Beating cancer

On March 9, 2001, I and a group of my fellow graduate students at the University of Oklahoma went to lunch to celebrate the 29th birthday of one of our own.  Charlie had started the program a couple of years after me, and he and his wife Angie quickly became fixtures of our community.  I had a special affinity for them, because they were from the Bible Belt of Arkansas, Charlie had grown up in a fairly evangelical church, and they had gotten married young like I had.  In their case, it had worked out.  It was easy to see from their playful banter, pet nicknames, and shared sense of humor that they were a great match.  I looked at them with longing from my vantage point, an ill-conceived, loveless, suffocating marriage from which my equally enclosed religious framework offered no escape.

Charlie was a brilliant mind, to the point of slight eccentricity.  He had what appeared to be a photographic memory that grasped both details and broad sweep.  His main liability seemed to be having too much knowledge and understanding of almost any topic than the discussion or page had space.  He had trouble writing less than a hundred pages on anything, and he often caught himself mid-soliloquy—delivered in a dulcimer baritone and exacting phrases and making abundant use of his behemoth vocabulary—apologetically self-editing to allow others to contribute.  

We celebrated not only Charlie’s birthday, but his bright academic future.  He was finishing his master’s thesis, which was by all accounts a masterpiece, examining pro-slavery theology and how the debate over slavery changed biblical interpretation in American Christianity.  He was deciding among several doctoral programs that had accepted him.  He was bound for certain success.  

The next day, I arrived at the department’s conference room for a presentation.  Something wasn’t right.  The room was full of people but not the usual hum of chatter.  The energy was deflated.  But I couldn’t imagine what it could be, so I settled into my chair.  I turned to my friend Sarah and made a joke about Charlie being late for the talk.  

“You don’t know?” she said unbelievingly.

“What? Know what? What happened?”

“Charlie is in the hospital. He had a seizure last night.  They saw a mass on the MRI.  He’s probably having brain surgery as we speak.”  

Adrenaline shot through my system.  I had just seen him yesterday, and he was fine.  Everything was luminous possibility.  

We soon found out his diagnosis was grave. He had a malignant brain tumor, a stage 3 astrocytoma.  The surgeons in Norman had removed as much of it as they could, but he would need another surgery and further treatment to have any hope at all.  I carefully typed “astrocytoma prognosis” into an internet search, double checking the spelling of a word I had never heard before.  I scanned quickly through the results, and my heart sank.  All the websites agreed: my friend had three to five years to live.  

Our community swung into action.  Sarah, true to her character, organized everything.  We bought groceries and cooked meals and cleaned their house.  And we simply kept them company, as much as Charlie could tolerate.  He had a massive bandage circumventing his head that hid a hook-shaped scar covering the front half of his crown.  His incision was held together by dozens of staples, and we jokingly called him Frankenstein.  We played cards, talked about books, watched movies, and even laughed just as we had before, as if nothing had happened.  

One day, I was driving Angie back from the grocery store, and she started weeping uncontrollably.  She had been visibly stressed through Charlie’s ordeal, but I hadn’t seen her break down.  She had somehow retained at least a semblance of her quirky outlook and vibrant, indefatigable spirit.  Now she was unrecognizable to me, cloaked in sorrow and anxiety.  She just kept saying, “He’s my one and only, Holly.  My soul mate.  I can’t live without him.”  I didn’t know what to say.   

After a few weeks, Charlie was back on his feet, for the moment, and Angie had to return to her job at a cable company.  But she didn’t want to leave him alone.  The seizure had terrified her, its kinetic force jolting her from a deep sleep and any sense of security.  He was at risk for more, since the surgeons were unable to remove the entire mass.  So, to ease her mind, a few of us began “Charlie-sitting,” which I think annoyed him on some level, but he would put up with anything for Angie’s sake.  

I was only too happy to volunteer.  I always bounded out the door of my home at its first crack anyway, like a dog who had spotted a squirrel on the other side, eager to escape the stifling presence of my marriage in the companionship of others.  In addition, I was now working full-time on my dissertation, a process that seemed like an endless road to nowhere with few markers along the way, like a remote state highway in West Texas.  Every day was horribly wide open, quiet, and boundless.  Plenty of time to ponder my certain, impending failure.  It was like floating in outer space and waiting for the oxygen to run out.  I grasped at any semblance of an identifiable schedule or defined purpose.  Sitting around with Charlie sounded perfect to me.  It helped that I enjoyed his company, of course, although had I been forced to commune with either my dissertation or some heinous, annoying Instagram personality, I probably would have picked the latter. 

