Author Archives: katebowler

Decisions

This is us yesterday, celebrating. Zach was singing and dancing in a very un-Mennonite way. I’m sorry that it’s been about six months. Please forgive me because it wasn’t at all personal…it’s only that I had a lot I needed to get done. I realized around Christmas that I was hungry for something that I thought I had lost my appetite for: insanely hard work. The kind of work where you feel a little panicked sitting down—how will I get it all done?—but then you deliciously lose track of time. I wanted to write a book. I wanted to get tenure. It all feels very important until you realize that if your life were a movie it would be the world’s most boring montage.

I decided that I was going to write the entire manuscript for my project on women and power in megaministry (called The Preacher’s Wife) and that 100,000 words was a lot to do in about five months. As it turns out, it is almost impossible to write a book in five months. Almost. Until you break it down to a daily word count, talk about it with your adorable Dad every day, and learn to sit there until it’s done. I was almost always home by 3 PM to take care of Zach and pretended to be a puppet named Mr. Walrus, who Zach finds incredibly compelling. Meals are eaten. Toys are put away. Mr. Walrus said so.

I hated being that busy because it was grueling and horrible and almost impossible to do anything else. But I secretly loved it because it kept me from living in my other world, Cancer World, where everything is terribly dramatic. You see, the whole time I was traveling around to other hospitals getting second opinions to find the answer to the question: will this medicine stop working? Should I try to cut out these tumors now? I can’t be cured so we used words like “durable illness” and “window of health.” So am I fine now because I’m in a window of health?

In the end, I concluded that I would rather try to cut out some of the disease. So yesterday I handed in The Preacher’s Wife to Princeton University Press and the Duke tenure committee and next week I will have a nasty liver resection that will keep me in bed for about two months. It is going to be miserable and I didn’t want to spend all this time worrying so now it is popping up on my calendar like a horrible SURPRISE! I didn’t know you can surprise yourself, but you really can.

I stripped life down to the basics and it felt more than okay. Dinner on table. The muttering of a three-year old in the throes of deciding between two toy cars. And the pleasant exhaustion for the best reason I can think of, that it felt normal and thank God for normal.

No Kate Left Behind

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This. This right here is the most powerful thing I know: this bizarre freight train of love for a boy who asked for a fly swatter (see bottom right of photo) and car keys (without a car) for Christmas. This is my beating heart. I leave hours and hours open every day to be someone’s mom and someone’s wife. It is one of the only things that I know with an intensity and a language that people usually reserve for describing “a call” or at least a socially disruptive hobby.

But what I realized in these last two months since my glorious scan news is that if I want to do anything other than being a mom and a wife, it gets ugly. Cancer, as it turns out, is always trying to take everything. It wants your health, mostly, but settles for happiness, strength, peace, and all your time. Oh my word, the amount of time is lethal. If cancer doesn’t kill me, mountains of e-mail and paperwork will.

This is how it happened. It was 15 days after my last scan and I was still basking in the afterglow of GOOD NEWS. Having recently dropped chemotherapy, my continued health meant that the immunotherapy drugs were actually working on their own. And—even better—I was feeling great. No more thin hair, paper nails, and hobbling around on tender feet. I was almost myself again.

I was standing in the book exhibit at the American Academy of Religion visiting books like dear friends when I got an e-mail that said that I was now cleared as a candidate for a liver resection and that I would be meeting with the surgeon in 48 hours.  At one level, it was good news. These are precisely the kind of next steps that were not offered to me when I was hanging by a thread. But in every other way, I knew it was the beginning of a difficult experiment. I have an extremely rare form of cancer. How many people like me are out there? And what are they doing when faced with a painful decision?

One school of thought says to leave it alone. The drug is working so why take on a nasty surgery with a three-month recovery period? The other school of thought says: TAKE IT OUT NOW OR YOU’LL DIE. There is a lot of shouting in that second school of thought. I needed to make a choice. So I asked my medical team if they would find out what other major hospitals are doing. This became a long *cough* discussion. Of course, I said yes. I’m a researcher. I want information. They said, no. We will find out what is clinically best in 10 years when that research comes out. I was livid. But mostly I was exhausted. I don’t expect certainty, but I do think that hunches typically become common wisdom. So what are the hunches and best practices at the nation’s leading hospitals?

I realized that I needed to build a network of informed acquaintances at cancer centers around the country so that I could keep up to date on research as it develops, but there were a few holes in my plan. First, I don’t understand science. I mean, I understand how condensation works but it breaks quickly down after that. Second, I don’t know many doctors, let alone the leading GI immunotherapy experts. So I started a google doc that I called No Kate Left Behind, because I thought it was funny and the George W. tribute to its mediocrity sounded about right.

I e-mailed everyone I could think of. Do you know anyone in cancer research? At this hospital? Who knows this person? And then just when I had hit a wall, my Kates –Kate Moran, Kathryn Gin Lum, and Grace Katherine—started filling in the blanks for me and sending out e-mails. We developed a series of form e-mails so anyone could do it and then pass it on to me. I started having conversations with some amazing people at a couple big hospitals. There was no magic answer, but each person had a couple extra little details, though some were very dark. The drug like mine may stop working after a few years. This is a hard path.

One of the first things I learned last year is that, alone, I will fail. It is friends and family and loved ones and strangers who will keep me upright, who will give me those little connections and bits of encouragement and advice. I did No Kate Left Behind for about a month solid, and then now I do it in the evenings and on weekends. I still don’t have a lot of connections in place. In the meantime, I finished my memoir, wrote a cool chunk of my academic book, and splashed around at the pool a lot with my little elf. Cancer will take some things, but it can’t take it all.

