41: A New Model

41: A New Model

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

A New Model

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

~Joseph Campbell

It was September 2009. I was visiting Manhattan, not realizing it was Fashion Week. As I taxied toward my bed and breakfast, passing through the Meatpacking District, I noticed a group of people gathered outside a rebuilt warehouse. Fashion people. I dropped off my bag in the B&B’s floral and paisley room, I threw on a cute but reserved dress, ballet flats, and ran out, hoping to be part of it again, even if it was just for the night.

Rounding the corner toward the party, I realized I had been on this block before. Fifteen years earlier, I shot my first film on this corner. This street had changed. Blood no longer ran from under slaughterhouse doors. Tenements had been converted to designer stores and high-priced eateries. New York had once again embraced this old street and filled in the cracks.

I scanned the people outside the fashion event, gauging who would be best to approach, settling on two tall guys, both beautiful. We chatted. They invited me inside. Back when I had been a working model in the ’90s, Kate Moss made it sexy to be 5’7” and models, not actors, graced the covers of magazines. I, too, had been on my share of covers such as Sassy and Maxim.

Now, wearing simple ballet flats, the new models towered over me. I drank champagne, giggled and danced with my male hosts. People turned to look. “Who’s the girl in flats?” I heard. It made me shy but proud to still be noticed, that my spirit could override what had happened since I’d left the entertainment world. If I had appeared at this party in a bikini, the looks in my direction would have been of shock or pity. The large scar, in the shape of a wishbone, running from my breastbone to my belly button and across is surprising to see on someone so young.

I was twenty-six when they found the mass.

One night I felt a strange ache in my side. My then-husband, Alex, and I had been to LA’s famous farmers market earlier that day, and I joked that I had a crepe stuck in my appendix. When the pain didn’t subside, we went to the emergency room. For the rest of the night I was poked, prodded, hooked up to different machines. I had goo rubbed on my belly, and iodine pumped into my veins. Twelve hours later, a doctor came into my echoless room and said, “Well, the good news is they are benign.”

For four years we went to from doctor to doctor, sending my films to places mentioned on all the best websites. I did not have cancer, but a large mass called a hemangioma, a balloon of blood attached and growing on my liver. No doctor wanted to touch me. They just waited. They watched as the mass grew and grew. It grew until I had trouble breathing.

It was a risky surgery. After four years of waiting, a surgeon at UCLA finally agreed to try to remove the growth. “Jennifer, you know that there is only a 50/50 chance that I can remove the tumor,” Dr. B said. “Either way I am going to cut your chest open and if I can’t take it out, we’ll try to get you a new liver in the next six months.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know. I need you to try, please.” My quality of life had gone down so much that I chose this huge risk over continuing life as it was. I made peace the best I could. I had lived an extraordinary life. Traveled the world. Been on covers, in movies. I’d had dinner with Michael Jackson and been to Skywalker Ranch. My family loved me and I had found a great and profound love in Alex. I counted my many blessings and took the chance. We passed Bob Barker walking his dog in the early morning on my surgery day.

In the cold, white pre-op room, Alex sat next to me, holding my hand. We shared his iPod — one ear bud for each of us — and listened to the special mix he had made for this day until they came to take me away.

Six hours later, Alex appeared next to me. Through the intense pain and subsiding anesthesia, I heard him say, “He did it, Jen. He removed the tumor. You don’t need a transplant.”

That day, half my liver was cut away and I received five blood transfusions. The tumor they removed was the size of a large grapefruit and weighed ten pounds.

While I recovered in the hospital, Alex was at my side 24/7, sleeping on a tiny, rollaway bed. He held my hand, my head, and changed my bandages. Between his trips to get me more ice and ginger ale, he wrote songs on his laptop, quietly humming in the corner of the room while a stranger’s blood flowed through my veins.

I had survived the surgery. But now I had a large scar, a jagged pink line that I could not easily camouflage. The acting parts I usually played were sexy, the vixen with a heart of gold. My body was my tool. Even though the large wound would heal, I was now a liability for any company that hired me. I had a pre-existing condition, and in 2009 that made me uninsurable for producers who must insure every person who works on their set.

A month after I got home, my manager called to say he was dropping me as a client, since I was no longer actively bringing in commissions. At twenty-eight, I retired from the career I’d had since I was fifteen. Like a ballerina whose ankles eventually weaken, my body had had enough. I was done.

It was impossible for me to view myself as anything other than a failure. Depression and anger took over my daily life. What was I going to do? I clung to Alex as my only source of joy and missed the signs that he was cracking: his growing need to travel and spend time away from the house, away from me. One night, I found him crying alone in his studio. I hadn’t seen the hints or heard the stress in his voice, but after helping me through my long illness, he just couldn’t give any longer.

Three weeks after our divorce was finalized, Alex was engaged to a pretty twenty-one-year-old. After the initial shock, my first thought was that it didn’t seem fair that he could move on so easily while I was left with the scars.

Now, outside the Fashion Week party, the air was soft and fresh. I took a deep breath and looked around. I observed the newest players in fashion. I smiled at my new friends standing on this old corner. Like this street, my past had been cleaned out, the cracks filled in, and I had been replaced with a new model.

Six months after this party, I moved to New York to go to college — something I never had time to do as a model or actor. In March 2012, I received my bachelor’s degree with honors. I am now in graduate school. I have been in a loving relationship for two years and I work as a professional writer.

These are all things I never would have had the opportunity, or the courage, to do if my old life hadn’t been cut away.

~Jennifer Sky

More stories from our partners