I heard Kate Bowler interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. The interview moved me to buy Bowler’s book which chronicles her story centered on a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer. With tremendous power and grace she takes the reader from the highpoint of her young life through the devastating diagnosis of cancer to her ongoing fight to live.
Kate Bowler is very happily married to her high school sweetheart, Toban, has finished her doctoral dissertation, is a professor in religious studies at Duke, and has a much loved first child, Zach, when she begins having symptoms. The diagnosis is devastating, and the form of cancer has no known cure. With the help of influential colleagues at Duke, she is cleared by her insurance to take part in research that continues to give her hope even though the best outcome is remission, not cure.
Bowler’s story is tied up in her own religious background. She grew up in Canada in a Mennonite church which gave her a strong sense of being cherished as a child by her family and larger religious community. She graduated from Yale Divinity School and Duke University where she did her dissertation on the prosperity gospel. As stated on the book jacket, “Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you can’t-do and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure.” God delivers security and prosperity to the faithful. When Bowler becomes ill, she realizes she has been unconsciously living by a version of this theology. Determination and positive thinking work. Success is a sign God is on your side. Her own devastating battle with cancer challenges this mindset. Bad things do happen to good people who have seemingly played by all the rules.
Bowler is a wonderful writer who captures all the emotions of her ordeal. She expresses beautifully how, for her, love fills in all the gaps that are ripped open by a heartbreaking disease. Family, friends, colleagues and doctors all play a part in her tale. Her indomitable spirit shines as she intimately writes about the range of feelings that a potentially fatal disease unleashes. Reading about her anguish over imagining her toddler and husband moving forward without her is hard to bear. Her humor and honesty keep the reader engaged. Bowler’s hope, gratitude, and resilience along with her faith in love outweigh all the fears, deep sorrow, anger… that her interrupted life invites on a daily basis. Here is a quote from the last page, “This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is love.”
Bowler’s writing is gutsy and unsentimental while revealing a deep compassion for herself and those around her. In the worst of circumstances, she teaches her readers how facing death has taught her how to live!
P.S. The book Includes two great appendices:
Appendix 1– Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List
Appendix 2–Give This a Go, See How It Works: A Short List