With hours to kill, we covered the entire planet of ground.  History, literature, music, football, movies, TV, politics, religion.  We played cards and board games.  We watched The Princes Bride and The Shawshank Redemption for the millionth time. We examined old pictures and sifted through childhoods.  I told him all about my bizarre, foreign upbringing, with evangelical missionary parents in Kenya and the boarding school I attended, our crazy pranks, the awful food, and the transcendent sunsets over the Rift Valley.  The crushing, slippery grief I felt when I graduated and returned to America for college.

We went through all his high school yearbooks, and I came to know the  “Lake Hamilton set,” as I called them, as if they were beloved characters in my favorite novels.  He told me about playing French horn in the band with Harris Hopper (and yes, that was his real name) and the love triangle of Charlie, Angie, and Charlie’s friend Brent. I heard about epic, cutthroat games of spades and Axis and Allies, and how Brent and his unflappable cousin, Kevin Fletcher, had nearly come to blows during one such game, when Brent called Kevin an asshole.  

All of Charlie’s stories captivated me because they seemed so normal. Not without problems or angst, but wholly and wonderfully ordinary. These kids had an average American childhood, firmly rooted in a place they could still call home. Charlie had traveled a far ideological distance in his life, from conservative Republican Christian to liberal Democrat agnostic. But he knew where he was from. At bottom, he was a boy from a small town in Arkansas. It was so different from my experience as a homeless cultural nomad, allowed to bring very little of my childhood into the rest of my life. I traveled light and often found myself needing things I didn’t pack.

I could tell that the friend Charlie admired most was Kevin, whom everyone called “Ice Man” for his calm demeanor and understated personality. Charlie said he had a dry wit that went over many people’s heads but that Charlie thought was sublime. Charlie would imitate Kevin delivering a choice line in a soft, even voice, then dissolve into his own very un-Kevin-like laugh, high and unrestrained. Kevin was valedictorian of their class, Charlie told me, and went on to study at Princeton and Harvard. He was talented but self-deprecating, brilliant but unassuming. I stared at Kevin’s image, with its permed 80’s mullet and steady, deep-set eyes. Perhaps my memory is too easily eliding the present and the past, but I had an odd, other-worldly feeling when I looked at him. Like I knew him in another life.

We talked about Charlie’s health, but it seemed the longer I spent with Charlie, my own problems came to the fore and consumed much more of our time.  Maybe he found relief in focusing on another person’s ordeals, but it was also well within his character to care deeply for others. I found myself admitting out loud just how terrible my marriage was and how I desperately wanted out.  After a typical unburdening, I would invariably apologize to Charlie for whining about my life when he was the one with brain cancer.  “I don’t believe in a hierarchy of misfortune, Holly,” he said simply.

Sometimes our conversations became contentious.  While the others in whom I confided generally refrained from advice, or, if they were evangelical, urged me to stay in the marriage, he (and Angie) made very clear he believed I should get a divorce.  But I was adamant that it wasn’t right, it wasn’t Christian.  Charlie could understand where I was coming from. He had years before jettisoned the faith, but he still spoke its language and could fathom its hold.  

“The Bible is very clear on divorce, Charlie. Even Jesus condemned it.”

“The words on the page are clear, but what about their interpretation? When the Bible was written, women had no rights at all, and marriage was primarily an economic and reproductive arrangement.”

“You can’t start picking and choosing and explaining away like that.  Then where does it stop?”  I don’t want to end up like you.

“Christians pick and choose all the time.  You can’t avoid some kind of interpretation.  Heck, in the theological debates over slavery, the abolitionists had the harder time finding biblical support.  The pro-slavery theologians had lots of words on the page, there in black and white (no pun intended), implying slavery was just fine.”

“Well, the Bible doesn’t condone slavery, it just doesn’t outlaw it.”

“Hmm, you’d think if God were issuing his end-all-be-all, inerrant word from on high for all time that he would have found the opportunity to explicitly condemn such an unmitigated evil as the ownership of another human being and all its accompanying abuses.  Guess he couldn’t be bothered. But now, divorce, there’s a real moral travesty.”

“Don’t be sarcastic about the Bible, Charlie.”

  “Sorry to offend.  But it’s true that the abolitionists had it right, as we all now recognize.  And they elevated a less literal, more expansive view of scripture and emphasized its larger theme of God’s redemptive love for humanity. They did not attempt a literal interpretation.”


