Chances are that you don’t express gratitude to God every time you take a sip of water, a breath of air, or even when you speak. That’s because most of us take these abilities for granted. But not Jeannie Gaffigan.
After requiring almost-immediate surgery for a pear-sized tumor wrapped around her brain stem in April 2017, she endured an arduous recovery that upended her life. Yet Jeannie came to realize that her life had needed upending.
While her fantastic sense of humor remained intact, the mother of five and wife/writing partner of comedian Jim Gaffigan emerged from the experience with a greater awareness of God’s role in her life, a deeper appreciation for her family and friends, and even some new commandments that didn’t make it onto Moses’ original stone tablets, but are relevant nonetheless.
Jeannie, a Christopher Award winner for “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” to discuss her new memoir “When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Faith, Family, and Funny People.” It will likely be the funniest book you’ve ever read about dealing with a serious medical issue.
The problems began in early 2017. Jeannie noticed that she couldn’t hear anything out of her left ear. In addition, she had been plagued by headaches and balance problems for some time. She assumed these things were happening because she was busy and run down. Then, her kids’ pediatrician advised her to get several tests done. An MRI revealed a tumor on her brain stem.
Jeannie told me, “It looked like I had swallowed a pear, but instead of going down my throat, it went up into my brain.”
Though the tumor wasn’t cancerous, it needed to be removed as soon as possible because of the debilitating damage it was doing. The diagnosis came on Holy Thursday. Jeannie’s brain surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City took place the following Tuesday. Over the course of those days and beyond, she noted, “I had a lot of conversations with God.”
Jeannie’s introduction to God came in her Catholic family’s home in Milwaukee, where she grew up as the eldest of nine children. She recalled, “I was definitely like any normal kid who questions things, but God was just a character in our house. Our mom would…always invite God into the conversation. If I said, ‘People are being mean to me and bullying me at school,’ my mom would say, ‘Well, Jeannie, the angels are going to be with you, and the Lord is protecting you.’ So even when I was a little kid, [I thought] the Lord was always with me. Then also the tradition of going to Mass every week…It became ingrained in my cultural identity that that’s what you do on Sunday: you get up, fight with your siblings, go to Mass, complain on the way…and then you have a big family dinner.”
Though she never doubted God’s existence, there was a time in young adulthood when Jeannie stopped going to Mass. She did treat God as a “sugar daddy” periodically, asking for an “A” on a test or help finding a parking spot. As she got older and life got more complicated, she decided to start going to Mass again because she wanted to be part of something that helped her connect with the invisible, transcendent reality that she felt existed beyond the senses.
Jeannie came to trust that God was the designer of her life who would lead her down another road when things didn’t go as planned. That trust met its greatest challenge with her tumor diagnosis. Jeannie was used to managing her family’s life and being addicted to control. This new situation required her to let go of some of her ego and humble herself.
She said, “I think there’s a tendency to turn your back on God because life isn’t fair. Instead of that, I would get closer to Him….[I said], ‘Okay, God, it’s said that You’re not going to give us anything we can’t handle. Well, I can’t handle this one, so I’m going to turn it over to You.”
God certainly seemed to come through for Jeannie because she was miraculously led to the “top neurosurgery department in the city” at Mount Sinai Hospital, where Dr. Joshua Bederson and Physician’s Assistant Leslie Schlachter were able to see her literally within minutes of finding out about her case. And it had nothing to do with her being the wife of a famous comedian because they didn’t even know her name when they agreed to the last-minute appointment.
Following the surgery, which was successful, Jeannie couldn’t eat, drink, or talk for what seemed like an eternity. She recalled, “[When I was healthy], I had this way of avoiding listening to my inner voice when God was talking to me. So when I was in a situation where I could not move and couldn’t eat and couldn’t do anything, I went into a forced period of cloistered monastery in my own mind. That’s when I [discovered] that I was regretful about what I had not done with my life…It became very clear to me that as many times as I volunteered or started programs at church or made sure all my kids had bows in their hair and the right size tennis shoes, I wasn’t really experiencing life and motherhood in a pure way. I felt like I wanted another chance. And when I say that God spoke to me, I really feel that God spoke to me and said, ‘You are getting another chance and this is what you need to do.'”
His commandments, as Jeannie called them, included, “Tell Jim and your children you love them every day,” “Praise their strengths and be patient with their weaknesses as you guide them,” “Teach them to serve others,” and “Remember that people are more valuable than accomplishments.” (There are three more commandments, but you’ll have to read the book for those.)
Jeannie noted, “I called them commandments because I was being funny. But they were like spiritual direction from the source of wisdom that resides in all of us, which I believe is God. He’s talking to us, and we’re not tuned into it. So I feel like God said that I need to enjoy the moments that He’s given me with these kids, my friends, my family, and I need to experience gratitude instead of trying to control everything.”
And gratitude is the main message Jeannie hopes to give people who read “When Life Gives You Pears.” She concluded, “The major theme of this book is gratitude. Live your day in gratitude because gratitude makes you kind. Gratitude is the seed of all good things…And if you have gratitude for the small things, like swallowing water or smelling your kid’s head, it just multiplies and radiates out and affects your whole life…I feel like because I’m still suffering some effects of this surgery, physically, it’s easy for me right now to keep a sense of gratitude because it is still hard to swallow. It is still hard to breathe sometimes. It is still hard to speak. So I don’t have to tie a string around my finger to remind me to be grateful. But I think that my advice to people is to put a post-it note on your laptop [that says], ‘Be grateful.’ Just as a constant reminder, because it’s so easy to start listening to the noise of the stresses of life and forget that you’re alive.”
(To listen to my full interview with Jeannie Gaffigan, click on the podcast link):