An interview with Kara Tippetts,
Author of The Hardest Peace
Kara Tippetts knows the ordinary days of mothering four kids, the joy of watching her children grow . . . and the devastating reality of stage-four cancer. In The Hardest Peace, Tippetts doesn’t offer answers for when living is hard, but she asks us to join her in moving away from fear and control and toward peace and grace. Most of all, she draws us back to the God who is with us, in the mundane and the suffering, and who shapes even our pain into beauty.
Q: The Hardest Peace tells much of your personal story: You were diagnosed in 2012 with cancer, and to say it has not been an easy road is a gross understatement. How has having a terminal illness impacted the way you view life?
I never expected to be planning my funeral, counting my moments and fighting for my next breath in my 30s. I never expected to be sitting on my daughter’s bed with the sinking feeling her mama was going to die of cancer and not of old age, and not knowing the right words to love her well. Never. But those places, those raw, broken places are the heart of life. The brokenness of today causes us to look at tomorrow, hope for tomorrow.
God has walked me through the valley of the shadow and showed me what true beauty really is. He showed me what love really looks like, and He built a depth of beauty into my story that a life without suffering would never have known.
Q: Who did you write The Hardest Peace for?
This is a book for all of us who face the hard edges of life: marriage, children, pain, grief, singleness, brokenness of all shapes and sizes are warmly welcome to the pages of this book. This is my story, but I hope it helps the readers to look honestly at their story. I do not believe you need to face cancer to see the value of looking for and naming the graces in your own moments, days, weeks, lifetime. To capture this beauty in your weariness, even if your story doesn’t look like mine, will enrich your moments and give you a new perspective and help you lift your head in the impossibility and pain in living. Hard is hard.
Q: What is the hardest peace?
The veil between here and heaven is very thin. But it’s a dreadfully painful one. We struggle to see beyond these days and look upon eternity with gladness. God gives us morsels of eternity over here, crumbs really — and we beg for them to remain when there is a feast awaiting us. I look at the beautiful creations of my loved ones and say, Jesus, you did so well, so wondrously well, can’t I stay a minute longer? But his peace answers my heart that it’s exactly decided and it’s beautiful. It’s nothing to be feared. That it is amazing, the story that remains on this side of the veil and the one that awaits on the other. But I need reminding — constant reminding. This, for me, is the hardest peace. I need truth-tellers all around me to speak the goodness of grace that will meet me on both sides of the tender veil.
Q: Since your diagnosis, you’ve gone through chemotherapy and radiation. How have you dealt with some of the side effects of the treatments — like losing your hair for example?
When I started treatment, I had no idea how bald would meet me. Bald. The word itself has no elegance; it’s a blunt, matter-of-fact four letters that can refer to a scalp, an animal, even a tire. And that’s how I met myself in the mirror exactly sixteen days after the first dose of the healing poison. Early September found my littlest, Story Jane, and I pulling out handfuls of my blond hair and scattering it to the wind. It was the day my sister Jonna flew in and the day a friend met me in my bathroom to shave my head — bald. Without my hair then there were the gaunt, deep-set black eyes, completely void of any glimmer, and I was deeply grieved. My weakness showed, no hiding, no faking — just weakness. I would love to say I screamed, cried, wept in sorrow. No, chemo brings silence. A deafening silence to just get through each moment.
I remember hearing a young woman say she would be fine if she lost her hair. I quietly sighed, hoping she would never know the pain of the ugly I was facing. I did not admonish her ignorance, only silently prayed she would never have to look for the grace at the end of her day to meet herself in the mirror utterly changed by chemicals. It’s a bottom I don’t want another to know, but even at that bottom, there was love. Unbelievable love.
Q: Being ill has caused you to have to reevaluate your priorities, even in housekeeping. What has that looked like for you?
My cooking now is nutritious, simple, hearty and simple to clean up or leave until the morning. I had to let go of the perfect home, the matching plates, the perfectly timed dinner where everything came out perfectly hot and lovely. When I let go of having it perfect, I learned the joy of sharing life with the imperfect. When I untied the knots Pinterest and Martha Stewart tied me into, I began to see the joy of together. The meeting of the edges of life around our table. Broken marriages, desperate addiction, unkindness, hard issues with parenting, love, life. Those were the flavors of the meals I remember most, the honest heart-sharing, not the perfect roast beef with perfectly appointed root vegetables. No, when all the trying is put aside, the heart has room to share.
Q: How has your journey affected your marriage and your relationships with your family members?
As our story continues to struggle and the plot of my cancer thickens, God has deepened our love, helped us in our weakness to begin to have an imagination for heaven and met us in such gentle grace where we cling. I picture God’s gentle countenance as I beg for more time, more loving, more enjoying the crumbs as I can’t see the next season in all its fullness. I don’t struggle with dying, but I struggle and lose my breath when I think of my family watching me suffer through finding my way to heaven. I struggle as I will see my pain reflected in their faces. I will see their fears in letting me go and knowing the graces that will follow.
