I called my friend Sam Beasley to complain about the injustice: "I just got word that my friend Kathryn has been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. She's only 68 years old. She's been sober for 30 years; she hasn't had a cigarette in 29 years; and she hasn't eaten sugar for 28 years. She flosses after every meal and her teeth are perfect. She's trim and athletic. She and her husband go biking very weekend. Their summer vacations are biking across Europe with friends. She's done everything right and still ... still she gets cancer!"
"So, let me ask you a question," Sam said. "Are you her Higher Power? Are you her God?"
"But what you're telling me is that you want to overrule her Higher Power," Sam said. "You think YOU know what's right for Kathryn."
"For all we know, this might just be the best year of her life," Sam said.
"Oh. I hadn't thought of it like that."
"Most people don't," Sam continued. "In fact, your friend Kathryn probably isn't thinking about it like that either. But the truth is, we don't know that the cancer just might come bearing gifts ... and that this last year of her life might be incredibly good."
Could Sam be right? Kathryn had expressed many worries, concerns, and complaints over the ten years that I knew her. Chief among them was the absence of an exit strategy from the high-stress business she owned. She often complained that her husband John was not sufficiently sensitive to her emotional needs. She said she felt lonely much of the time and had no close friends. And she fretted about her two daughters: Chloe was overweight and Dianne wasn't interested in getting married. Kathryn lamented the lack of grandchildren. Clearly, hers wasn't the picture-perfect family Kathryn thought it ought to be.
Underlying her concerns and complaints was a chronic refrain of fear and mistrust. Kathryn said she had a hard time trusting people. Myriad fears haunted her daily life: fear that her business wasn't making enough money, fear that she'd miss a deadline or make a mistake; fear of what others thought of her; fear of abandonment; fears for her daughters' happiness ... her fears seemed endless.
To any outside observer, these worries seemed baseless and irrational. Kathryn was a wealthy woman with a long marriage to a handsome, successful man; she had two lovely homes; she leased a new Mercedes every three years; her daughters were talented, attractive, and smart; and her family enjoyed a lifestyle anyone would envy. But the fears were still there -- they had nothing to do with objective conditions.
Within the first week of her diagnosis, all that began to change. Kathryn's husband took a leave of absence from his work and devoted himself to caring for her. He moved her business out of their home and put it up for sale while she was in hospital, so when she came home all she had to do was focus on her health.
When I went to visit her in the hospital, I expected to find her crying and fearful -- her usual response to anything bad. But the Kathryn who greeted me from her hospital bed was relaxed and glowing. Her room was filled with flowers, cards, and balloons. Her entire family was gathered there with her -- her husband John, daughters Chloe and Dianne, her sister Suzanne and Suzanne's fiancé. Kathryn was basking in their love and attention. She told me that she felt peaceful and serene, trusting God that all would be well.
For the next seven months, Kathryn's life looked like the solar system -- with Kathryn as the sun -- family and friends orbiting around her. She received calls and visitors daily. John doted on her. Chloe was at the house every day and Kathryn's sister Suzanne came frequently, too. Dianne got married and Kathryn rallied to participate in the wedding. The happy couple got pregnant, fulfilling one of Kathryn's fondest wishes -- for a grandchild. With her business gone, Kathryn had the time and money to do anything she wanted -- with her devoted husband by her side. They went on outings to the local arboretum and gardens, museums, movies, and their weekend home up the coast.
I think back on what my friend Sam had told me: "This might very well be the best year of Kathryn's life." From all appearances, it was. Her cares and concerns of previous years simply disappeared -- along with the fear that had gripped her. Her final months were filled with love, laughter, lively conversations, companionship, holidays and special occasions with her family, and treasured moments with loving friends. Kathryn got everything she'd ever wanted.
As is often the way with us humans, Kathryn finally realized that much of what she thought was missing had actually been there all along. In the words of French writer Colette: "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."
Cancer had come into Kathryn's life -- bearing gifts. Best of these were the gifts of serenity and peace of mind.
BJ Gallagher's new book is If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats (Hampton Roads).