Legacies of Grace and Courage

Share Two remarkable women died of cancer this past week, both leaving legacies of grace and courage.

My Aunt Judy passed away on Thursday, Feb. 23 at the age of 70 after a brief struggle with lung cancer. Aunt Judy’s obituary said she “lived her eventful life with a strength and unfailing optimism that allowed her to care for her family and find joy in every situation, even in the most challenging times.”

This was significant understatement. Aunt Judy lost two husbands in just 17 years. Aunt Judy’s husband Kenny Guthrie (my mom’s brother) died in 1963 in a small plane crash, when Aunt Judy was just 22 years old and the mother of two young children. Aunt Judy lost her husband Charles Byers in 1980, and suddenly, at the young age of 39, Aunt Judy was already twice-widowed with four children. Despite her repeated heartbreak and the prospect of an uncertain future, Aunt Judy was “an incredibly dynamic, outgoing woman who loved to be a mom or a grandmother to everyone, not just her own family.” Through her courage and grace, Aunt Judy taught us how to live life joyfully, even though life isn’t always joyful.

Yesterday a former coworker and friend, Faith Eury, died of Hodgkin's disease, at 42. We weren’t really close friends when we worked together, but we kept in reasonably frequent touch via Facebook, and I followed her courageous fight with cancer over the past couple years. Even while fighting her illness, Faith organized “Faith’s Hope,” the top fundraising team in the Lymphoma & Leukemia Society's "Light the Night" event in 2009. The next year, Light the Night named Faith Volunteer of the Year. On the health side, things were looking good too, as the cancer was in remission. Then the cancer came roaring viciously back over the past couple of months.

In the face of this mortal threat, what struck me about Faith was her courage. A little more than a week before she died, Faith entered this surreally calm passage in her journal on CaringBridge.com about a meeting with her doctors:

“Went from the meeting Friday to the ER... Hopefully I will get out soon.

“The meeting was rough.

“On the PET scan my spleen was well lit up. Also the spine was lit up. The bone marrow biopsy was inconclusive and they are gonna rerun it.

Faith’s tone reminds me of Chuck Yeager in the book (and then movie) The Right Stuff, in which the test pilot calmly and famously updates the control tower on the situation in his spinning, burning, out-of-control experimental aircraft. In the face of the worst possible situation, Faith was, at least outwardly, cooler and calmer than you can possibly imagine.

Pure, unalloyed guts.

Recently Stacy and I visited Smithfield, Virginia, where we walked through the cemetery at the historic St. Luke’s church. I gazed at ancient markers, most engraved with moving scriptural passages, loving remembrances, and documentation of brief lives and tragic ends from centuries ago. As always the experience brought to mind hard questions about life and death and the meaning of both.

I didn’t walk out of that cemetery with the answers to those hard questions. And I can’t say that the sad news about Aunt Judy and about Faith revealed the answers either.

But Aunt Judy and Faith did offer us lessons - if we choose to learn them - about how to live and how to face our inevitable mortality with grace and courage, until God decides that He is ready to let us in on the meaning of it all.

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