is a story about a woman who came to life in my imagination, but though she
was born in my imagination, she seems to have lived a life beyond me.
We all thought that Jane had had
the perfect life. She was the kind of woman that we all looked at with envy,
wishing that one day we would see a hair out of place, hoping that we would
find her in the grocery store with a screaming child, wanting, longing for
something that would show us she was just like the rest of us. But we never
saw any of that.
had the perfect career, the perfect house, the perfect children, the perfect
husband. She never had to apologize for the mess in the living room because
there never was a mess in the living room. She never complained about her
job. It looked to us like Jane could handle anything. We were envious of the
way she balanced work and family and church and her own hobbies (she played
tennis one night a week and made the cutest knick-knacks for church and
school craft sales). Everything fit together so well for her.
know, it made a lot of us angry, sometimes, to look at her perfect life, and
then look at our lives. When we saw Jane at church we couldn’t help but
think about the dishes we had left unwashed in the sink, knowing that her
kitchen was spotless. When we saw the drawings her children made in Sunday
School, we remembered the scribbles that hung on our refrigerator and
wondered, ‘What is it that Jane is doing that we’re not? Has God blessed
her more because she’s a better person?’ That’s what we had always
been taught, that God rewards those who are good, if bad things happen to
you, we had been told, it was because you deserved them. God was punishing
us with our imperfect lives, just as God was rewarding Jane with her perfect
Sunday when Jane came to church, she didn’t look too good. She was a
little pale, and her smile seemed forced, kind of pasted on. We wondered to
ourselves what might be going on, secretly taking a little delight at this
glimpse of imperfection in the perfect woman. But we all figured it was a
temporary thing. We knew we didn’t have to worry about Jane.
next Sunday, Jane and her family didn’t show up at church. This was
unusual because it was the middle of October. Jane and her family took their
vacations in July, otherwise, they never missed anything that went on at the
church. Something must be
wrong. We had never seen Jane sick in the five years they had been at the
church, maybe it was about time she had the flu. We would probably see her
next week, back to her perfect self.
next Sunday, Bob showed up with the kids, but Jane wasn’t with them.
Something was definitely going on. We tried to catch the pastor after
service to ask her, but she couldn’t say. She did say that Bob said Jane
wasn’t feeling well, and that she would probably call sometime this week
to see how Jane was doing. She
also suggested that we give Jane a call.
Jane? None of us had ever called Jane. We had never thought about it. She
was always someone we watched and talked about, never someone we really
talked to. We thought we’d just wait and see if she came the next week.
surprised us at bridge club that week. She said she had called Jane a couple
of days ago. Really? Barbara had called Jane? What was going on? Our
curiosity was about to kill us. “Well,” Barbara said, “at first Jane
just said she wasn’t feeling well. I asked her if it was the flu or
something like that. She said it was something like that. I asked her if
there was anything I could do. She said they were fine. Bob and the kids
were really chipping in around the house, but she was a little worried about
work. Then she just said she would be fine and hung up.”
we knew it was nothing serious, but Barbara was a little uneasy, something
just didn’t seem right to her. We shrugged it off and continued to play.
next week Bob dropped the kids off for Sunday School, but didn’t stay
himself. Still no Jane. The kids were out the door and in the car before we
could ask them what was up. The pastor was busy with some new members, so we
didn’t get a chance to ask her about Jane. This was three Sundays in a
row. That wasn’t like Jane. She really must have an awful flu.
surprised us at bridge club again. “Jane called me this week,” she said.
Jane called Barbara? We never called Jane, but then Jane never called us.
