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Love in a time of fear and uncertainty

Love in a time of fear and uncertainty

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My late husband, Bob Chapman, was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer, in February 2010 while we were still engaged and dreaming about our wedding. We married in May that year, just after he finished his initial treatment — a period of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy.

He lived 2½ years longer. The course of his illness was hands-down the most terrifying thing I have ever had to go through. If you know me, you know this is saying a lot.

However, it was also the most beautiful time of all my life. He said the same for himself, too. My daughters remember it as the happiest of times for them.

We had to make a daily decision not to live in fear and sorrow every minute. This does not mean we didn’t cry sometimes, or that we pretended not to be afraid. We were scared to death. Of course we were. But who wants to live like that? We decided to live happily as long as we could, and to “lovingly eat the bread of the will of God,” as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity expressed holy acceptance.

We thought if we did go down, we would go down swinging. We did all we could as enthusiastically as we could to fight cancer. We strove to leave the rest up to God. It was empowering.

We knew that things might not work out the way we wanted, which was a horrifying prospect. We also knew that sometimes people did survive it. We ignored the statistics and tried to live in the hope; not with false expectations, but real hope. We knew that Bob would not be taken from this world without God’s permission. We decided remaining positive but without stifling our feelings when we were sad, angry or afraid seemed best. And we looked to God. As Bob said to me the week he died, “God is IT!”

We decided to love and to serve as much as we could. After a frightening MRI result, we were really scared. All we could do for a while was hold one another. When he was ready to talk, he said. “Well, what do we do? We love, we walk on.”

And we did.

We learned to allow others to love and serve us. We grew in our appreciation of community.

We grew to understand that each day could be seen as an entire lifetime, being born in the morning and dying in the father’s arms at night. Getting dressed for work one morning, Bob said, “I’m alive today. That’s all anybody’s got.”

Living like this begins to bring out the beauty in all things. Life becomes more vivid. Connection with people and all living things becomes profound. The heart expands.

When we were overwhelmed, we had a designated spot we pretended was our “clubhouse” where cancer could not go. We needed to take time out in that spot sometimes.

As a family we learned that almost anything is funny. Bob had speech problems that came and went for a long time. They were hilarious! One of his more famous utterances then was when he said, “What time do we eat the kids? 6:30?”

Trying to talk to someone on the phone about a bill, he explained to her, “My voice is broken but my ‘think’ is fine!”

At M.D. Anderson, the staff seemed horrified that I kept laughing at Bob’s speech mistakes. I told one of them, “Hey, we can laugh all day or we could cry all the time.” And he was laughing, too. “What?” he would say. “I speak the King’s English!”

We tried to make scary things fun. Bob took his guitar to the hospital with him and played it from his bed. The nurses loved it.

One time he went to a scary appointment with half his mustache and half his beard shaved so he had a perfect half and half face. The doctor did such a double take. It was so funny!

At chemotherapy, we used to sit and blow bubbles together in the treatment room. He brought his guitar there, too, and played for everyone with the IV in his arm.

Bob was a do-er. He was always moving. One month almost to the day before his death he was mowing the lawn, pushing his crazy big mower uphill. I took a picture. Well, that was Bob. He was unstoppable. Bob was into helping. Even when we went out to eat he would end up fixing the cook’s car in the parking lot or something like that. Once he saw a young woman having to put back her purchases at the grocery store, so he went behind her putting the same items in his own basket. He bought them all for her and sent me to give them to her outside.

He fixed things for the elderly he saw struggling with something. He was all about service and not creating hardship or work for others. He called this his “skin religion.”

He brought me breakfast in bed on Saturdays and put on Bugs Bunny for me. He did everything he could for all of us for as long as he could.

Being able to serve was important to him as a person.

Eventually, he began to be paralyzed on one side. Still he dragged himself by one arm horizontally out the back door to work on a drainage project. Sometimes he got tired and had to lay down in the grass for a while.

He was a do-er, and he was tenacious. We called him “The Atomic Bob.”

He was an artist, but he began to lose his ability to paint. He couldn’t play guitar. He started dropping dishes, so he couldn’t do them for me anymore. He got where any speaking at all was difficult. He had trouble at work and finally took that extended sick leave he had not taken yet.

He was confined to his chair for a lot of the day. One afternoon he called me to him and said, “Shawn! I can’t ‘do’ anymore.” I nodded, tears in my eyes. Then he said, “I can’t ‘do’!” Here he put his hand on his heart, sobbing, “but I still love!”

I knew what he meant.

He realized his love, doing or not, was valuable. He was reaching out to everyone, loving them, and that in his very inactivity, his great big heart was active and spreading love on a whole new level. “Hey,” I told him, between kisses, “you’re speaking like the great mystics of the church now.”

We are such do-ers in this world and often this is a great thing. Through the history of our faith, though, some Christians have felt called to withdraw into holy seclusion to live a hermit’s life and to pray.

To us this looks like not helping, not doing. But as servant of God Catherine Doherty wrote, “Look at the man on the cross. He is not doing anything because he is crucified.” Ah, but he was doing everything, wasn’t he?

Our family found humor and beauty, mindfulness, joy in service, acceptance, courage, tenacity, renewed faith, a closer bond, community and the spiritual gift of understanding right in our crisis. In the midst of sorrow, loss of control, uncertainty and intense fear, we found the kingdom of heaven. When the situation was “down to the wire,” we found the true power of love.

God is with us. There are jewels in the rubble that are there for us to find and to share as we deal with COVID-19 as a community. If we seek this treasure we will find all we need and more. It is there for every one of us.


Bryan resident Shawn Manning Chapman, a twice-widowed mom of two daughters, is a Secular Discalced Carmelite, a Catholic community in the Diocese of Austin. She is a private caregiver.

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