by Fran Withrow
Kate Bowler was a 35-year old Duke Divinity
School professor with a new baby when she discovered she had stage IV colon cancer. Instantly her world was turned upside down. How could this happen to her? What was the reason for this?
Bowler grew up steeped in the Christian faith, marrying her teenage Mennonite sweetheart and believing that God wanted nothing but blessings for her.
Where’s the blessing in state IV cancer that has no cure?
Bowler ponders these unanswerable questions in an appealing, engaging way in this elegant book. While her Christianity informs her thinking, it is lightly applied, and I did not find it to be an obstacle. I found much to love in this beautiful foray into what it means to relish life while also facing mortality.
This book could easily be a very depressing one, but Bowler’s writing is cheerful, upbeat, and often humorous. Trying to find the cause for a previous health issue, she visits dozens of doctors who don’t know what is wrong. “…I was beginning to feel like an insecure girlfriend: Just tell me what’s wrong with me. Is it me? It’s me, isn’t it?” I never expected to laugh out loud while reading a memoir about cancer, but her cheery writing is charming and heartfelt.
There is, of course, a bittersweet quality, a sorrow over life that will be cut short throughout this book. The poignancy of her condition is laid out subtly, the ache of leaving her beloved son and husband just under the surface. She holds her baby in her arms and thinks, “I am dying. I am my son’s first goodbye.”
But this is not just another memoir about cancer. Bowler’s musings about the meaning of life and the place of faith in her world are worth studying. She was raised to believe that God is fair; that though there might be hardships in this world, ultimately blessings will rain down on God’s people.
This is a lie she no longer believes. So what can she believe?
Bowler is accepted into an experimental treatment program that is currently keeping her cancer at bay. And though she knows her cancer is incurable, she discovers she can still find ways to live life fully, to laugh, to swear, to wonder, to try to make sense of this beautiful, glorious, irrational world we inhabit.
In a life that is full of uncertainty, Bowler probes for answers, for assurances. Instead, she finds love everywhere. She is reminded to live for today. A wise friend gives her the best counsel: “Don’t skip to the end.”
I read this moving, exquisite book twice and found it sensitive, penetrating, and thought provoking both times. Bowler exposes the dichotomies of life: hard, sad, funny, glorious. Exceptional writing, keen observations, and contemplations about what it means to be alive make this a memoir to buy and keep on the shelf. Bowler reminds us to treasure each day, each life, even though we have no idea why things happen, or how long we have.
And that is worth reading about.
“Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved”
by Kate Bowler