When Fitness Meets Faith

07/13/2011 11:57 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

Fitness-wise, I can't think of anything to write about except my sister-in-law, Dori. She's been my personal trainer this week. I visited her in Atlanta these past few days and she's helped me discover muscles I never knew I had.

I got the call a month ago from my brother. "Chemo to the brain," he told me. "Put her on the phone," I asked. When she came on the line, she complained that she was bored and wanted to get up and walk the hospital corridors.

"How do you feel?" I asked.

"I need to get home and get back to my walks," she said. She's always called them "my" walks, which I hadn't noticed until now. "Time for my morning walk." Or "Oh, I missed my walk today!"

People who walk for exercise call it "a" walk. People who hate to walk just ... walk. But people like Dori who are passionate about moving their body claim them a walk as their own, as a part of who they are.

I hung up and immediately turned to Google, which, like a mean girlfriend, always has a way of telling me information in a harsher way than necessary.

Her treatment is nicknamed "hema onc." No one is fooled by this cruely cute-sounding lingo -- it stands for hematology-oncology, the AK-47 of chemotherapy.

I booked the flight, not knowing that I was so out of shape for what she had in mind for me.

Dori is the new 53. She looks a decade younger than she is and has always been in great shape -- watching her weight and eating healthy even before it was fashionable. She is one of those women who prepared cut-up carrots for her toddlers before baby carrots were invented. And before her romance with walking, she was a runner. She never smoked and doesn't drink. She takes ginko biloba and other new-age-y supplements -- organic, of course.

She ran a 5K this past Mother's Day and won her age division. She had her picture taken on the podium with the Chick-fil-A mascot.

After the race she had a blinding headache, which she dismissed as an after-effect of the heat at the race. After a few days, the headache was still there, so she called her doctor. The breast cancer she'd conquered a decade ago didn't really cross her mind.

Two days, dozens of tests and a lifetime later, they put a shunt in her skull and her new life began.

It must be like stepping off a cliff: when you do everything right, and damned if something bad doesn't happen anyway. It's as basic and terrifying as that.

Except that Dori has faith.

Author Barbara Winter said, "When you come to the edge of all the light that you know and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on or you will be taught to fly."

Faith, for Dori, is not just something she believes in her head but now it is something she is experiencing in her body. It's faith in motion.

The morning after I arrived, she was knocking on my door at 6 a.m., telling me I had seven minutes to get ready if I wanted to go on her walk with her. We had to beat the heat of Atlanta, she said. And beating the heat seems to be how Dori is living her life now. It would be so easy to lose your cool if you were in her shoes. Instead, she seems more awake to life than ever. In fact, she did a 10K on Monday -- the Peachtree Road Race -- with her daughter, Lauren.

She's always liked to garden and has kept her bird feeders full, but now she was filled with a new, deeper appreciation for the simplest of pleasures -- the squirrels and hummingbirds -- in her own backyard. Seeing these animals through her eyes became amazing, like I was seeing these simple creatures for the first time. I'm almost 50 years old and to think, I'd never stopped to watch the magic of a hummingbird drink at his feeder.

I asked her about her attitude of optimism. She told me she used to be negative, back in the early days of her marriage to my brother, but that she learned that she needed to become more positive if she wanted her kids and her husband -- and herself -- to be happy. She taught herself, she said. Also, over and over, she described her faith in God, and what I recognized in her, from years of talking about it in yoga classes (although I'd never seen it in a person) was enlightenment. She was enlightened.

I watched her closely because I've always been impatient with living like that -- merely normally -- and here she was showing me what a gift it is to live exactly like that: living the everyday life, with all it's ho-humness and regularity, so that each moment takes on a vertical dimension of depth; so that a bird at the feeder becomes a miracle.

When we were due at one of the radiology appointments this week, she'd mention it like we were going to the gym.

As she opened the door to her back porch, she'd say, "Hi, guys," to the squirrels that did not dart away.

We talked a lot, although I noticed that the small talk seemed too small and the big talk felt too gigantic to mention. Her daily examples of grace and presence to the small gifts each moment presented felt like a new calisthenic, challenging an unconditioned muscle in my heart -- not my anatomical heart, but my emotional one. She had some new moves to show me that I will never learn in Zumba class.

It occurred to me that Dori knows instinctively how to be courageous. Acts of courage don't always take place near burning buildings, you know. This week they took place in Madison, Georgia, in her heart and soul and on her back porch. One took place at the finish line of the Peachtree Road Race on Monday.

Dori has her ear to the ground to pick up the soft sound of divine direction, rather than the confusing, sometimes-blinding message from "hema-onc."

I'm back home now, but not without having learned a few new moves from my new trainer Dori. And like her, I'll keep taking my vitamins. I'll keep trying to do everything right. And if something bad happens anyway, I'll try to beat the heat like Dori and remember the hard reality: that cancer can come bearing gifts.

It can change your life for the better by teaching you what's important. You get your priorities straight. You stop wasting time. You hug more. You tell your people that you love them.

If it wasn't for the bad part, having cancer would be the best thing, and everyone would want some.

And that is so true.

Except for the bad part.