The gospel of success drove me to achieve, to dream big, to abandon fear. It was a mindset that served me well until it didn’t, until I was confronted with something I couldn’t manage my way out of; until I found myself saying into the phone, “But I have a son,” because it was all I could think of to say.
That was the most difficult moment to accept: the phone call, the walk to the hospital, when I realized that my own personal prosperity gospel had failed me. Anything I thought was good or special about me could not save me — my hard work, my personality, my humor, my perspective.
I had to face the fact that my life is built with paper walls, and so is everyone else’s. It is a hard thought to accept that we are all a breath away from a problem that could destroy something irreplaceable or alter our lives completely.
We know that in life there are befores and afters. I am asked all the time to say that I would never go back, or that I’ve gained so much in perspective. And I tell them no, before was better.
A few months after I got sick, I wrote about this and then I sent it off to an editor at the “New York Times.” In retrospect, taking one of the most vulnerable moments of your life and turning into an op-ed is not an amazing way to feel less vulnerable. I got thousands of letters and emails. I still get them every day.
I think it is because of the questions I asked. I asked: How do you live without quite so many reasons for the bad things that happen?
I asked: Would it be better to live without outrageous formulas for why people deserve what they get?
And what was so funny and so terrible was, of course, I thought I asked people to simmer down on needing an explanation for the bad things that happened.
So what did thousands of readers do? Yeah, they wrote to defend the idea that there had to be a reason for what happened to me. And they really want me to understand the reason. People want me to reassure them that my cancer is all part of a plan.
A few letters even suggested it was God’s plan that I get cancer so I could help people by writing about it. People are certain it is a test of my character or proof of something terrible I’ve done. They want me to know without a doubt that there is a hidden logic to this seeming chaos.
They tell my husband, while I’m still in the hospital, that everything happens for a reason, and then stammer awkwardly when he says, “I’d love to hear it. I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying.”
And I get it. We all want reasons. We want formulas to predict whether our hard work will pay off, whether our love and support will always make our partners happy and our kids love us.
We want to live in a world in which not one ounce of our hard work or our pain or our deepest hopes will be for nothing. We want to live in a world in which nothing is lost.
But what I have learned in living with stage IV cancer is that there is no easy correlation between how hard I try and the length of my life.
In the last three years, I’ve experienced more pain and trauma than I ever thought I could survive. I realized the other day that I’ve had so many abdominal surgeries that I’m on my fifth belly button, and this last one is my least favorite.
But at the same time, I’ve experienced love, so much love, love I find hard to explain. The other day, I was reading the findings of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, and yes, there is such a thing. People were interviewed about their brushes with death in all kinds of circumstances: car accidents, labor and delivery, suicides.
And many reported the same odd thing: love.
I’m sure I would have ignored it if it hadn’t reminded me of something I had experienced, something I felt uncomfortable telling anyone: that when I was sure that I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved.
It was one of the most surreal things I have experienced. In a time in which I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing me notes and socks and flowers and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement.
But when they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others. I was entering a world of people just like me, people stumbling around in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made.
It was a feeling of being more connected, somehow, with other people, experiencing the same situation. And that feeling stayed with me for months. In fact, I’d grown so accustomed to it that I started to panic at the prospect of losing it.
So I began to ask friends, theologians, historians, nuns I liked, “What am I going to do when that loving feeling is gone?”
And they knew exactly what I was talking about, because they had either experienced it themselves or they’d read about it in great works of Christian theology. And they said, “Yeah, it’ll go. The feelings will go. And there will be no formula for how to get it back.”