Delayed

scanWhen Toban came to find me in the cancer center waiting room, we both knew that was probably one of the most important days of our lives. So he immediately started to laugh when he got close enough to realize what I was doing in the meantime. I was on the phone with CNN explaining the prosperity theology of Donald Trump.

My pager buzzed and the nurse called my name.

“Oh, shoot, can I call you back?” I told the reporter. “I have to go find out if I’m going to live this year.”

We were so nervous that we both felt a little ill. There is a lot of nothing in hospitals, a lot of the buzz of florescent lights and listening for the scraping sound of my chart being taken out of the holder on the door. So we did what we could do. We prayed. He held my sweaty hands. And he complied with my request to play the song “All I Do is Win” on repeat because hyper-confidence in the midst of desperation makes me laugh.

The doctor came in as I was singing the chorus “All I do is win, win, win no matter what!” at a volume not entirely appropriate for a health care setting. But when I saw the smile on his face, I allowed myself to finish up the chorus and a verse.

It was good. It was better than good. It was magnificent.

After having stopped chemo, there were no signs of new tumor growth. Which means that the chemotherapy wasn’t doing anything but hurt me. And that the immunotherapy is working, working, working. As far as the studies can show, the tumors won’t grow. At least not this year, which is as far as the studies go.

It is so good that my brain can hardly process the implications. I will continue to get regular scans, but it is officially completely reasonable for me to be confident. And relaxed. And happy. I will trade old problems for better problems. Instead of trying to gauge whether these tumors will grow, we will be discussing whether we should be surgically removing them or only keeping an eye on them. We will talk about how, someday, I will drop immunotherapy all together when it seems like my body knows how to effectively target those foreign cancer cells. We will hold our breath and wait for the next big advancement in cancer research while I stay what I am—incurable. But I can live with incurable. As long as I get to live.

In truth, it is so good that it was hard to sit down and write this blog entry. I was absolutely swamped the last few days with an out-of-town conference and a surprise (but wonderfully welcome) family visit. I thanked God like a wild woman but it has not yet occurred to me that I can relax for a minute and acknowledge that, for now and the near future, I am fine. I’ve been so accustomed to creating the momentum I need to endure these highs and lows that I hardly know how to sloooooow down.

This fact was obvious from the moment I emerged from the doctor’s office on Wednesday with The News. At the moment I should have been weeping for joy, I finished my appointment, walked out of the cancer center, and dialed the first number that came to mind.

“Hi! Yes. I’m back. I get to live this year! I should call my parents. But first, quickly, let’s finish talking about Donald Trump.”

 

Certainty

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Something that has always driven me a little bit crazy about Christians is their desire to be certain. About everything. Precise age of the earth? Know it! Celestial status of all people who die without knowing the rules of Canadian football? Got it! The world of belief, it seems, is only safe if it is known. Every corner of the Christian faith must be mapped, or it is nothing at all.

I once took a class on apocalypticism and the belief that the world would end, and I remember being especially upset that scholars had created a category for Christian prophets who wanted to predict things after they had already happened. They politely called it “retrospective prophecy.” I feel fairly certain it’s called “being a know-it-all.” Some things are shrouded in mystery, and anyone who pretends otherwise is probably also the kind of person who cheats at golf. No one wants to play the ball as it lies.

So let me tell you this, before it happens, so that you know where I’m at. Until recently, I was fairly convinced that I would die soon-ish. I thought, since I am pretty scrappy, that I could string things along as best I can. But I know that I am on the very edge of what medicine can promise. So when it came to stopping chemotherapy and testing the effectiveness of my immunotherapy drugs, I was trying not to be morbid. I know that it means that I will either die this year or live on. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll actually make it. But I didn’t know when I should finally find out if this is working.

So I prayed. I said, God, I don’t trust myself. Give me some advice. And I am only saying this because if I am wrong, I will need you. But if I’m right, I want you to know what I believed. I believed that God answered my absurdly specific prayer.

I’ll keep this general, because I don’t want to embarrass the people involved, but the next day I got an e-mail that said, hey, I don’t know if you remember me but I’m an oncologist and I read that you are trying to make a decision about stopping chemotherapy drugs. Do you know about this world expert in your particular cancer? I already talked to him about you and he can answer any questions you have. So I emailed the world’s leading expert in my cancer. And he immediately said, STOP CHEMO. And so I confirmed it with my oncologist, and I took a deep breath. And I laughed.

I stopped chemotherapy drugs because I believe that my immunotherapy drugs will hold. And because I believe that God gave me a sign, even though I barely believe in signs. But I do believe that sometimes when you ask God for things then something suprising happens. God answers.

So, my darlings, I want you to know that I am a little bit terrified that I will get scans that tell me that my tumors have grown, which means that I was always going to die this year. And that I am planning a dinosaur birthday for a boy who will only have a dad next year. But that I have hope that this will work and that God and good doctors reached into my life and said, It’s okay. You’re okay.

But in any case, I will let you know on Wednesday. And, in the meantime, I have been in Italy eating chips which taste like meat–because that’s their thing–and drinking wine from the Tuscany coast because that’s also their thing. And forging ahead ahead because, hey, you can’t be certain of anything.

Alone

Most of my worst thoughts hover around a single word.

Alone.

For a long time, I felt like I was the only person in the world who will die. It was the weird feeling that began in the haze of my diagnosis. I remember standing in the lobby of Duke Hospital, waiting for them to admit me. I was talking on the phone to my friend, Margaret, with my hand on the window.

“I feel like I’m behind glass now. And you’re all on the other side.”

Even today I still feel it in the moment between shaking someone’s hand and the spark of recognition in their eyes. Oh, it’s YOU. And then they cock their heads to one side like sorrowful cocker spaniels.

