Letters for Lizzie: A Story of Love, Friendship, and a Battle for Life

Letters for Lizzie: A Story of Love, Friendship, and a Battle for Life

by James O'Donnell

ISBN: 9781881273011

Publisher Northfield Publishing

Published in Christian Books & Bibles/Christian Living

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Letter One Christmas 1994

Looking Back on Letter One

In fall 1994, were a family that just moved to Indiana. We didn't move because I got a big promotion and a larger job. We moved because for some years I had been struggling with what becoming a person of faith (which I became in 1985) might mean, over time, for me and for my family. I did not want to impose the effects of my inner struggles on my family but for nine years after this change, I had continued working with rich people, trying to make them richer.

Before 1985, my profession had not been a problem. In fact, it was good work-high paying, filled with interesting people. But after 1985, I wondered if my work was the highest and best choice I could make for God in return for blessings He had been showering on me my entire life. God's claim on my life, and nay response, were new realizations for me to ponder. I pondered them a lot. Lizzie pondered along with me, but more as a loyal, loving wife than as someone drawn to reconsider her own career choices.

Out of this turmoil, lasting several years, came the decision to move to Indiana, with our three boys, a big pay cut, a house that needed renovation, and an occasional sense that we were making a big mistake.

In early December, Lizzie discovered a lump in her breast -perhaps every woman's worst nightmare-while showering. But there is no mention of that on the surface of this newsy letter describing our first fall in our new home. Frankly, Lizzie didn't mention the lump to me, either, at least not right away. She hoped it was just a temporary change in a healthy woman's ever-changing body.

Our house was in the most chaotic throes of renovation. One child, in particular, was struggling with the adjustment to Indiana. Still, for all the upset, life was still manageable. Life was still good.

Like a little family in Hiroshima just before the atom bomb was dropped, we were caught up in our daily joys and struggles, unsuspecting of what was just ahead.