Jane called Barbara? Barbara said that Jane had asked her if Barbara could
take the kids to soccer practice. They
live right down the street from each other, but Jane had always taken the
kids and sat there and watched until practice was over. Barbara said that
she would be happy to take the kids. Was Jane all right? “No,” Jane had
told her. “I keep thinking I’ll get better,” she said. Barbara wanted
to know what was wrong. “They found a tumor,” Jane said, “and it was
nearly dropped our cards. Jane, perfect Jane, had cancer? Suddenly we
felt guilty, we had all at one time or another wished for something to
interrupt Jane’s perfect life, but we were thinking about something along
the line of an overflowing toilet, not...cancer. Barbara told us that they
were going to operate to remove the tumor, and then Jane would have
chemotherapy to make sure they got it all. She was headed down a tough road,
Barbara said, and had asked for help.
could we do? We all felt a little unsure about helping Jane. Normally, we
would take meals over and arrange carpools for the kids. We were a little
hesitant about taking meals to Jane because we knew our cooking couldn’t
compare to hers. And we were wary of having her kids in our cars because we
knew they weren’t used to the clutter of toys and paper bags from
McDonald’s. “Jane needs us,” Barbara insisted.
we worked up a schedule for who would take meals when and who would meet the
kids. We even made teams to go over and help clean the house, because Jane
was too weak, and we felt like Bob had enough stress trying to work and take
care of Jane and the kids. But through all this we couldn’t help but
wonder, had perfect Jane done something horrible? Surely she must have to
watched as Jane got weaker and weaker. The chemo made all of her hair
fall out, so she started wearing a wig. She was losing weight because she
couldn’t keep any food down. The perfect Jane we had all known was now a
thin, feeble woman, who needed someone’s help just to sit up in bed. We
watched for months, hoping that Jane was getting better, but not seeing any
signs of it. Just when we thought all was lost, Barbara got a call from
Jane. She had just come from the hospital where she had had more tests.
There was no sign of the cancer! Barbara called all of us to pass the word.
We decided to meet at Jane’s house to celebrate with her and her family.
Somebody stopped and bought a cake, smiling with the remembrance of the old
Jane, who had never had a store-bought cake in her house. We laughed and
cried and hugged. Jane’s good news was our good news.
the next couple of months, Jane gradually got her strength back. We went
over to say hello the first day she was strong enough to walk out to get the
paper herself. Her hair had started to grow back, little short hairs stood
up all over her head. She cracked a joke about just getting home from boot
camp. You know, we realized, we kinda’ like Jane.
a month later we got a special surprise. It was laity Sunday, the church
newsletter informed us, and Jane was going to be our preacher. Jane? We had
never seen Jane do anything like that before. We asked her what she was
going to say. She just smiled and said, “Just wait.” “Are you
scared?” we wanted to know. “A little,” she said, then she shook her
head and said, “a lot.”
were nervous for her when that Sunday rolled around. She looked good. She
was still on the skinny side, but her hair had grown out enough so that it
looked like a normal short hair cut. We sang a hymn and prayed, and sort of
listened to the scripture reading. We really wanted to hear what Jane was
going to say.
was nervous as she stood up. We could see her hands shaking until she placed
them on both sides of the pulpit. Jane bowed her head, took a deep breath
and slowly let it out. When she raised her head, she looked a little more
I asked our pastor if I could have a time to speak, I didn’t realize she
would put me on for the sermon on laity Sunday. I don’t know much about
preaching or writing sermons. I just wanted to tell you my story.
of you know that the past year has been a rough one for Bob and me and our
family. Most of you have been through it with us. So my speaking today is
part of my thank you to you for all the help that you have been.
year ago I thought I had the perfect life.” Jane smiled. “You
thought I didn’t know what you thought about me. But I thought it, too. I
worked hard to make my life and my family’s life perfect. That was my job,
I thought, and I was good at it. I took a lot of pride in my house and my
job and in cooking for church suppers and making crafts. I could just look
around and see how I thought God had blessed me for all my hard work.
maintaining that standard got harder and harder because I was getting more
and more tired. Bob was worried and wanted me to go to the doctor, but I
resisted. Who would take care of him and the children and the house if I
were sick? I thought. I thought that by not going to the doctor I could keep
myself from actually being sick. But one day I passed out on my way into the
kitchen to put together the kids’ lunches. That was the last straw for
Bob. He packed me up and took me to the emergency room. It wasn’t long
before we found out that I had cancer.
was so angry at first. I couldn’t have cancer, I thought. I had done
everything right, God didn’t have any reason to punish me like this. Then
I began to worry, maybe I had done something to deserve that punishment,
‘Oh God, I thought, I’m sorry, please, please let me know, and I’ll
fix it, I’m sorry, really I am.’ I knew that I had to keep being the
perfect wife and mother or God was going to make it all worse, but I was
also realizing that I was getting too sick to keep up that kind of pace.