It is true that there are some things I’m always going to have to do alone. It’s the deep breath I take before they put in a fat needle into the port in my chest. It’s the sinking feeling in my stomach when the doctor holds the test results. It’s the catch in my throat when I watch a little baby curved into the dip of a new parent’s shoulder.

I am locked inside this body, which is failing me. And it keeps me from breaking through, back to the life I want.

But this is also the truth: I am never alone. You are with me.

I come home and there are cookies in my mailbox from Katy. Last week Mandy sent me smelly pencils (called “Smencils”!) and I am hooked on the grape one. Molly made me a crossword puzzle where all the clues are drawn from American religious history trivia. Rob, my doctor friend, talks me through some recent findings. Andrea, my college roommate, e-mails me funny videos to watch during chemo and my little sister Maria sends me funny articles with titles like “Types of Guys I Would Like to Date, If Anyone Could Please Introduce Me to Them.”

I was late to a meeting the other day because at the faculty meeting I had gotten too many hugs.

These little things…..they are the cure. They are the cure to loneliness. They are the cure to self-pity. They are the cure to boredom and exhaustion. These are the little whispers: youareloved, youareloved, youareloved. I can feel it in moments of divine closeness when God seems to say, I am here. And I can feel it when I open my mailbox and my sister in Toronto has sent me brown eyeliner. She KNEW I needed brown eyeliner.

I check my e-mail and there is a note from an academic colleague who tells me a funny or a sweet or a sad story and I can hear them saying: “I am here. You are here. We are here.”

The most alone I have ever been is when I woke up from my surgery. The room was empty and all I could hear was the chirping of the heartrate monitor. The hospital had, of course, taken everything that was familiar to me. My dress I love to teach in. My ring from the man I love. All I had was my hospital gown and a carved up body I hardly recognized.

And then I saw it. Something around my wrist. It was a bracelet.

But not just any bracelet. It was a slap bracelet, the kind I played with when I was ten and they were all the rage. It was such an absurd situation, the more I thought about it. Someone had crept into my room, past security, and quietly slapped it on my wrist so I would have it when I woke up. It was bright neon. It was hideous.

And all it said was: FIERCE.

So, yes, my dears, I must be brave. But you make me fierce.

The Hard Way

A photo by Ales Krivec. unsplash.com/photos/4k-U1Wp2d00

“There’s the gradual, long way up the mountain—and that’s the easier way.”

My oncologist is looking at me very sternly, which I know is difficult for him. He’s very nice, and this is the closest thing he’s ever given to a lecture.

“And then there’s the steep, fast climb—and that’s the harder way. You’ve been used to the hard way,” he says and he is right.

I have grown used to being blasted with chemotherapy drugs. Drugs that fill my mouth with ulcers so that some days I can’t speak. Drugs that scorch my skin so that some days I can’t walk. But that’s not what he’s trying to say. He knows I’m hooked on the hard way.

“I’d rather you kill me trying to cure me,” I tell him and there is a long silence afterward. We both know what he should say and I’m grateful that he doesn’t. They are not trying to cure me. I’m not going to get to the top of the mountain.

He has been trying to lower my drug dosage, space things out, and ease up a little on the regimen but he knows this is tough for me. I liked the idea that I was doing the harshest thing, that I was really getting somewhere. But now it’s time for me to accept something harder: I’m not sure I can do this much longer.

It’s like this: my treatment has been like swinging on three vines. Two chemotherapy drugs and one immunotherapy drug. I already had to stop one drug because I was losing all feeling in my hands and feet. Snip snip. And now I have to think about cutting out the other chemotherapy drug. I’ll be swinging on that one immunotherapy vine, hoping it holds me up. Please God, make it work.

“So if we stop chemotherapy now and my tumors grow….” I say uncertainly.

“Then we can restart chemotherapy. Worst case scenario, your tumors grow 20 percent by the next scan,” he says quickly.

“But if the immunotherapy drug doesn’t work then I am going to die anyway.” My voice sounds flat and matter-of-fact, even to me. “Right? I mean, the chemo drugs are already fading.”

He is trying to reassure me but I can’t quite hear the words. I am staring at my hands, puffed with chemo toxins and the color of rhubarb. I have come to the end of what I know how to do. I know how to suffer. I know how to make the best of things. But I don’t know how to do the most basic thing—I don’t know how to stop.

—–

I am sitting across from the man who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of my particular form of cancer, the cell disorder that caused these tumors to bloom. For all his many efforts, his thousands of hours in the lab, I have brought him cupcakes. With sprinkles. It’s a fair trade.

We have both, as it turns out, spent a lot of time walking up the edge of things, and we are talking about what it means to face facts.

“I’m not sure I want to know what happens if I stop chemotherapy, but at the same I want to get it over with,” I confess. “What did you do?”

“I went to work,” he says, and I realize the weight of what he is saying. His office is plain and sensible, which confirms something I already know about him five minutes into our conversation. He is there to work.

In the worst moments of his life, he put one foot in front of the other. He tasked himself with a series of responsibilities that ultimately gave me back this year. And maybe many more. But what I loved more than anything was that he did it without knowing it would matter. He marched forward because it was the best he could do.

“We’re all terminal,” he says simply, and it answers my unspoken question. How do you stop? You just stop. You come to the end of yourself. And then you take a deep breath. And say a prayer. And get back to work.

The Secret

“Ms. Bowler is an unfortunate 35 yo F w/ newly diagnosed colon cancer, likely metastatic.”

“Ms. Bowler became emotional when discussing the implications of her cancer diagnosis for her son. She stated that she had a good support system among family and friends. Ms. Bowler maintained a sense of humor during the appointment.”

Doctor’s Notes, September 2015

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I called my mom before the surgery, one year ago today.

