The One Thing

It was a chilly Friday night at the Star Lake Salvation Army Conference Center in north Jersey. November 1, 2002, to be exact. I had concluded teaching the first of four sessions for a women’s retreat. It was great to be back north where the majority of the "sistas" had my hair color and my accent. The retreat committee arranged for a lovely dessert social in the dining hall and after I filled my plate, I meandered through the large room and spotted a table of blondes. Since I am healed and now actually drawn to blonde women, I asked if I could occupy the empty chair. It didn’t take more than a minute for me to look at all six faces and realize they were related. They had that "family face." They already knew who I was so I took on my talk show host persona and asked a few dozen questions. Name. Age. Career. Marriage status. Reason for coming on the weekend. Whether or not anyone was coerced. Why they smile so much. Where they live. (No, I never asked anyone’s weight. Characteristic of most blonde women, they were all thinner than me, so I didn’t go there.)

In just thirty minutes, I learned that the four natural blondes were the Donohue sisters and the two bottle blondes were the girls’ mother, Pat Donohue and Pat’s sister, Sharon Flynn. They all originally hail from a suburb of Boston and are now spread across the country. Kara, Annie, Kelly and Erin live in four different states. Kara Donohue Nadeau, the oldest, was 34, a former financial industry wiz, a wife and a mother. It was Kara’s church that sponsored the retreat. The sisters beamed somewhat proudly as each one spoke. They laughed easily and gazed upon one another with loving admiration and a closeness that is rare. This was clearly a special family and when I asked Pat what she did "right" to raise such fine women, she chuckled and blushed and shrugged and seemed to deflect any glory. The out of towners informed me that they decided to come to the retreat to all be together and to spend some quality time with Kara’s sons, David and Teddy who they miss and adore. Our table talk was delightful and I thanked them for allowing me to feel so welcome.

At the top of the stairs, the committee chairwoman stopped me before I entered my room. "Ellie, what prompted you to sit at that table?" I knew she was familiar with the title of my last book. "Oh, Peggy, I don’t know. I’m just trying to reach out more to blonde women." We giggled, more from exhaustion than anything else. I regained some composure. "Actually, it was the Lord. I was so touched by their kindness and tender love toward one another. Where can we sign up for our kids to turn out like that?"

Peggy’s face grew a bit pained. "Ellie, did you meet Kara?" "Yes, as a matter of fact I did. I think she was the ring leader. Isn’t she the one who attends Hawthorne Gospel?" Peggy grimaced. "Kara had breast cancer 2 years ago and it spread throughout her body. She was given six months at most. Kara wanted her family to experience a Christian retreat with her. They’re here to honor one of her last wishes."

My heart sank. I hugged Peggy goodnight, entered my room and put on my pajamas. I went over my notes for the morning and prayed and laid there for an hour. My spirit was heavy and my thoughts were racing. Terminal cancer? Six months to live? Only 34? A 2 and 4 year old? She seemed so peaceful. She doesn’t even look sick. She actually has a glow. Will she die, Lord?

I could not turn my brain off, so being the shy, passive New Yorker I am, I went down the hall in my Lucille Ball style flannels and started knocking on doors in search of Kara. (Of course, I only knocked where there was chatter inside.) There were no phones in the rooms and I didn’t know where Peggy was. I was determined to find Kara. I needed to talk. After a few rabbit trails, I finally found the right room. I knocked and Kara’s sister Annie answered by cracking the door open a few inches. She looked at me with utter surprise (or was it some other emotion?) and swiftly closed the door. I heard the crumbling of snack bags and remembered the announcement banning food in the rooms. Annie sounded muffled; "It’s the speaker!" Kara’s voice retorted, "Well, hide those chips and let her in!" I pressed my lips up against the doorframe, "Yeah, I’m hungry--let me in!" Annie acquiesced and I was soon sitting Indian style at the end of Kara’s single bed. Kara sat up, leaning back against the headboard and Annie sat five feet away in the middle of her own single bed. They raised their eyebrows and grinned widely, waiting for me to say something. After all, it’s not everyday some middle-aged woman pops in wearing pajamas to strike up conversation with near strangers after midnight.

I told them what I had heard from Peggy and I told them about my restlessness and I told them about my pained heart. I then asked Kara to tell me some things. Like how it all works. What it feels like. Who she talks to. Where she goes to cry. What she had done to be healed. Whether she gets mad at God. She was gracious, radiant, magnetic, and loving. Kara spoke openly and honestly and with a supernatural peace. She spoke of the grueling treatments and explained how it was decided that she would stop receiving them. She spoke of how she is preparing the boys--how she is handling mortality—and how it had affected her faith, her marriage, and her view of heaven. She even told me what plans she had made for her own funeral. She sat up a bit taller and gleefully shared that her cancer had brought Annie into a relationship with God. Annie nodded in agreement and explained that witnessing Kara’s joy and peace in the midst of pain and suffering made her come to the conclusion that Kara’s God had to be real. Kara made calls and located a vibrant church and a Bible study near Annie’s home and the bookstore owner’s life hasn’t been the same.

Kara took a deep sigh and uttered words that seemed nonsensical. "I can honestly say that I thank God for the cancer. It has brought me closer to the Lord. I have a deeper understanding of His faithfulness. It has opened many doors for me to share my faith. Annie is a now a believer and I am trusting that my entire family will be together for all eternity. David and the boys are going to be alright. God loves them and will meet all their needs. I wouldn’t have chosen this path, but I do choose to trust God completely."

By now, my eyes were filled and the tears began to trickle. I knew that I, too, had witnessed a remarkable peace and that I would never be quite the same. I hugged my two hostesses goodnight, tucked each of them in, turned off the lamp and bent over to kiss Kara’s forehead. When I opened the door to leave, I turned for a moment and looked back into the small, darkened room. "Kara, I speak to so many women who fear death and dying. What’s the one thing I should tell them? What’s the one thing you have learned through all the suffering?" Kara’s answer returned swiftly and purposefully from out of the dark. She had obviously thought of it long before that night. "Tell them, ‘You can’t pin your hopes on living.’" I wanted to make sure I had heard her correctly. "You can’t pin your hopes on living?" "Yep. You can’t pin your hopes on living. Not in this world." I whispered back toward the dark, "G’night." and returned to my room.
Where are you pinning your hopes ? A paid off mortgage? A healthy diet? An impressive financial portfolio? A highly rated hospital? We whitenuckle our way through this life because this life is all we know. Through His son Jesus, God provided a life that will never end. I am quite sure that’s the life we are to pin all our hopes on. Jesus said He has gone to prepare a place for us. He said we’ll receive our reward there and that we should lay up for ourselves treasure there that cannot be destroyed. The scriptures tell us much about heaven:

We will have an eternal house
We will have citizenship
We will have our names written in the Book of Life
We will receive every blessing
We will attend the wedding supper of the Lamb
We will sing a new song
We will have our tears wiped away
We will see no more death or crying or pain
We will see God face to face
We will worship God forever
We will reign with God forever

Endnote: On March 12, 2003, Peggy sent a two word e-mail about Kara’s death;   "She’s home!"

Yes she is.