Jennifer Bonner had just enough time to become an adult.
Born a “blue baby” in 1967 with several heart defects, she was given two days to live by doctors at the University of Minnesota. But they kept helping her; her parents, Bob and Barbara Bonner, kept holding her up; and Jennifer kept living.
She lived 21 years in Northfield, Minn., years filled with chaos, fear, bliss, love and art. Through the latter, she lives on. Her drawings and paintings are plastered on the walls at her parents’ home and throughout the community. Her artistic spirit is captured at a memorial garden at Carleton College.
And now her writing, specifically what she penned in her diaries in the year before she died from complications of a heart transplant in 1987, is encapsulated in a book.
“The Wait,” co-authored by Jennifer and family friend Susan Cushman, details Jennifer’s thoughts as a 21-year-old — from confronting death to relationships with boys.
It’s the story of a young woman’s fleeting adulthood.
“What she managed is to complete her life, and that’s what’s in the book,” Barbara Bonner said.
Barbara and Bob were in London when Barbara became pregnant with Jennifer. Bob was hired at Carleton, so the family headed to Minnesota. Jennifer was born before complications were discovered. She was sent to the U, perhaps the only place in the world she could survive at that time. Cushman writes that medical advancements, coupled with some of the world’s premier heart doctors, made the U the perfect location for Jennifer.
Less than a year later, the family moved to Northfield.
Growing up, Jennifer found solace in the arts. Unable to run and play, she turned to pencils and paintbrushes. She participated in theater and performed unabashedly in speech.
“She was as energetic as she could possibly be,” Bob said. “She just had these very serious limits.”
After high school, Jennifer attended Carleton. She made heaps of friends, dated, studied, partied, frequented coffee shops, made art and wrote.
In her junior year, Jennifer suddenly couldn’t move or breathe. At the Mayo Clinic Health Systems in Rochester, her family was told she needed a heart transplant. That’s where her diary entries begin:
“My world fell in today,” Jennifer wrote on Dec. 16, 1987. “My normal life, my hopes of old age, not gone, but forced through a sieve. My perceptions, once again forced to change, make allowances. Surmount odds. Beat risks. My heart is stone, rolling over challenges, crushing them, my feelings safely hid inside.”
A year later, she received a heart from Mankato. But after 13 days, in and out of surgery, she experienced brain death. Her parents “went crazy.”
“We didn’t have a plan B,” Bob said. They knew Jennifer had left behind years of writing. They didn’t know what to do with it.
About 25 years later, they found the answer in Cushman, their former babysitter and now doctor, who offered to edit the diaries, add context and make it a book. It took her five years.
“It’s been a really interesting experience for me,” Cushman said. “I have never once gotten tired of reading what she wrote.”
For the Bonners, the book is an assurance that Jennifer’s life could be complete. “We have not had this wonderful person with us for over 30 years,” Bob said, “but what we have now, at the end of the day, is this beautiful, moving, coherent story.”