“Rick told me the secret,” I said. But the more my mom pressed for details, the more it was obvious that I was on a lot of exciting pain killers. And that I had forgotten the secret entirely. My mom said it took me weeks to remember.

Rick had come to see me. He sat down beside my hospital bed and took my hand in his. “I wore this clerical collar to impress you,” he said gravely. “And to get through hospital security.”

Rick is probably my oldest friend. I mean, he is literally the oldest person that I sit down with and pour out all my diary feelings. He is not going to like this rendering of him, but he is one of the greatest people I know and he did, in fact, know the secret.

I had been trying to keep it together until that moment. I had already called my best friend to tell her what she must say to my family if things went another way: You were perfect. Kate could not have been a more loved daughter, a more loved sister. I had already told my sister-in-law in no uncertain terms that she would be the one to help Toban move on with things and to find happiness in every way. I had tried to put things in order and sew them up. I had saved all my questions.

“Will I ever go on a trip again?” I asked him as he sat down. My world had gotten very small. This room. That surgery. No one could tell me when I would be able to see my son. Cancer had eaten up all the space and gobbled up all my time.

“Oh, of course you will,” he said and I believed him. I believed him because he had lost his boy at my age and he knew what it was to count costs and count time.

There was a lot of silence as I struggled for the language to ask my next question.

“Do you think when we die that we won’t be so…apart? That maybe because God sees things in a single moment that it might be the same for us?”

He knew what I was asking because he always knows. Will I miss everything? Will I see my son sprout up and learn the rules of Canadian football? Can I see him graduate and be launched into the world? How many times can I sit beside his bed and watch his eyes squeeze tight as we thank God for tractors and the sticks we throw into the stream near our house. These are the plans I have made. These are the hopes that are being ground into dust.

“Don’t skip to the end,” he said, gently. “Don’t skip to the end.”

—-

“What do you think I meant by that?” Rick says to me last week, sitting in my office. He can’t remember saying it because it was such a blur. We are marveling at a whole year gone by, a whole year that the doctors said I had a 30% chance of surviving.

“I think you meant that we just can’t know. And that our brains fill in all the details, for good or for ill. We want to tell ourselves a story—any story—so we can get back to certainty,” I reply, “You know me! I am so desperate to know what’s going to happen. At least so I can prepare.”

“I sound really deep,” he says.

“You ARE really deep,” I shoot back, laughing. “But Rick, I just need to make it to 50. I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

“But it comes undone. There are so many times in life when we think we have it locked down,” he says. We are quiet again.

Plans are made. Plans come apart. New delights or tragedies pop up in their place. And nothing human or divine will map out this life, this life that has been more painful than I could have imagined. More beautiful than I could have imagined.

“Right. It’s the secret—don’t skip to the end,” I remind myself, sheepishly wiping my face on the sleeve of my sweater.

The Two Month Challenge

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Every two months I walk up to the edge of the cliff. Will I live another two months of uninterrupted life? Meandering walks with Zach. A deep pour of wine on a patio somewhere. Everything begins to feel like it is made of glass.

It started when I joined the clinical trial at Emory, and a good scan meant I would get to continue treatment on my million-dollar miracle drug. A bad scan meant that I would not. And now it’s almost the same thing, but with a little less drama. I get a scan every two months with a ton of fanfare but without the scare of immediately being put out to pasture. If it’s bad, it’s still really, really bad, but maybe there are a couple things we can try.

I’ve done this six times now, and I hope to do it a million times more. But there’s a weird liturgy to it. My life is parceled out 60 days at a time. Right before the scan is a building terror, and right after is a deep relief. And everything else is…well…what exactly?

This is the two-month challenge. How do I live beautifully and faithfully and absurdly in 60 days as if they were my last? I tried to summarize this to my friend, Kori, as we were sitting on the floor in my office last week.

“I think it’s something like, ‘Living Well, Grieving Well,’” I said uncertainly.

“Oh, absolutely not,” she said. “That all sounds very serious and proper when you say it like that.”

We were quiet for a minute.

“How about your motto should be: ‘Balls Out Living. Balls Out Grieving.’?” she ventured.

“This coming from a pastor in the United Methodist Church,” I said, laughing. “And you understand me completely.”

She was right. I am circling around a way of being, but it’s hard for me to explain it to myself. I am trying to ask:

How do I live bigger and braver?

What should I take on?

And what should I let go of?

I think you’ll hear me talk about this a lot because these questions are sticking to me in this humidity. How do I live bigger and braver? Not in general, but now. In 60 days.

I have no idea.

Oh. My. Goodness. A butterfly just landed on my laptop. I’m not making this up. I wish I believed in signs because this is all very liveinthepresent and stopandwatchthebutterflies. But I’m getting the picture. How do you cultivate habits of living in the beautiful now?

Part of it has to be saying yes, yes to vulnerability. Yes to stupidity. Yes to an improv comedy night?

In my defense, I actually thought I was only agreeing to be part of a single scene for the DSI Comedy Club in Chapel Hill, North Carolina because someone nice asked me in a nice way. Would I come on the show and tell a story? NO PROBLEM. I know a great story about how my sister thought her friend was a pedophile, how I didn’t believe her, how Interpol became involved and how she ended up featuring in the documentary about his capture called “The Hunt for Mr. Swirl.” True story. She does her own voiceovers (“I never thought it would come to this,” she says in an ominous voice to the camera.)

So I said yes. Chances to talk about your sister’s international manhunt don’t come along every day.

The problem with saying ‘yes’ is that then you actually have to do it. So last night I went to this comedy club to discover that, no, I was going to be telling a LOT of stories because I was the premise of the whole show. Congratulations! You’re a star!

