” I mean, I know we all are going to die eventually. Many times throughout my life I’d come to terms with the notion that everything dies. I had lots of thoughts and opinions about death. I’d even gone through a naive period in my twenties when I thought cancer might be contagious. I’d just never faced anything as horrifying as seeing a photograph of something in my body that could kill me. And judging from the size of this alien pear lodged firmly within my command center, what I really meant was, “Am I going to die, like, real soon?” I was directing this question to someone whom I had just met moments earlier, but seeing how nice his office was, I felt like he was qualified to answer. (You don’t want to enter a brain surgeon’s office and discover it’s a dump.)

Jim commented on the niceness of the office later. “Did you see how huge his desk was?”

I gave him my dead-eyed stare. “No, Jim, I was not looking at his desk,” I said in a tone that really meant, “Being married to you clearly gave me this brain tumor.”

But back to the moment of the answer to the whole “death” question.

The doctor looked at me carefully. I averted my eyes and looked down. I was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants with stars on them. The starry sweats were too whimsical for the seriousness of the situation. Or the mother of five children in New York City. Or an adult. It was one of those outfits you throw on when you must leave immediately for the ER and you’re showing up “as is” because in that “I might die” scenario you’re not really concerned with fashion choices. I glanced down at my legs, which were crossed, but like really crossed, as in wrapped around each other like the string on a tetherball pole. My hands were in my lap, gripping each other for dear life. I sat up super straight, hoping my posture would make up for my outfit, and tried to act casual.

The doctor exhaled. “No. You are not going to die.” The gravity of his tone implied that this was not a black-or-white answer. Did he mean “You’re not going to die, but…” or, more specifically, “You’re not going to die, but you are going to wish you had!” Regardless, in that moment, the fact that I had heard this virtual stranger—whom I was trusting to cut my skull open like a pumpkin and dig in deep to remove a 6 cm mass caught in a web of precious nerves from the middle of the most intricate part of my being—tell me I was not going to die was all I needed. I knew everything else was going to be okay.

As the doctor explained the situation to us, he simultaneously exuded calm kindness and the frank candor of a scientific genius, which is kind of like biting into a beautiful chocolate candy filled with bitter orange goo. “The tumor is expanding into your brain stem, so there’s not a lot of room left in there. We are going to have to resect it right away with a craniotomy. It’s going to be a very serious surgery. Probably eight to twelve hours.” Serious brain surgery? Wait, is there casual brain surgery? Isn’t all brain surgery rather serious and complicated? Isn’t that why we non–brain surgeons refer to easy tasks as “ain’t brain surgery”? I was ready to hear more about seriousness when Jim chimed in.

“Can you do it today?” The question landed with a thud. Jim was trying to help. Pitching an idea. “Hey, you know all about removing tumors, but I’m a timing guy. Sooner it’s out, sooner we get back to normal.” The question sounded like Jim was proposing we just swipe everything off the giant desk and throw me on it. There had to be some scalpels in one of those polished mahogany drawers. Jim is a get-it-done kind of guy. I take more time to mull things over, consider the options. Many times, I am grateful for his quick decision-making ability and I have to admit it has helped me in my life. This time, however, it was my life. I was still processing.

Today? I thought. Who’s picking up the kids? Doesn’t Katie have tae kwon do today? Marre’s at soccer, I think the boys are at Chelsea Piers… Wait, that’s Wednesday. What day is it even?

It was Thursday. Holy Thursday. The Thursday before Easter, and it’s what we Catholics remember as the day Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in a gesture of service and humility. Was this supposed to be symbolic for me? Feet washing, brain surgery. I tried to make a connection. My mind was wandering. Maybe it was the pear’s fault. It’s hard to wax philosophical with fruit on the brain. Wax fruit. Confusion.

“No, not today.” The doctor didn’t sound the least bit condescending, though I knew Jim’s question was a perfect opportunity for a medical professional to have a superior intellect moment. “We have to get Jeannie in here tomorrow for testing. We need to do a lot of scans of her brain to map out all the nerves that surround the tumor. Then we do a virtual surgery to figure out the best way to deal with the resection.” It sounded like he was going to transform the inside of my head into an elaborate video game. I pictured a little, blurry square guy running around in there and my eleven-year-old son holding a controller, helping the doctors blast the evil zombie tumor into oblivion.