My husband, Jason, looks upon me with gentleness and longing as I’m offered a new drug, a new treatment, a new short remedy to extend my days. I agree to the pills, the hot flashes, the cutting, the pain, the discomfort and the struggle to live in the small moment that is now. I struggle for the conclusion, I wrestle with the brokenness, and I pray, oh how I pray for more days.
Q: You say in The Hardest Peace that you actually pray for the woman your husband might marry after you’re gone. How do you find the grace to do that?
Jason asked me the other day why I talked to him so much about this next season of his life. He always sits with me in this conversation, uncomfortable at best. I looked at him gently and told him I want him to have the courage to love again. I want him to hear me say: You are excellent as a husband. Be a husband again. I also want him to hear me say, Be discerning, be cautious, be patient, but don’t close your heart to the possibility of love. Go for it, dearest — we met the best of life in the gift of marriage.
Certainly, I have fears, concerns and anxieties over those future days. Another voice will be entering the house I love with different ideas, opinions and preferences. So in those edges, those anxieties, I pray. I pray for her heart; I pray for the hearts of my kids. I pray they would uniquely love this woman and not struggle with a sense of disloyalty to me. I want my children to know I see their dad’s great gift at love, and that I want it to continue. But the edges they will face in those moments, I cannot know. So I pray quiet prayers into those moments for everyone.
Q: Your children are still so young. How do you talk to them about your illness?
It has been a balancing act that has kept us utterly dependent on God for direction. Facing illness and disease with young children is difficult at best. (Eleanor is 13, Harper Joy is 9, Lake Edward is 7, and Story Jane is 5.) It feels foggy, and there is no perfect way to walk alongside your children through such grievous hard. But we believe the key is to come alongside them or they will become angry in the unknown and fearful. Children are bright and are keenly aware of stress and changes within the home. We have walked transparent before our children with the hard of our story, and we have trusted the Holy Spirit to guide our words and our silence. We want to give the kids truth, not our fears.
Two things that have guided our parenting direction: The first is that we treat each child as an individual with unique understanding. Our age range is large. We have older children who understand the weightiness of cancer, and others who don’t understand the implications of cancer, or death even. Secondly, we recognize we have children with differing abilities to communicate and process struggles, fears and heartbreak. We have children who will share every emotion and children who want to process alone quietly. We’ve worked and prayed to find opportunities to allow them to share their fears, their quiet worries and the pain in the journey. We have also intentionally surrounded our children with a safe community of friends and families.
Q: How have friendships played a role in helping you and your family in this journey?
My dear friend Mickey decided to stay with us for several weeks in the middle of my treatment to carry us through some very dark days. With each new treatment, I hit a lower low, a weaker weak, the bottom grew deeper and deeper. She loved us gently in our exhausted state.
I remember the first outing Mickey and I braved bald. We went to Costco and lunch. Mickey has a gift for conversation, so we entered the warehouse store talking, and we left talking. I barely noticed the glances and felt utterly free from the uncomfortable wigs and hot scarfs. We went to a nearby hamburger place for lunch. In my middle bite, I found a hair in my burger. Mickey looked at me and frankly said, “Well, we know it isn’t yours.” We laughed harder than I had laughed in months. It was laughter we needed, exactly when we needed it. Mickey’s timing with that one-liner, and also her presence in our home, was right on target.
Q: You talk in The Hardest Peace about making an idol out of time. What did you mean by that?
In the midst of my cancer, I made an idol of time. It was my greatest prayer, my begging pleadings to Jesus — let me remain. In many ways, it is still my prayer, but God has rooted in me a gratitude for my now, my hard, my story and even my cancer. I still have a long journey of seeking grace that I may never understand, but this journey has taught me so much. Perhaps the humbling, the prying open of my hand to time and the growing imaginings for my forever tomorrows have become the balm to help me see truth in the midst of pain. The lessons have come, but they haven’t come easily.
Q: You grew up in a very performance-based household, with a father who was prone to anger. How have you come to peace in your relationship with your parents?
The truth is my siblings and I enjoyed pleasing our parents. We excelled at it, worked at it and lived to impress and please them. But I believe this is the story of most young children — the seeking of approval, love and acceptance in the first place you know life. As I learned the power of story and began to look deeper into my parents’ own story, I realized I could not change the past, but the future could look different. My spirit could meet the two of them with love where only my own bitterness and unforgiveness had existed before.
Q: The Hardest Peace shares your story, but so many people are walking difficult paths of their own. Do you think people can identify with what you’ve written?
Each week I receive emails from people seeking grace in very troubling situations. These broken followers of my story limp along with me, trying to give credit to the generous giver of peace while walking in the struggle of today. There are beautiful stories of courageous humility as they receive suffering and seek grace in the midst of it. I know, I know, I know I’m not the only one facing these hard moments. I’m just writing about them.
When I read the countless stories that are sent for only my eyes to see, I learn the power of living courageously broken. Through the lives of so many facing brokenness and through my own story, I’ve learned that maybe, just maybe, brokenness is not to be feared but humbly received.