The great thing about comedians, as it turns out, is that they are funnier than you are or ever hope to be. So they used material from stupid stories from my life. There was the time a family member used to be late for gatherings because he was picking up roadkill and putting it in a cooler in the trunk for amateur taxidermy. (Correction: my sister is now saying that it was also so he could collect the fleas. So much to learn here!) There was that time my bridesmaids got the full weight of bird excrement falling from the skies and had to wash their dresses off in the decorative fountains. Which is visible in the background of many of my wedding pictures.

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So maybe that was the best part of all. I gave up stories from my past—great moments, ridiculous moments—and watched them become something new. Something even better than the past, because they were happening. Right now.

There were, of course, a million things that can’t be said. “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the chemo room…” That the only time I can’t breathe is when I think about my son not being able to remember me. That at night I write him letters so that, maybe, he can piece me together. These are the thoughts that feel like lead.

It is the odd work of grieving—all your stories become the weight of the past.

But I suspect that’s the beautiful thing about living. All your stories are still unfolding in front of you. In bright colors. In butterflies and a two-year old who figures out how to turn the hose on and run toward you at top speed. And, only sometimes, in front of a crowd of 80 intoxicated Chapel Hill undergraduates.

 

P.S. If you’ve done something bigger or braver, or taken something up and let something go, feel free to add it to the comments section. I’m always up for some inspiration.

Jimmy Carter and Me

Warning: The author does not actually intend any harm to former President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter, who is actually—by all appearances—a wonderful person. The author actually feels pretty bad about what followed.

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For a while, Jimmy Carter was the best thing to happen to me. Newly diagnosed with cancer and horrified by the poison that was being injected into my body to treat it, I was sad about all the superficial things. The criss-crossing scars on my stomach. The threat of losing my hair. The lingering feeling that I was an alien who crashlanded on a planet of the carefree and healthy.

So when it was announced that I would be wearing a giant sack filled with chemotherapy fluid in a bag around my waist, attached to a giant needle that went into the port beside my heart, I was thrilled. Just *thrilled* to be bringing fanny-packs back into style. And since I always needed to wear my backpack to carry my medical equipment, I was essentially wearing bags on bags on bags. It was glorious.

“Some women bedazzle it,” said an older nurse, helpfully.

“Yes, this certainly needs a heck of a lot more rhinestones,” I said, looking it over. “Something that says ‘BLESSED!’…or something.”

“Or something,” said the nurse, and we silently agreed that it was hideous in all its forms.

So my best friends nicknamed the chemobag “Jimmy” because Jimmy Carter had made my day. As it turned out, Jimmy Carter, the former peanut farmer from Georgia, had recently been diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma and he had started treatment at the cancer center at around the same time. And—just my luck—we had the same treatment schedule.

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Every week I would request the hallway chemo chair so I could see the Secret Service invade at top speed and whisk the 94-year old Carter to a private treatment room. And every week I would either completely miss seeing him because I fell asleep for two seconds or see an elbow or an ankle as he sprinted by to chemo as I got mine. In short, we were basically best friends. One time I even propped up a book about him in case I fell asleep and when I awoke I imagined I would find it signed. Except that never happened.

I told everyone about Jimmy and me. His appearances, my special chemo bag, our undying connection…everyone knew that Kate had cancer and that it was basically a special pass to understand the life and times of Jimmy Carter. Honestly, it humanized my cancer. People had something to ask about and to point to that was sweet and funny. No one had to lead with: “Soooo….you have cancer.” Instead, it was always: “So, how’s Jimmy?”

But then, one day, it was over. It was all over the news that the 94-year old (may I repeat NINETY-FOUR YEAR OLD) Jimmy Carter had been tested and there were no traces of his Stage IV cancer. His treatment worked and all subsequent photos showed him building stupid houses for stupid Habitat for Humanity. Not that I was bitter.

For the following weeks all I heard in the hallways was:

“Jimmy Carter was healed! I guess that means it works.”

“Congratulations Kate!”

“So it’s going to be okay for you!”

Unfortunately, no. I am always in the exhausting state of almost-dying. Despite how spry the 39th president happens to be. I have to keep struggling along, hoping for my own miracle.

I was attached to my little Jimmy Carter one day and I couldn’t take it anymore. I ran into a colleague’s office, closed the door, and burst into tears.

“MOTHER TRUCKING JIMMY CARTER!” I yelled, half-laughing, half-crying.

And my colleague, who I love, slowly turned in his chair toward me and looked at me solemnly.

“Where are these death panels Obama keeps promising us?” he asked gravely.

And I laughed so hard I had to re-tie my ponytail.

Last week, with my changed chemotherapy plan, I switched out my chemotherapy bag for pills that do the same thing. And so I say goodbye. Goodbye, sweet Jimmy, you were there when I needed you. Now build me a house or something awesome.

Anniversary

I was twenty-two when I got married. Young. Dumb. Happy. And quick on my feet.

That was fourteen years ago today.

I married the boy I met at Bible camp because he was funny and kind and absurdly good looking. We stood in a barely air-conditioned church in front of gobs of Mennonites and friends and family, some long since gone. And we promised that we would be there for better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in heath.

I loved your Justin Bieber hair.

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We aced “for richer, for poorer.” When we had nothing except what we could fit in a small family van, we could get into a lot of fun trouble on a $5 date. We loved each other so much that we were willing to live off of spaghetti in cities we didn’t grow up in and states we didn’t call home. We deferred other dreams for this one–this job, this place–and when arrived, this happened.

Today I’ll spend our anniversary mostly in the hospital, getting treatment, and putting you to the test, honey. I’ll ask you, again, to forgo the easy plans that people make. The second baby that we both wanted. And the guarantee that we’ll still have that same fight when we’re 80. You know I’ll win. I’m not sure why you keep arguing. But I like that you do.