Most of these hi-tech photos would be taken in my all-day photo shoot tomorrow. Modeling ain’t easy.

Tomorrow. Good Friday. The day Jesus was crucified. Obviously not comparing myself to Jesus, but I was mystified about the timing and trying to make sense of my life. This Sunday was Easter. The resurrection. In the metaphysical reality in which I exist, I should have surgery tomorrow, die at three o’clock, rise from the dead on Sunday, then take the kids to school Monday morning.

“What about the Easter baskets?” I blurted out. Now it was Jim’s turn to look at me with a dead-eyed stare. “I have to make the kids’ Easter baskets.” I didn’t have time to die right now. The doctor’s assistant, a tall, beautiful blond woman who had been standing by quietly up until this point, chimed in:

“You can make the Easter baskets. I have two kids, I totally get you. Enjoy the weekend with your family. Do normal things. Don’t make out your ‘will,’ or try to plan anything beyond the week after surgery.”

I didn’t understand what she was saying. The “week after surgery”? I guess I’ll just call the schools and work folks and say, “Yeah, I’m going to have brain surgery, so I’ll be taking about a week off.”

Brain surgery? Now? I needed brain surgery like I needed a hole in the head. How did I get here?

The pear.

Mount Sinai Department of Neurosurgery




PART I

What Happened




Chapter 1

JANUARY

After you see a picture of the inside of your brain with a pear in it, you start feeling like, well, like you have a pear in your brain. You start looking at people around you like, “Humph. Must be nice not to have a pear in your brain.” But the weirdest thing was, before I saw the picture, I didn’t feel it. I felt surprisingly normal. Sure, it was odd that I’d get a head rush every time I lifted something, but it must have been that I wasn’t drinking enough water. Also, it was odd to feel tingling in my legs and feet after sitting at my desk for extended periods, but it was probably bad circulation. I just needed one of those standing desks that everyone raves about but soon will be overflowing in landfills when people realize that combining two sucky things like standing and work is a horrible idea. And my “allergies,” wow. My constant throbbing headaches were getting worse and I was finding it harder and harder to breathe at night after I got into bed. But, as everyone kept saying, “the pollen is really bad this year!”

If you hadn’t guessed it already, I had been compartmentalizing and explaining away the signs that I had a brain tumor. Then again, not even the most paranoid hypochondriac would imagine that these seemingly unrelated annoyances would be the symptoms of a massive brain tumor. Besides, who has time to go to the doctor when you have a bunch of little people’s doctors’ appointments to get to? When I was executive producing on The Jim Gaffigan Show, I went to work with a sprained foot and just got a cane from the props department. I didn’t have time to get sick. The show of life must go on.

Perhaps the most obvious symptom I ignored was the nearly complete loss of hearing in my left ear. Over the past couple of years, I had noticed that when watching TV with Jim, I frequently asked him to repeat something a character had just said. I justified this as another example of how my “selfish” husband just had the primo position in the bed: smack between the two speakers for optimal listening enjoyment, while I, the ol’ buffer, was shoved to the side in the second-class position. At crowded holiday parties or in large groups of people, I frequently found myself leaning in to hear conversations, and even then I still couldn’t make out the words, so I would just smile and nod and say “Totally!” and hope to God they weren’t asking me if they looked fat in their outfit.

In January 2017, on a long flight from London to New York City with my family, I was not surprised to learn that I got the bum headphones with only one side working (it figured). One of my children called me over to their seat to fix their iPad, and, after I wiped the thick layer of kid-goo (most likely Cheetos dust and apple juice) off the screen so that it would again respond to their touch, I returned to my seat and placed the headphones over my ears. They had been twisted so that the “bad” side was now on my opposite ear. Funny thing was that the “good” side was now muffled. It took a few minutes of switching ears for me to realize that it wasn’t my headphones. My left ear seemed to have stopped working. I could kind of hear out of it, but it was the type of sound that would register if you stuffed eight wet cotton balls in there. I don’t remember being that concerned about it. I guess I chalked it up to “Well, I did stand too close to that speaker at the Chili Peppers concert in 2000; it’s my fault. I guess I’ll just not hear out of that ear now.” I didn’t even mention it to anyone. I didn’t want to seem “old.”

A couple of months later I was at our family practitioner’s office.

