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Jeannie Gaffigan On Surviving A Brain Tumor In 'When Life Gives You Pears'


Two years ago, Jeannie Gaffigan looked at images of a pear-shaped tumor in her brain and asked, am I going to die. She had five children. Six, she often says if you count her husband, Jim Gaffigan - the comedian with whom she's co-written seven specials, two best-selling books and an acclaimed television series. She's also a director, producer and community leader in New York. But quite suddenly, Jeannie Gaffigan's full life narrowed to being a patient.

Story of her surgery, recovery and the steps along the way that both tested and vitalized her faith are told in her new memoir "When Life Gives You Pears." Jeannie Gaffigan joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JEANNIE GAFFIGAN: Thank you so much for having me here.

SIMON: Tell us about this pear. The - I don't want to call it good news, but encouraging news was that you were told it might be operable.

GAFFIGAN: Yes. As a matter of fact, it had to be operable. The way that it was positioned on my brainstem and my cranial nerves, it was definitely a ticking time bomb.

SIMON: How do you tell five children of different ages what's going on?

GAFFIGAN: Oh, very carefully. I mean, I had at the time a 12-year-old about to be 13 who was already, like, going on, like, you know, 27. And then I had a 11-year-old boy who was going on, like, 8. So in a way, we explained it to the older kids in a very scientific way. And we told them that I was going to live and I was just going to have to go to the hospital for a while.

And then the way that we told the younger children who were, you know, 4 through 7, is in a much more, like, you know, how sometimes people have, like, bad tonsils and they have to go to the doctor, and the doctor takes the tonsils out. It's like the same thing, but mommy's tonsils that are bad are in her brain. So we didn't use, like, brain tumor or anything like that. And at that age, I mean, my 5-year-old was really concerned that I was going to get a shot. Like, that was - he was like, are you going to have to get a shot?

SIMON: Yeah.

GAFFIGAN: You know? And, like, that's the level. And then Patrick, who was 4 at the time, was, like, you know, Mom, I bet you're going to be able to get a toy out of the treasure chest. And that just gave him so much hope for me to get that toy out of the treasure chest. And I was, like, you know what, I think that I am going to get the toy.

SIMON: Yeah. An important part of this book is your faith.


SIMON: You're a person of faith. You believe in the power of prayer.


SIMON: And you turn to it - nuns specifically.

GAFFIGAN: Yes, I turned to nuns definitely because I think everyone should have, like, a sort of a gaggle of on-call nuns because nuns kind of live their life around the clock making appeals to heaven. They're kind of like the attorneys, you know, for you. And when people go to kind of find themselves or find their spirituality, a lot of times they'll cloister themselves. Like, you know, that's what - that's, I think, why nuns are so holy. It's because their day's kind of built around the spiritual life or people, you know, go cloister themselves in a monastery.

But what happened to me was I was kind of forced to go into something like that because my recovery from this. I quickly developed a double lung strep pneumonia in the hospital because the first night after surgery, I aspirated because my - I had confusion between swallowing and breathing. And when that happened, I started to live in, like, the ICU on a lot of tubes, a lot of beeping machines and a lot of, like, worried faces. So I went to kind of a dark place because I wasn't able to know, you know, what was going on at home. And I started going into withdrawal like an addict. And my drug is control. And I had to face that. And I was forced into that monastery of silence, of stillness. If I didn't go to someplace bright and light, I was going to go really dark. And I needed God in that moment.

SIMON: Yeah. You wind up saying towards the end of your story here, Jeannie, that you're grateful for the tumor.

GAFFIGAN: Oh, yeah. If I haven't been put in a position where I could stop the noise for a little while and I got separated from my children and I couldn't drink water for six - I couldn't swallow anything. My husband had to learn how to change a trach on me and to mix formula to inject into a feeding tube for me. I never would have seen this side of my life and this side of the people, the community, the friends, the family, my children.

When I saw Jim being the funny - like, when he realized that he was not going to be a widower, he just was my personal comedy concierge. He would wash my hair. He turned into the - you know, this very "Steel Magnolias" gossipy salon owner who has been divorced five times. And it was like, honey, let me tell you about men. It was so funny. And this kind of thing showed me just about, you know, about my faith is that it was designed. My marriage to Jim was designed at the beginning of time. So I thank the tumor. And the acknowledges - that's in my book. I'm like, thank you, tumor, for showing me how wonderful life is and giving me gratitude for every sip of water I take.

SIMON: Jeannie Gaffigan, her book "When Life Gives You Pears."

Thanks so much for being with us.

GAFFIGAN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE MENDOZA'S "GRACIAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.