So here we are, in sickness and in health. And you are exactly who you said you would be. You are constant and loving, funny and sweet. And you say stupid things like: “I still feel like I’m getting a good deal,” when you look at me, lying there, hooked up to drip bags and IVs.

The results are back and the doctor says that my tumors are stable. Praise God. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. They’re big but the medications are holding them at bay for now. There are no new tumors developing. It looks like the drugs are working, giving me forevercancer which is fine if it gets me a foreverlife. And I watched how your shoulders dropped and you sat back, exhaling deeply. Then you reached for my hand. It’s my cancer, my precarious life, but I know this is happening to both of us. And let me tell you the truth I know, truer than how terrible Canada is at the Summer Olympics. Truer than how loudly I eat tortilla chips. Truer than the florescent lights bearing down on us here, in another waiting room, holding another beeper, reviewing the scan results.

The truth is this: you are exactly who you said you would be. You are exactly who I hoped you would be.

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Happy Anniversary, honey.

I will love you all the days of my life.

Room With a View

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In about five minutes, Mr. Hospital Scrubs is going to pump something that looks like blue Kool-Aid into my veins and slowly push me into a whirling, deafening CT machine. I’ll hold my breath on and off so they can get a better picture.

“This is your scan day?” asks a kindly nurse. She is buzzing around the room, handing me a mask, setting up for the blood draw. I nod.

“Ah, family portraits,” she says with a sorry smile.

Yes, I am not alone in this body. I’ve got company. The machines will have a better look at the two plump tumors in my liver, the smaller, almost invisible other two, baby tumors nearby, and the microscopic cancer cells swimming around in my abdomen.

But everyone is trying their best. The reception volunteers their best port nurse to help me today for my big day. The technician jokes with me about Canada’s predictably paltry performance in the Olympics. Summer sports just aren’t really our thing. The nurse gives me a hug and asks if I want to pray over the vial of blood that will tell the oncologists whether I am deteriorating. I do.

Dear God, save me. save me. save me. save me. Again.

It’s been 11 months since my diagnosis, and it sounds weird to say that I am grateful. But I am grateful. I have lived one month past the regular appointment time that someone like me with an unexpected Stage IV cancer diagnosis should live.

I am doing things I never thought I would do again. Like hike a mountain.

Yesterday I was in the mountains of North Carolina with Katherine, one of Great Besties of all Time, and we were just stupid enough and just enthusiastic enough to sign up for a hike up the Blue Mountain trail. It promised to be short and hard with a spectacular view. It was hard, so I guess one of three ain’t bad.

We laced up our shoes and headed up the trail, only to realize that I had forgotten my water and sunglasses in the car. This was a great disappointment to Katherine, whose two great loves are hydration and retinal safety. But on we went until the trail got steep and narrow, little switchbacks that went back and forth, back and forth, and up, up, up.

We maintained the panting, cheery banter of two girls trying to pretend that we were almost there. We weren’t. What seemed, on the map, to be a mile-long hike to the summit was more like a slog through the jungle, hacking away tree limbs as we went.

Katherine noticed it first. The sun breaking through the trees above us. The shining promise of a panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains and our great reward: moral superiority over the millions of people who we imagined were sleeping or eating stacks of pancakes at that very moment. Those sitting in pews that Sunday morning never crossed our minds.

When we hit the clearing and felt the first heat of direct sun, we looked around. A lot. Mostly we were looking at the ground and its big pile of rocks which suggested that it was a campfire site. But no view. There were only trees and trees and more trees and a tiny sign that read: Blue Mountain Summit. I guess if there’s a sign, it counts more?

So, of course, we took a lot of pictures of our sweaty faces with the trees to prove to our dubious spouses that yes, sometimes we do things on our girls weekends, thankyouverymuch.
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But sometimes there isn’t a view. Sometimes we climb the mountain expecting God to give us a sense of perspective. Sometimes we expect to feel the grandeur of God’s love. Or maybe the distance we have come. And when we get there, there is only a pile of rocks and a sign pointing the way back down. It leaves us wondering if the exhaustion of the climb was actually worth it.

I am sitting beside the CT machine when I notice it. It’s a glass panel set into the ceiling with a large picture that glows. It depicts a mountain view, the tops of trees and the sky like an endless sea. The sun is breaking through.

I climb into the whirling machine, lie back, and stare at the top of the world. Sometimes in life I get the view, and sometimes I don’t. Even when I climb the mountain. And sometimes I am way, way down through a maze of white hallways littered with wheelchairs and the hum of televisions in a sterile room in a hospital gown as blue as the sky.

Megaministry Monday: Speedy Departures, the IRS, and Preacher Gabfests

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    This was a spiritual and moral mistake on my part as I began to depend on alcohol for my refuge instead of Jesus and others.” Perry Noble, Senior Pastor of NewSpring Church.

    It has been a rather sad week for megaministry. Perry Noble, the pastor of America’s eighth largest church, has been asked to step down over concerns about Perry’s “posture toward marriage, increased reliance on alcohol and other behaviors.” Noble’s goofball personality and shoot-from-the-hip exegetical style made him famously popular with his skyrocketing church and famously unpopular with, say, the Southern Baptist Convention. Though the situation is extremely difficult for the NewSpring church family, it is worth mentioning that this is still something of a success story. With so few accountability structures in megaministry, the fact that the church’s executive board was able to create a culture of spiritual obligation deserves a hearty and heartfelt congratulations.

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    Women are either frightened or become victims of manipulation and falsehood … We ask you to protect all who have already suffered, and also potential victims who are under the influence of manipulation and wizardry.A letter of appeal from parishioners against their pastor, Sunday Adelaja, leader of the Europe’s third largest church.

