I have a brain tumor. Actually two. I was diagnosed last year five days before Christmas. My youngest son was not yet a month old. And my tumors are terminal. Unless something else kills me, my tumors will. I don’t know when. It is not unreasonable that I will see my 35th birthday. It is significantly less likely I will see 40.
There are lots of people—I know they are well-meaning—who say God didn’t will this. This is not his plan. I can’t accept this. This gets God off the hook for something I need Him to be a part of. It makes God absent, except in the most incidental way, from the most significant experience of my life. I want to argue with God, cry out to Him, and maybe eventually, accept what He is doing. We would not the infused virtue of faith if evil in the face of a good God could simply be explained away. I am a Thomist, through and through. But evil does not have a rational answer. It has an encounter. And in our confronting of evil, faith gives us the eyes to see Jesus, the hope to see God’s plan. This is a grace.
This experience, as awful as it is, is God’s will. I think often of Joseph being sold into slavery. “You meant it for evil but I meant it for good.” My tumors are like that. How will God weave good out of this? I don’t know. But I have faith in a good God. I have hope in His good plan. I don’t really speculate about what God is doing, but I know He is at work.
That is not to say that I am happy about it. My oldest is not yet seven. I want to watch my kids grow up into sophisticated adults who love Thomas Aquinas. I want to drink Sam Adams with my husband and talk about what we heard on NPR. I want to grow old with my husband, to have deep theological discussions (arguments) with him. I want to use my education to serve the church. I want to see Trump beat and out of the White House. My grief is bottomless.
And yet, the way I feel a lot of the time is grateful. I have healthcare. Can you imagine what I would do without it? I have access to great medical care. I have the education to advocate for myself. And I am not alone. I have a husband who is working ten times harder than he should taking care of me and the family and the house. I have a family that is helping me out financially. I have parents who are clothing my kids and my daughter’s American Girl dolls. I have the best of friends. Friends who fly across country with hundreds of dollars of wine. Friends who bring fresh-baked bread and tomatoes and lemons over, but who stay to talk, to admire my kids. Friends who send awesome books to my kids, and chocolate from Spain, and turkey feathers. Friends who make sure Nicholas has breast milk, even if it means driving out of state to a total stranger.
If this experience has given me anything, it is a deep appreciation for friendship as part of the good life. I have always known we were communal creatures. But I don’t know what I would do without my friends who pray for me, weep with me, ache with me. My youngest son Nicholas has this etched into his very body. My friends have fed him with their bodies. My friends have taken my kids when I have doctors appointments or when I have to get my will notarized. My friends have cleaned my house, cooked me meals, rented AirBandBs for me. It is no accident that eternal life is described by the greatest theologian of all time a friendship with God. In my friends, I see God. My friends bring God to me with their overwhelming acts of love. The reason my faith is what it is is because of my friends. I don’t want mansions, or white robes, or a harp but to call God a friend sounds about as close to beatitude as I can imagine. I hope my kids will have great friends and I hope they will work hard to be a good friend in return.
I am also grateful that I live in a place where my kids will have food, education, shelter. In my own suffering, I have become keenly aware how good my family has it. My kids do not have to sort garbage to find enough to sell to put food on the table. They will not die of preventable illnesses. They will not be shot on the way home from school by evil men who say they shouldn’t be educated. We are so safe from suffering in this country. I hope my kids will be better able to empathize and have a greater sense of responsibility for the much-worse suffering that children experience all over the world.
People ask me what I am doing differently. Not much. I walk with a limp and I cannot use my right hand so everyday activities (and typing) are slower, but I still do them. I school my kids, I go on walks with them, I make dinner, I talk to my husband, I watch the birds. I used to teach classes on death and dying so I have thought about my own death more than most. I have planned my funeral. I have an advanced directive and durable power of attorney. I have made my will. When my tumors start growing again, I will buy my casket and headstone and burial place. I will not be embalmed. I am dust and to dust I shall return.
One helpful technique that I used to teach and now use personally is that I refuse to use euphemisms. I am not going to “pass” or “move on.” I am going to die. Death at this point in my life is awful enough. By refusing to name it, it becomes even more powerful and terrifying. I talk to my kids about my death. They don’t understand but they won’t remember me as a coward. My head is not in the sand. I am facing this with the same realism I faced life.
I am also not turning my tumors into a metaphor. People (well-meaning, again) tell me “you’ll beat this” and “keep fighting” and “I know you will win.” The battle metaphor might be better for some types of cancer, but not mine. Mine is terminal. There is no battle. And if there is it can only end one way—in a loss. But I will not lose if my cancer kills me. I will only lose if I stop living BEFORE my tumors start growing again, if I let sadness, and despair, and depression have the last word. And so I am not doing that. I read to the kids for at least an hour each night, often two. I do all the school with the kids. I quiz my daughter on spelling words, my son on his letters. I take the kids on walks. When the kids are playing, I unload the dishwasher. I clean up toys. I make Korean feasts. I am living and so I am winning. And at my funeral, I want it to be said that I still won. And I want life to go on, for my husband, for my kids. I love this life. My weakness, my temptation is that I have never been able to see it as a veil of tears. Life is so, so good, and I want the people that I love to think that, to feel it, to know it.
I am encountering Jesus in a different way. I am encountering the Jesus who died when he was only 33 (my age when I was diagnosed). When I was first diagnosed, as everybody around me prepared for Christmas and I prepared for radiation and chemo, I encountered Jesus in the garden. As I went through the sickness and tiredness of radiation, I encountered Jesus at the pillar. Now I encounter Jesus on His walk to the cross, helped along by countless Simons. The Jesus I am coming to know is not so much a healer or a moral teacher or a miracle worker, but a sufferer. How could he not have a preferential concern for the poor and suffering? He came to suffer, not to show us a way out of it, but to offer us solidarity. And eventually a triumph over suffering that never lets the suffering be forgotten. I am encountering the Jesus who is still showing us his wounds after the resurrection. And I am encountering Jesus in the countless people who suffer in solidarity with me.
I don’t think Jesus will heal me. I hope He does. I hope a cure for gliomas comes out tomorrow. And if it doesn’t, I hope to get many good years with my husband, kids, family, and friends. But even if my hopes are realized, I will still die. And so I pray less for a miracle (my friends are praying for that) than I do courage, good humor, and the resurrection of my body. I pray that I am able to suffer well. I pray that I am able to die well. I pray for those I love to see the good God is doing after I die. I pray for myself, that I also realize the good God is doing now. I pray for good lives for my kids—not so much pleasure but deepness of being that comes from education and faith. I pray that they are also able to suffer well. I pray for my husband, because he will have to work so hard, but I also want him to have a good life. I have. My life is too short to end, but it has been a good—no, a great life. I have met great people. I have a great husband and four great kids. I have seen great places. I have read great books, eaten great meals, and drank great wine. I hope to keep doing these things. But most importantly, I have come to know and to love a great God. And when everything else ends, I am going to keep knowing Him.
I probably won’t write much, if at all. I have one hand, two brain tumors, and four kids. But I want to conclude that I love my faith, I love being Catholic. It is a horrible time for the church (why now? I am heartbroken) but I know the church is much bigger than the hierarchy (though what they do matters so much). I am proud to be a member of Jesus’ church. I take great consolation in the fact that his body appears on countless altars around the world, everyday. And I have been privileged to have seen, to have been served by his body, by the finest people of God. In many ways the church is very sick, but I cannot forget that in other ways it is alive and healthy. And I am happy that I get to keep being a part of this church when I die. People are saying that they are praying for a miracle, but I know the miracle has already happened and pretty soon my eternity is going to be Easter morning.