Christmas 1994

Dear Friends,

Over the years, like you, we've gotten our share of "form letter" Christmas greetings. I never had a hankering to try one for our own family, but we've been asked a particular question so often this year that I feel the need to try to put some thoughts to paper for many back East. The question: "Why did you move to Indiana?" As most of you know, we sold our home and I quit my real job in July to take a teaching position at Huntington College, in Huntington, Indiana. The college is a small coed Christian liberal arts school, almost one hundred years old. I'm a business professor in a department of five, teaching, among other things, marketing, global economics, advertising, human resource management, and ethics. The position I have taken actually arose some time earlier, but it took us lots of time to evaluate and pray through this opportunity. To many it is hardly an opportunity at all. In truth, it represents an 80 percent pay cut and an uprooting major proportions for the whole family. There is new scenery (with lots of flat land and cornfields); sunrises that now occur at about 8 A.M.; many people who find a really good time to be a meal at a fast-food restaurant; a house (a 110-year-old Victorian on "Main St.") that refuses having done with renovation and workmen; and many students who are the first members of their families ever to go to college. After college, a surprising number are thinking of "serving others" in various lofty and mundane careers. It is a privilege to be a part of this place and its work. But this is a strange new opportunity to embark upon at age forty-six (forty-two for Lizzie). There's a bit of madness in it. Yet it had been coming for years. The truth is that I had run out of gas in corporate life. The tension between the values I want my life to stand for and what I increasingly found esteemed in corporate America just became too great. Besides, I know I was becoming less and less effective in getting my tasks done. I'm grateful for the time I spent in corporate life. It has provided the means for us to undertake this mad experiment. I met and came to know many wonderful people who remain in that worm and whom I hope to see again, or at least stay in touch with. But there is a new life for us here, filled with work and goals that are simple, more direct and more closely tied to investing oneself in the lives of others. We didn't come here to make money. We came here to serve. We came as an outgrowth of some earlier decisions made in our spiritual lives, which later suggested-not demanded-that we take such a step of faith, not knowing for sure how it would all turn out. So far, it's been wonderful. I'm blessed to be married to a woman who, seemingly, is ready to follow me to the ends of the earth and, maybe more blessedly, shares so much of my vision and values. I have not felt I'm "running ahead" of Lizzie, though I do confess to some guilt about asking her to come here in the first place. Nick, who just finished his first trimester at Carleton, in Minnesota, is home with us for Christmas. He's had little time in Indiana so far. What time he has spent here proved to be helpful in our initial attempt to turn this house into a home, especially his first month here last August. (It has often felt as if we are actual pioneers wresting civilization in our house from the wilderness.) He loves Carleton and is thriving with friends, schooling, and theater. Jonny, now six and in first grade, loves his school and has made friends well. His central concern still, though, is "Where's Mom?" As long as Mom is on his radar screen, he's content-in Indiana, New York, Boston, or wherever. Andrew attends a private coed day school in Ft. Wayne, twenty miles away. He loves it, but he has struggled more than any of us and continues to do so. He did the same when we went to Boston in 1989, so we're not entirely surprised, but we do wish so much he could "give it a chance." Just try. Be a more flexible individual. There's much to like about this place and its people. People have been easy to know and have embraced us all kindly. There's a lot of "dropping by" and other simple offerings of friendship. Restaurants, other than the fast-food types, are rare, but we've not been frequenters of fancy, eating places, as some may be. Arts and entertainment have been abundant with the presence right here in Huntington of a first-class theater, arts, and exercise complex at the college that attracts a constant flow of "one-night stands" of marvelous talent. Of course, only time will tell if this remains as good as it's been these first four months, but these first four months have also been hard to live through. Plaster, sawdust, messes-everywhere. We had no running water in our kitchen until October 1. Half of our stuff has yet to be unpacked because of the dust and clutter, and we still have a workman who lives (eats and sleeps) at our house five days a week. A nice man, but we're looking forward to having the house to ourselves for the first time since arriving on August 1. So as good us it's been, we hope it will get even better when this lovely old house is finally done. We're hoping this big old place will serve as a welcome "home away from home" for students and a more relaxed place to get to know them better. And we hope somebody from back East takes us up on visiting. (We've had one family so far.) We'd love to show you around Huntington-Dan Quayle's boyhood home. We could probably show you the whole place in about an hour, but we hope you'd stay the night, at least. Well, that's probably enough from us. Life is good. There's a nice pace to college life. You can work like a crazy person for weeks, then comes one of the breaks, and suddenly, there's time to rest, reflect, read, think-things that grew increasingly hard to do at all in my old life. God bless you all. Remember us from time to time. Call or write. We'd love to hear your news. Merry Christmas.

Chapter Two

Letter Two January 28, 1995

Looking Back on Letter Two

In early January, Lizzie went to Hawaii on the trip of a lifetime. She loves gardening and flowers, and I wanted her to go as a kind of "compensation" for having so cheerfully left all that was familiar to her back East. She went with some students and a faculty member from Huntington College on a ten-day, January-term course called "Visions of Paradise."

By January, Lizzie had, of course, long since found the lump in her breast, the lump that didn't go away and that she could not put out of her mind. By then, I knew about the lump too. She saw a doctor about it in late December. She was not overly concerned, not excited. She was her usual methodical self. A mammogram was done. Nothing showed up. But Lizzie and I both could feel the lump getting larger.

Then one day, from Hawaii, Lizzie called me. Amid the small talk, I could tell my usually calm Lizzie was frightened. "Call my doctor," she told me. "Tell her to see me the minute I get home. This thing is growing fast." This was out of character for my sweet Lizzie who, over our years together, obsessed about others' well-being but seemed casual about her own health issues. ("Sweet Lizzie" is, by the way, a nickname I gave Lizzie after I came to faith in 1985. Like Muffy or Bubba, Sweet Lizzie is not meant to be cloying. It is simply what I often call Lizzie publicly and privately.)

