You think you have it bad? Listen to this!

Kate Bowler
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 13 June 2018

An extract from Kate Bowler's bestselling Everything Happens for a Reason, one of Bill Gates' five recommended summer reads. Here, Bowler - born in London and now living in the US - reflects on people's reactions to her writing about her stage IV cancer

The treatment at Emory begins at the end of October. I am tired most of the time, but I feel driven to catalogue everything and wring every bit of time for all it is worth. I start to write. In bed, in chemo chairs, in waiting rooms, I try to say something about dying in a world where everything happens for a reason.

Whenever there is a clarifying moment of grief, I jot it down. And then, in a flurry, I shoot it off to the New York Times, not thinking too much about whether it's any good, but sending it because I have been infected by the urgency of death. Then an editor there sees it and puts it on the front page of the Sunday Review. Millions of people read it. Thousands share it and start writing to me. And most begin with the same words. "I'm afraid." Me too, me too.

"I'm afraid of the loss of my parents," writes a young man. "I know I will lose them someday soon, and I can't bear the thought." "I'm afraid for my son," says a father from Arkansas. "He has been diagnosed with a brain tumour at 44, which would have been devastating enough if he had not already lost his identical twin brother to the same disease a few years ago." These letters sing with unspeakable love in the face of the Great Separation. Don't go, don't go, you anchor my life.

It feels as though the world has been cracked open, and it bleeds and bleeds. Hundreds of emails, letters, pictures, and videos pour into my in-box and campus mailbox. A mother writes about her son dying young of lung cancer. He never smoked. A nurse has survived 10 years past her stage IV cancer diagnosis, but her healthy husband suddenly dies one day from an undetected brain bleed. A middle-aged woman has buried her son after watching bill collectors hunt him, and hospitals, whose treatments would have saved his life, reject him. A check from Medicaid arrives in the mail nine days after his death.

Strangers pour out their fury at every stage of their own grief. Depression settles on the pages like a fog. A young man writes: "I guess I was hoping that God would make something of this. But it has come to nothing." The void is deep and bottomless. And it is an unmerciful fact that some people have the right to look into my eyes and say, "You're lucky." A young woman gently explains to me that cancer had stolen her fertility only months before she met the love of her life. If ever she shakes the disease, even for a little, she will try to adopt. "Hold your son close, you're so fortunate to have him." There is plenty of denial, and plenty of the deals people attempt to broker with God. "I am an atheist, but I put it aside, and I begged God to take the cancer away from my son and to put it into me." I read that letter to my father, who is sitting in an overstuffed leather chair in my living room holding his Kindle two inches from his glasses.

"Oh, I've prayed that a hundred times. 'Please, God, why not just take me?'" he says a little wistfully. I scoot over beside him and rest my head on his knee.

"Dad, that is about the kindest, saddest thing I've ever heard." There is a gentle silence between us as I imagine that we are both thinking about how much we love each other before my dad begins to speak.

"But then I remember that God didn't spare Mozart at your age... so..." He is making a gesture that suggests he is weighing a heavy object in each hand. "So, you know." I start to laugh.

"What did he die of?"

"The plague, I think."

"Oh, geez."

"Yeah. And God loves you at least as much as Mozart."

"Let's go back to loving each other in silence."

A hilarious number of letters basically start with, "You think you have it bad?! Listen to this!", followed by a litany of complaints. The weirdest part is not simply that, yes, I do feel stage IV cancer is a bit rough, but that these are letters written by people at the ends of long lives. A 73-year-old woman named Trudy writes me to say that cancer can't be nearly as terrible as learning she was adopted. Um, okay, can't they both be bad? The pain of the world is being calculated, and according to some, compassion can be doled out only by the teaspoon.

But many people write to me like family. "As a father, I am truly sorry." "I'm a mother and I wish I could give you a hug right now." They want to comfort me, but their experiences tell them that life is never fair. The world, it seems, is also filled with fathers and mothers begging for their children's lives and hearing nothing but silence.

Some Christians want me to reassure them that my cancer is all part of a plan. A few letters even suggest that God's plan was that I get cancer so I could help people by writing the New York Times article. There is a circular logic to these attempts to explain the course of any life. If you inspire people while dying, the plan for your life was that you would become an example to others. If you don't and you die kicking and screaming, the plan was that you discover some important divine lessons. Either way, learn to accept God's plan.

It is at moments like this - when I feel everyone's eyes on me, watching my progress and my attitude for signs of the gospel - that I am gripped with fear. If I hear the news - if the scan comes back and the oncologist says that my days won't be renewed - will I scream or sit quietly? Will I feel peace or will I beat the ground?

Photo by Franklin Golden.

Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler is published by SPCK.

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