    In stark contrast to Perry Noble’s swift removal, some scandal-plagued leaders continue to be at the helm of their churches. The Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations in Ukraine is a massive prosperity megachurch and the third largest church in Europe. Its leader, Pastor Sunday Adelaja, was once the celebrated Nigerian revivalist who built a thriving multiracial Pentecostal church in the heart of the Ukraine. But he has been dogged by allegations for years. Now parishioners have sent a letter of protest that Pastor Sunday has been allowed to remain in leadership after being accused of many wrongs, including sexual misconduct. According to Charisma News, Sunday has now been officially defrocked by the Russian Associated Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith. Despite this, Adelaja still seems to be fully in command of his empire.

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    At 52 years old, I am excited that my next phase of life will be as an episcopal leader. I am humbled to the fact that this is historic.” The newly-elected Sharma Lewis, first African American female bishop of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

    In 1988, Leonine Kelly, the then-retired first African American woman ever to be elected bishop in the United Methodist Church, told the Black Clergywomen of the United Methodist Church (BCWUMC) that she didn’t want to die as the only black female bishop. Because of the historic elections in 2000, where 3 of the 5 UM jurisdictions elected African American female bishops, when Bishop Kelly died in 2012, only Linda Lee remained active.

    Today the stain-glass ceiling she cracked now seems an ornate stairway to ecclesial leadership. This week’s bright spot came with the first election of an African American woman to the United Methodist episcopacy in sixteen years. And not only one, in fact, but four African American women were elected as bishops. You heard me—FOUR talented women. Rev. Sharma Lewis is a former biologist-turned-pastor in the Southeastern Jurisdiction and the first African American woman ever elected there; Rev. Tracy Smith Malone is a life-long Methodist from the North Central Jurisdiction (“You raised me and formed me,” she said in her statement); Rev. Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, also married to a UMC pastor, is from the Northeastern Jurisdiction and passionate about being a “bridge-builder” in Baltimore; and, also from the Northeastern Jurisdiction, LaTrelle Miller Easterling has a law degree and a “passion for the marginalized.” Their gifts will be a boon for the aging UMC who, like all mainline churches, are searching for the pulse of today’s pressing issues.

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    I think it’s an idea whose time has come. In the television landscape, especially with Fox, they gave ‘Lucifer’ the nighttime show they gave ‘Preachers’ the daytime show … give us something. John Gray on his new talk show, The Preachers

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    foxThere’s a new daytime talk show in town called The Preachers featuring four (you guessed it) preachers ready to chat about hot topics like open marriage and police brutality. Three of the hosts will be familiar to megaministry world—John Gray, associate pastor at Lakewood Church, Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, and E. Dewey Smith Jr. of The House of Hope in Atlanta. The show is on a three-week test run, but so far it landed Bryant in some hot water for joking that he believed in an open marriage but (yuk yuk) forgot to tell his ex-wife. So there’s that. Much like The Preachers of LA franchise, it’s a puzzler. Highly respected people like Gray have a lot to lose with a slip of the tongue.

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    IRS probe of televangelist Robert Tilton’s church draws court challenge.

    Today’s time warp moment is brought to you by Robert Tilton, who is gaining headlines for the same dramarama that made his name synonymous with “televangelist” and “scandal” in the early 1990s. While the church was still reeling from Jim Bakker’s conviction and Jimmy Swaggart’s tears, televangelist royalty Robert Tilton met a media firestorm when he was accused of dumping prayer requests in the trash after extracting the money to the tune of $80 million a year.

    Now, the Internal Revenue Service is investigating his church and Robert Tilton’s finances are under scrutiny once again. These investigations don’t typically topple ministries, but in this case, it feels like an odd blast from the past. And, speaking of weird nostalgia, Ohio audiences can go see a new play about Tammy Faye Bakker entitled “Tammy Faye’s Final Audition.” It claims to “take her faith and her journey very seriously,” and I hope that’s true.

Goodbye Emory, Hello Duke

Late last year a miracle occurred when Kate was admitted to an experimental trial of an immunotherapy drug at Emory University in Atlanta. Further miracles provided for some out-of-state insurance coverage and air fare for her flights from Durham. There is no doubt that without that treatment Kate’s cancer would have worsened and her fate would have been pretty grim. Her medical team at Emory like Dr. El-Rayes, Melissa, and Meredith, nurses like Meg and volunteers like Cindy, Jane, Floyd, and the Mighty Bereans who offered rides from the airport and home stays were literal life-savers. We will never forget them and their kindness.

The regular travel to Atlanta, however, did take its own toll on Kate’s health. Up at 4:00 a.m., she would not usually return until midnight. And with a compromised immune system there are healthier places than a sealed metal tube with 100 other travellers coughing and dropping metal crutches on Kate’s head. If only, we thought, she could get this enormously expensive experimental drug administered to her in Durham. Well, as we have observed, miracles do happen and Kate has just started being treated a short walk from her office at the Duke Cancer Centre. What once took a whole day of travel and stress now takes 2 hours; Kate’s daily life and her health have both been augmented by this delightful change.

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Megaministry Monday : Police Shootings, Noah’s Ark, and How Jim Bakker Wants to Forgive You

Evangelical women celebrities came out strong in support of the recent victims of police shootings with a series of tweets and periscopes. Beth Moore. Serita Jakes. Taffi Dollar.

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    Because I’ve so rarely talked to this, I don’t want you to feel like I’m not aware or that it’s not an issue.” Priscilla Schirer on race in the wake of new police shootings.


