In January of 1988, Jennifer Bonner of Northfield, Minn. was 21 years old. She was an art student at Carleton College, sketching self portraits, and heading to bars and museums with her friends over winter break.
“I’m coming to think that the peak of human experience is sitting around in a coffee shop, a truck stop, or a small-town bar with a good group of friends,” she wrote. “If you want to look at the Big Picture, you can hold hands and have a look, while still feeling secure and not lonely. But it’s the small picture where you are that makes you feel cozy and like life is happy and worth living.”
A year later, she was gone.
Bonner, born in 1966, lived all her life with multiple life-threatening heart defects. But in her junior year, she developed end-stage heart failure and joined the University of Minnesota heart transplant list, where she died after a year of waiting.
However, her life’s work lives on – and is surprisingly substantial.
“The Wait: Love, Fear, and Happiness on the Heart Transplant List” compiles years of Bonner’s diary entries into a novel, supplemented with entries by Susan Cushman, a friend of the Bonner family.
Bonner, a visual artist, had completed numerous pieces of art in high school and college. But perhaps her greatest talent was writing, Cushman said.
She exercised that talent to the utmost in her 21 handwritten diaries, which Jennifer’s parents kept after her death in December of 1988.
Cushman, a former ob/gyn and medical writer, had known the Bonner family for years after babysitting for Jennifer and her brother Tim.
After they had time to mourn, the family decided to honor one of Bonner’s wishes –that her story would help others in a similar situation.
“Her family thought those should be shared with a wider audience,” Cushman said. “We had, I think, a high level of trust.”
Cushman began reading through the volumes after Bonner’s death, beginning with entries from her last year. But she realized that in order to paint a picture of a whole person, she’d have to start earlier in Bonner’s life – around age 20, when the transplant “bomb” dropped.
“My normal life, my hopes of old age, not gone, but forced through a sieve,” Bonner wrote then.
But that’s not the whole story. Though the last couple of years of entries, Bonner sketches out a life filled with philosophy, learning, and yes – the occasional love affair.
“Even as she got sick through the year, you can’t tell if from the diaries,” Cushman said. “I find her story to be a universal one about people living happily within their limitations.”
However, writing wasn’t Bonner’s only means of communication. Her art pieces, completed despite the physical limitations that come with heart defects, also explained who and where she was in the world.
Both the writing and those pieces will be displayed at Crossings at Carnegie on Saturday, Nov. 10.
At 4 p.m., an actress will perform sections of the book along with a gallery showing of Bonner’s paintings and drawings. After the 20-minute performance, Cushman will participate in a discussion of the book.
The event is free and open to the public.