That was about the time Barbara called. I felt so ashamed. I felt like such
a failure because I was getting to where I couldn’t take care of my own
children. I felt like I was a
bad mother for being sick. But these were my problems, not hers. I didn’t
want her to know that I wasn’t perfect Jane anymore. But if I wasn’t
perfect Jane anymore, then who was I?
cancer didn’t just weaken my body, it shook me to the very core of who I
thought I was. I didn’t know myself anymore, and that was one of the most
frightening things about my illness. I had defined myself but what I could
do, by how I looked. I had defined myself through my children and through my
husband. But this disease had taken all that, turned it upside down, and
scattered it to the wind. I realized that to make it over the months of
treatment, I was going to have redefine Jane.
I called Barbara and admitted that I, perfect Jane, needed her help.
Everyone has been so great. I was so ashamed the first time you all came in
to clean the house, because it was mess. I tried to get up and clean some
before you got there, but I was too weak. But when you finished, it felt so
good to be in a clean house again. Thank you for that.
had a lot of time on my hands, and a lot of questions about why God was
doing this to me. There was a chaplain at the hospital who would come to
visit me. I would ask her why she thought God was doing this to me. At first
she said she didn’t know. But then she said, ‘I don’t believe that God
is doing this to you. We get sick because we’re human. Our mortality is
one of the defining characteristics of our mortality. We are fallible
creatures, imperfect. We make mistakes. We get sick. Bad things happen to
us. I say all this,’ the chaplain said, ‘because I strongly believe that
God works in and through all these things, bringing good out of the evil in
our lives. For me, that’s what a miracle is, and that’s where God’s
power lies. The worst thing human beings have ever done was to put Jesus on
the cross. But God turned that event into the best thing to ever happen for
human beings, when God raised Jesus from the dead. This cancer is probably
the worst thing to ever happen to you, but I believe that God can transform
it so that something good will come out of it.’
was a lot for the chaplain to say and a lot for me to take in right then.
She told me to look in Romans, chapter 8, if I wanted to read what she had
just said. A couple of days later I took out my Bible and read about what it
means to be a child of God. And as I read, I realized, that’s who I am. I’m
not perfect Jane, always doing the right thing, always saying the right
thing. I’m first and foremost a child of God, a human child of God,
imperfect, mortal, but loved by God in my imperfections. When I was
trying to always be perfect, I was denying my humanity. I was trying to be
what only God can be. I realized that God loves me for who I am. I don’t
have to earn God’s love by being perfect all the time. I realized that my
cancer was not God’s punishment for something I had done wrong, but that
God was with me in my pain and in my suffering, transforming it, using it to
bring me closer. God has brought me closer, and, to paraphrase Romans: I am
convinced that nothing, not death, not life, not angels, not rulers, not
things present, not things to come, not powers, not height, not depth, not
cancer, not my attempts at perfection, not anything in all creation, will be
able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
tears in her eyes, Jane sat down. We stood on our feet and clapped,
celebrating what God had done for her, but also thanking her for a new look
at our imperfect lives. Jane had shown us that the imperfections in our
lives are doors for God to work through, places where we can see God working
God’s transformation for all of us.
couple of months ago, Jane found out that the cancer had recurred. Not long
after that, she found out that there was nothing anyone could do. She
didn’t have much longer to live. We remember all this because her funeral
miss her, but her message is always with us, nothing, not even cancer, not
even death, can separate us from the love of God, and we know that Jane
continues to live in the fullness of that love.