“And besides, Christianity is a religion of grace.  Its whole premise is that we make mistakes and God forgives. So how can you believe that God—if he exists, and you know I have my doubts—wants you to live in misery because you made a bad choice as a lost, heart-broken, mixed-up, 19-year-old girl?” 

“God wants us to be holy, not happy,” I said, repeating an evangelical classic.

“OK, well, are you really holy in this scenario? Is this relationship making you a better person?”

“Well, not right now, but…it could, I just need to surrender my will and repent.”

“It’s been seven years. How’s that going?”  

I sighed.  “This is tough for me, Charlie.  I legitimately don’t know what to do. It’s like I have two different value systems at this point pulling me in opposite directions.”

“‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.'”

“Yeah, and both of them are crappy.”

I wasn’t ready to unravel my entire theological foundation, but if I were honest, I could see no future with my husband. We barely had a present existence together, just a general physical vicinity through which we both moved. There were no souls waiting in the wings of existence, expecting to be born of our union. But I had an strange sixth sense that there were others waiting to emerge from a different one.

Over the next year, Charlie and I both fought our cancers, his the physical kind that required another, very risky but ultimately successful brain surgery and rounds of radiation. Mine was more amorphous, the spiritual cancer of dogmatic religion, narrow thinking, fear, and shame that had long sat like an obstructive tumor in my soul, preventing healing from festering wounds and chronic pains, the very things that had prodded me into my marriage to begin with. At the time, getting married had seemed like a wonderful, church-approved escape from my condition, a biblical treatment that didn’t examine the disease too deeply or implicate anyone else. I couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t do the trick, that I wouldn’t successfully complete the program, that I wouldn’t be healed, because I was such a good Christian, from such impeccable Christian pedigree, and getting a divorce was not something within the realm of possibility for me. I was more likely to end up an Olympic athlete than a divorcee.

And yet, here I was, at the very end of my rope, at the very end of myself, looking over into the abyss. I had long believed if I took the leap, it would not just end my marriage, it would end my life of faith. The Bible said xyz, right there on the page, plain as day, and that was that. If I went against the Bible, I could no longer be a Christian. I was booking a ticket to Hell.

I initially considered Charlie a bad influence, one of those fallen angels, backsliding souls, liberalized fools who put dangerous ideas in people’s heads, pulled strings that unraveled whole tapestries. But he got me thinking, what if he’s on to something? What if I had been interpreting the Bible wrong? What if Jesus actually loved me, even in sin and failure? What if he would still love me and stay with me even if I got divorced? What if divorce was the right thing, or at least the best thing, given my circumstances? I started to dig and to study, to read books about biblical interpretation and church history, and I realized that this thing I had been given–evangelical, American Christianity–was just one vision of what Christianity meant in practice. And far from being a cohesive, internally consistent framework, it took liberties with its own stated approach to scripture, presented culture as truth, and glossed over anything or anyone that didn’t fit comfortably. There were so many possibilities, Christian visions that were more expansive, more freeing, less fearful, more loving. Frameworks that had room for someone like me.

In time, I gathered my strength, more courage than I ever thought I possessed, and the deep belief that God is love and grace is real, and I walked through a door that had been open the entire time.

It’s now 20 years since Charlie was diagnosed. 20 years. And Charlie is still alive. He’s more than surviving, he’s thriving. He’s still a devoted husband to Angie and friend to me and many others. He’s also a father to Roman. I’m not sure what he’d call it, but I call it a miracle.

Equally miraculous, I am also thriving. I still have my faith. Charlie’s bad influence actually saved it by transforming it. It is elastic enough to fit around my doubt and failure. I allows me to love more generously and leads me to live more fully. It helps me sleep peacefully at night. I am not afraid anymore. I am free.

Also, I have been happily married to Charlie’s dear friend, Kevin Fletcher, for 18 years. Yes, that’s another whole story, or rather another chapter of this story.

On March 9, 2008, Charlie’s 36th birthday, our daughter was born. We named her Charlotte, not realizing for several days that it is the female form of Charles. Charlie was in town for his cancer screening at the NIH the week of her birth and was one of her first visitors.

I know Charlie has a different view, and that’s OK, but yes, I believe there is a God.

Charlie and Charlotte

5 thoughts on “Beating cancer

  1. Thank you for telling such a human story. I know there are so many who are both married and divorced that can relate.

    I am adding a link to your post at a new site called borderland faith that’s purpose is to promote human stories of doubt and faith, human stories like yours.


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