The Clown Car

When I take my five kids to the doctor, it’s always a big show because I bring them all at once, and there’s five of them. It’s like a field trip for shots. The look of confusion and empathy on the faces of the other parents sitting with one or two kids in the waiting room would entertain me for days. Is she really bringing in five kids? Or is she like a dog-walker for other people’s kids? Five appointments equal five bills. I’m sure over the years we’ve financed a few doctors’ summer homes.

During these visits that instantly transform any exam room into a clown car, I normally have about twenty pages of forms with me that require a physician’s signature for my children to participate in school and camp activities. I place enormous importance on these forms and with good reason. If you miss checking off a box or leave out a birthday or a date, the form will be rejected and you will have to return to the doctor’s office, which you don’t want to do because that’s why you almost killed yourself by bringing all the kids to the doctor at the same time. Coordinating appointments like this is a magnificent scheduling feat, and I’m not going to let some stupid incomplete form ruin my masterpiece.

Now, if we could only fit a doctor in here…

During this particular episode of the circus, Patrick and Michael, my four-and five-year-olds, were climbing all over the high exam table, crinkling and ripping the paper that covered it. Well, at least if they fall off and break a bone, there’s a doctor nearby, I thought. Jack, eleven, was dismantling a model of a body part that, unbeknownst to him, might have been a uterus (or maybe a throat; didn’t get a good look). Katie, seven, was erupting in gales of laughter at the wild antics of her brothers. Marre was mortified, as any twelve-year-old girl would be. She glared at me as if to say, “Really, Mom, couldn’t you just have stopped after you had me?”

Genre:

  • "Jeannie Gaffigan is an infinitely touching and personable writer, and her charm and force-of-nature persona saturate each page." America Magazine
  • "A surprisingly hilarious story about surviving a brain tumor...her accessible writing style and honest voice create an intoxicating spell as she writes tenderly of learning the importance of living in the moment. Readers will be uplifted by Gaffigan's perseverance and outlook."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Funny, endearing...[readers] will love Gaffigan's optimism, humor, and fascinating fight to reclaim her life...a fun blend of celebrity, mom, and medical memoir rolled into one."—Booklist
  • "Jeannie Gaffigan's indomitable spirit leaps off the pages in this moving, intimate, and (against all odds) funny memoir about one of the most trying times of her life. WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU PEARS is full of wisdom, inspiration, and resilience. Don't miss it."—Harlan Coben, New York Times bestselling author
  • "Behind every truly funny man is an even funnier woman. Which is why, after learning that she has a pear-shaped brain tumor, comedy writer Jeannie Gaffigan is perhaps the most perfect person to take the horrible thing and write about it with signature humor, wit, and sarcasm. From discovery to recovery, this story about surviving a medical crisis (and five kids) has you rocketing through every human emotion from gratitude to grief, but most of all it has you laughing and nodding your head at her wry and comedic take on life. Throw in a big helping of faith (yes, the God kind), irreverence, and universal parenting truths and you've got a must-read memoir that reminds all of us what' s important. This is a book to be shared with all."
    Lee Woodruff, New York Times bestselling author and journalist
  • "I've known Jeannie for a long time and it's no surprise that she turns the terror of a brain tumor into a hilarious and heartwarming tale."—Tony Hale, Emmy-winning actor and comedian (Arrested Development, VEEP, Toy Story 4)
  • "After reading Jeannie Gaffigan's moving, funny, and inspiring story, I have one only wish: I want her and Jim to adopt me. I mean, at this point, what's another kid? It's not like they'd notice."—Mo Rocca, author of Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving

On Sale
Oct 1, 2019
Page Count
320 pages
ISBN-13
9781538751046

Jeannie Gaffigan

About the Author

Jeannie Gaffigan is a director, producer, and comedy writer. She co-wrote seven comedy specials with her husband Jim Gaffigan, the last four of which received Grammy nominations. Jeannie was the head writer and executive producer of the critically acclaimed The Jim Gaffigan Show, which was loosely based on her and Jim’s life. She collaborated with Jim on the two New York Times bestsellers, Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story. Jeannie, with the help of her two eldest children and some other crazy moms, created The Imagine Society Inc., a not for profit organization that connects youth-led service groups. Most impressively, she grew a tumor on her brain stem roughly the size of pear.

Jeannie presently lives in New York City with her five children, which feels more like six children if you include her husband Jim.

Learn more about this author