I called Lizzie's doctor and set up an appointment for Martin Luther King Jr's birthday observance, Monday, January 16, 1995. We showed up early, and I hadn't finished parking when Lizzie came out and told me she was to go to the local hospital with orders for a compression mammogram and a biopsy.

Things moved quickly-faster than I could take in.

Tests and doctor visits became our life. A needle biopsy was performed. I tried not to surrender to its power over me. While in the surgeon's operating area, before he arrived, I made a list of house projects I needed to do. Lizzie graciously, or maybe bravely, cooperated in the list making.

Excruciatingly intimate physical exams performed before strangers followed. Then more tests and a surgical biopsy. My pastor came to spend some time with me while I waited through the procedure, I didn't know if I wanted him with me. His presence, comforting though it might be, gave weight to the reality that this was a serious moment in our lives. I did not want to grant the moment seriousness, I wanted it to pass away. I wanted to awaken and find it a bad dream.

I also remember the doctor who did the surgical biopsy on that gray January day speaking to me after the procedure. He came into the surgical waiting area where I was with others awaiting news of their loved ones' outcomes. He quickly eyed me and motioned me into an adjacent room that served as a small chapel. Later on, in many other waiting areas, I would judge the severity of many other families' loved ones' fates by whether their surgeon spoke to them in full view of everyone else in the waiting room or asked them to follow him to a conference room.

In our little chapel, we were alone. Colored light shone behind him. He was grave. He sat right next to me. He got right to the point: Cancer. A very bad, fast-growing cancer, He seemed nervous. He wondered what could be wrong with Lizzie's immune system to have allowed such a wild proliferation of cells so rapidly. I stammered, grabbing for control and hope.

"What about a second opinion?" I asked.

"By all means," he insisted, hoping, I'm sure, he could somehow be wrong. "You want all the help you can get."

Then he left. And I went to pieces. I sobbed like I never cried in my life. My body went limp. Great gasps of sorrow, so deep and genuine that I don't think I could have stood up. For the first time, the full impact of the danger of what Lizzie and I faced hit me. Making lists of house projects before upcoming doctors' visits would not bring the normalcy I craved. We were in deep, deep trouble.

In Indianapolis on January 26, we met another surgeon, Dr. Robert Goulet, recommended by a good oncologist friend back in Boston. Lizzie and I thought it might be best to leave the Midwest and go back to New England where we felt the best doctors in the world practiced. Our friend didn't support the idea and told us that Indiana University Medical Center, about an hour and three quarters from our home, had one of the top breast cancer research facilities in the country. If we could get our files and films together, our friend would get us in to see the best.

Dr. Robert Goulet codirected the Advanced Breast Cancer Research Center at IU. With our introduction from Boston, I thought we'd get right in to see him. Instead, we waited two hours. I grew livid in the waiting room.

"I can't imagine we need this abuse, Lizzie," I remember saying.

Lizzie told me, "Let's see what they say."

Meeting Goulet, we brightened for a moment. We knew he had seen Lizzie's charts and tissue samples before entering the examining room where we waited like condemned convicts. When he entered with his entourage, including a medical student and a nurse, he smiled. I took that as a good sign. He made me less angry about the wait. His banter led me to think he was going to give us good news. We laughed together for a few minutes since we all happened to come from New York. And then, almost as if in midsentence, he stopped. His face grew serious. He leaned forward and said, "This is never easy."

I had to concentrate hard now to follow him. "... aggressive cancer ... maybe a year ... I'm sorry."

I was glad, in retrospect, that I didn't collapse. I asked him, "What would you do, doctor, if this were your wife, and you loved her?"

"Try a clinical trial, I guess, if she were willing. But it's difficult with this type of cancer."

And then he left us to deal with the explosion, while a nurse came in and swept us up, like so many shards of broken glass.


Excerpted from "Letters for Lizzie: A Story of Love, Friendship, and a Battle for Life" by James O'Donnell. Copyright © 2004 by James O'Donnell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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