Spending Time with Her

The main reason Kirk and I went to New England this month was to spend time with Diana. This female warrior in Kirk's life is facing stage 4, metastatic breast cancer. This isn't her first time with breast cancer. Twenty years ago she braved and conquered it into remission. But the cancer recurred last year, and it has now advanced to stage 4, spreading into other regions of her body despite the many treatments she has sought.

Prior to this visit, I had only met Diana once. She came last year with the majority of her family tribe to visit Florida, and we were able to spend one evening with her and the rest of the family at a gathering that Kirk's sister arranged. At the time, I was struck by her sincerity and presence. When Diana sits with you, she asks questions you know she really cares to hear you answer. She laughs a lot and joshes her brother (Kirk's dad) around. She makes you feel so at ease.

One afternoon during our visit with her in New York, she took us on one of her favorite hikes to a place called Huckleberry Point. Snow had reached the region that week, and it was starting to thaw. This made the trail quite mushy with mud and water. There were places we had to step delicately and others that required advance strategy. At one point we even forded a river, the three of us cheering and hooting as, one by one, we crossed several thin and slippery logs, hoping to goodness we didn't fall in.

What amazed me most about Diana was her hardiness. Here is a 70-year-old woman in advanced stages of cancer who could trot through several miles of uneven climbing trails as though breezily riding a bike. Many times, especially on the return hike back, she left Kirk and I in the dust. We were huffing and puffing along, our poorly shod feet very wet and very cold and very sore, yet she was dozens of yards ahead of us, loping along with a hiking stick and rarely stopping for breath.

But the trip to the top was different. On the trip to the top, we walked and talked in tandem. What emerged was a conversation I will never forget.

Soon into the hike, Diana and I discovered we had both struggled in our lives with perfectionism. We talked about the root of this, what this says about our lack of trust in ourselves and other people for grace and room to learn. We talked about how rules and regulations and following what other people tell us to do ultimately prevents us from being responsible for the results of our own lives, and how sometimes there's an uneasy comfort to be found in this kind of escape artistry.

We ventured pretty easily into the corridors of faith and religion. Diana wanted to know what caused the Protestant Reformation and why Christians believe Jesus is the only way to God. She shared her respect for different faith traditions, and how one specific Buddhist teaching has been helpful for her, teaching her that fear and hope are more alike than different: both keep us locked in the potential future while preventing us from living in the actual present. We moved across narcissism several times and discussed the capacity for choosing good or evil that lies inside each one of us. Somehow, we also managed to cover evolution, abortion, and stem cell research before reaching the top of the mountain.

What I loved about this conversation was how easily it flowed between us. I didn't feel any pressure to have answers for every subject she raised, and it was easy for me to say, "You know what? I'm not sure what I think about that." There were times when I could say, "Because of my faith, I believe such and such to be true. But I'd love for you to help me understand the view that differs from mine." Both of us bumped up against the limits of our knowledge and belief in different ways, but there was an easiness that allowed us to acknowledge to the other when this happened and even laugh about it when it did.

It meant so much to me that Diana and I could penetrate such depths with vulnerability, care, and openness so quickly. I think this has a lot to do with the kind of person she is. She is a safe person. She is intellectually curious but intensely caring, which is what I believe enables her to carry a complex conversation with someone who believes different things than she does without it becoming threatening for either person. She has a noble spirit, and she draws out the noble spirit in others.

Diana is precious to me. The time we spent with her is precious to me. The chance to inhabit her home, get to know her family, and talk about things that matter to us both is precious to me.

Last week I was talking with K., my spiritual director, about why Diana moves me. I shared that it's because she is fully herself, at home in her own skin, fully alive to life and people and questions and joy, and that she creates safe space for others. "Perhaps in Diana," K. said, "you see the hope of your own future, the person you're poised to become, the kind of life you want to embody yourself."

She's right. I hope that at age 70, I too will be a person who makes a 29-year-old girl feel right at home, an equal and a peer, and also like a sister.