    Priscilla Schirer discussed at length the sorrows of raising black sons when racial profiling is rampant. It was a bold move for these women who have everything to lose with white evangelical audiences who don’t always want to hear it. The book Divided by Faith still fairly characterizes the massive difference in perspectives: white evangelicals usually see racism as an individual problem, while black evangelicals see racism as a system of inequality. In the comments section, you can clearly see conversations break down into “One Bad Cop” vs. “Systemic Sin.”

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    We hope they show up two-by-two, seven-by-seven, hundred-by-hundred.” Ken Ham, creator of the ark. The new one, at least.

    Finally when people say something is of “biblical proportions,” they might be right. A 510-foot-long Noah’s Ark is being unveiled in northern Kentucky to the tune of $100 million. Ken Ham, head of the ministry that built the ark (ok, I still can’t get used to saying that), estimates that 2 million visitors will come in the first year to see the attraction that’s “as good or better than Hollywood.” The ministry espouses a young earth creationism, arguing that the earth was made roughly 6,000 years ago, which explains why the museum features model baby dinosaurs in wooden pens waiting to be saved in the ark. Ark Encounter theme park opens this week. Now enjoy this drone footage.

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    I prayed for them every single day. The judge. All the people who put me in prison.” Jim Bakker

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    Looking increasingly like a very sweet Colonel Sanders, former televangelism superstar Jim Bakker talked about the hard work it took to forgive those who had imprisoned him in the 1989 scandal that shuttered the Praise the Lord empire. A great message about the importance of forgiveness. Just a little uncomfortable as it implies that his conviction was unjust.

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    Former televangelist Carlton Pearson is getting another lease on life. He will be donating his personal archives to the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. The collection will be a goldmine for all those who want to understand the rise of televangelism, particularly African American contributions, through the rise of this celebrity singer-preacher. He is a remarkable man who cuts a rather tragic figure for his fall from grace, not through any misconduct of his own, but by his turn toward theological universalism. For a fascinating look at his rise and fall, hear his story on NPR’s This American Life.

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    Vonda Kay, Miss America 1965Now, I’ll save one item every week for a throwback. This week pays tribute to a megaministry woman who brought ventriloquism to the mainstream. True story! Miss America 1965 was Vonda Kay Van Dyke whose Christian teen beauty and advice manuals like Ask Vonda Kay sold a million copies. AND she was the first beauty to use a puppet for her talent portion. Watch her charm audiences on a 1965 episode of What’s My Line.

Megaministry Monday: Baby Christians, Bomb Scares and Television Dramarama

It’s Monday, and also America Day. Which means that this Canadian gets her perch at Duke Divinity School all to herself. Free work day! And time to send out the carrier pigeons to give you the first Megaministry Monday Roundup, a scholarly eye on things that shine.

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    Pastor Rick Warren declares 2017 as the “Year of Hope.” It might seem like a long time to wait for hope, but it’s a surprisingly important job–telling spiritual time. Just google any recent year and the phrase “the year of.” Evangelicals and Pentecostals, in particular, might not use the liturgical calendar much, but their megaministers have become modern day heralds of sacred time

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    Last week, James Dobson made news for his announcement that Donald Trump was a “baby Christian.” And then walked it back with a “Only the Lord knows the condition of a person’s heart.” Divine mystery saves the day!

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    Not a peep on the Megaministry Twittersphere about the recent bomb scare at the nation’s only LGBTQ megachurch. Are ministries too much like professors, often clueless about worlds outside their own? Or are theological differences over same-sex relationships turning compassion into silence?

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    Oprah’s new television drama makes a Memphis black megachurch the stage for a soapy swim through the prosperity gospel, big Sunday money, and spiritual dynasties. And, oh yeah, a ton of juicy love triangles and intrigue that make all of our lives look boring.

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    And, lastly, another great think piece on how Donald Trump can find himself politically and spiritually “born again.”

So that’s it for this Monday. See you next week, when I’ve come down off the high of celebrating July 1: Dominion Day. I mean, sorry, it’s newer name: Canada Day. We’re no longer being Dominated. We have Justin Bieber.

Advent

I have had two untouchably perfect moments in my life. One was running down the aisle with my new husband on our wedding day. And the other was when they put baby Zach in my arms, and our eyes met, and it was like a conspiracy of perfect adoration.

Two months ago, out of the blue, I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what perfect moments God brings through suffering. And the story is Advent, and its promise of Peace. Hope. Love. This is my season. This is our season.

Hail,_Mary_by_Luc-Olivier_Merson,_ca._1885,_High_Museum_of_ArtThere’s a gorgeous painting in the High Museum in Atlanta of Mary, the mother of God, standing with what appears to be exactly the same outfit I dressed Zach in for his two-year old Tractorpalooza party recently. Travellers stumble across something surprising on a lonely road. Instead of seeing a statue or a painting or some other shine of the Virgin, as was the custom, they encounter the living, breathing Mary and Jesus. There is a reason why over Christian history that those who are lonely, afraid, lost, or sick turn to an image of Mary the Mother with her boy at her side. When we stumble down a road filled with suffering, we want to encounter a God who understands just how we feel. I am walking a road in which the unthinkable thought is that I would have to be one day separated from my two perfect moments, my husband and my son. So I turn to the Advent story as my story and the story of the church. It is our introduction to a weary traveling family, a pregnant teenager who gives birth in a world of great danger—danger that will be confirmed when King Herod begins a campaign to murder infants in an attempt to root him out.

This is our initiation into one of the perfect moments of the faith, when peace, hope, and love radiate out of a world that otherwise causes us to be afraid. This is the great secret of the Christian faith, that in the grand inversion of God becoming a baby, we see that our vulnerability is our doorway into knowing the love and great mercy of God. That we will find ourselves walking down a lonely road, turn a corner, and there He is. He is Emmanuel. God with us.

Written for Duke Memorial Church, the first Sunday of Advent.