Part 1 of an Interview with Becky Baudouin,
Author of Cancer, Faith and Unexpected Joy
“I’ve taught you how to live; now I want to teach you how to die. You don’t have to be afraid.” When Becky Baudouin’s mother spoke those words to her, they weren't said lightly. Her mother had an inoperable tumor—and after months of treatment, there was no hope for a longer life. There was, however, assurance of everlasting life. In Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy: What My Mother Taught Me About How to Live and How to Die (Kregel Publications/September 26, 2017), Baudouin (pronounced Beau-dwen) shares the invaluable wisdom imparted by her mother during her final days.
Q: Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy are insights into dying your mother shared with you following her cancer diagnosis. Can you tell us about the relationship you had with your mom? What was she like when you were growing up?
My mom was very relational and fun. There are five kids in our family, and she was very fulfilled being a stay-at-home mom. She felt it was her highest calling in life. She worked various side jobs as I was growing up to help pay for extras, but I knew being a mom was her first job; she was happy with that. Even though our family life was busy and hectic, I just remember her always being there. She loved and accepted me unconditionally — I didn’t have to earn it, and she was always proud of me and let me know it.
I struggled a lot with anxiety growing up, especially in school, and she was very compassionate and understanding of my struggle. She created a sense of safety and security for me because of her unconditional love and acceptance, so when I was with her I felt peaceful and relaxed. She didn’t push me — I was pushed enough at school — but rather she gave me the space to be my true self. She was the best example to me of what it looked like to live out her faith and live in community with other people. Her faith in Christ was at the center of how she lived and the way she loved others.
Q: When your mother was diagnosed with cancer, what prognosis did the doctor give her? What did the doctor add after answering the medical questions your family had?
Mom’s pulmonologist, Dr. Kraker, told us her cancer was incurable and inoperable. Treatment would hopefully extend her life and give her a bit more time with her family, but the type of cancer she had would spread. There was no hope of her surviving.
However, he did offer a different kind of hope. He asked Mom if she was a person of faith. She answered, “Oh, yes! I have a deep faith in God, and I believe in the power of prayer.” We had not yet been able to process or accept what the doctor had just told us, and at this point, I think Mom was holding on to the hope she would be healed miraculously through prayer and faith. Dr. Kraker told us, “If you read even a little bit of the Bible, you will see God tells us we will have troubles in this life. But He tells us over and over again not to be afraid. He promises no matter what happens, He will never leave us. He will help us through all of our trials, and He gives us the assurance of eternity — the promise of Heaven after this life is over.” I think he was encouraging my mom and our family to put our faith in God and in the promises of His presence, His help, and Heaven, rather than in a desired outcome. His words helped to set the tone for how we processed this difficult news and how Mom approached her diagnosis.
I decided to rearrange my priorities so I could show up and be fully present with my mom during her illness. My husband, Bernie and I had been volunteers in our church’s marriage ministry for more than 10 years, but I immediately knew I need to step out and take a break. I knew I needed to pull back from some of the groups and activities I was in so I would have the energy and time to take care of myself and my family and to take frequent trips to Michigan to be with my mom. I realized I had limited time and resources, and I drastically simplified my commitments.
During that season, I didn’t volunteer at my daughters’ schools and extra-curricular activities, and some people didn’t really understand. I just had to say no to some of those things, and I didn’t worry about trying to explain this to people who didn’t really know me or what I was going through. I took some time off from work, and I missed some things with my kids. However, I knew I would never regret the time I spent with my mom. I knew it was a season that wouldn’t last forever. I also reached out and asked people for help. Friends brought meals over when I was out of town, and our kids spent lots of time at their friends’ houses. I didn’t try or pretend like I could get through this alone or keep juggling everything I had been doing before Mom got sick.
We all prayed for Mom to be healed, and she believed she would get well. One night during one of our phone conversations, though, she told me, “The way I see it, either way I’m in a win-win situation. Do you know what I mean?” I thought I understood, but I asked her to explain. “Well, if I am healed of this cancer, then I win more time with my family. If I die, then I win eternity in Heaven with my Savior. Either way I win.”
I saw her faith was in God and not in a particular outcome. I saw she was trusting God no matter what. I think her faith in God just continued to grow deeper throughout the course of her treatments, and it enabled her to surrender and accept the reality of what was happening.
Q: Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy is written as a series of journal entries. Was there a reason you decided to document this time, or was journaling something you had always done?
I have always kept journals. Writing is and always has been one of the ways I process what is happening and what I am learning. Sometimes I can’t even process something that happens until I write about it. During my mom’s illness, I had a strong sense I needed to write things down. I wanted to be able to remember things she said and did and what I was feeling and to share these things with my daughters.
Q: How did each of your daughters process the news about their grandmother differently? Why did you choose to be open about your grief with them rather than shield them from what you were feeling?
My eldest daughter, Kate, was very mature and compassionate toward me. She could see how hard the idea of losing my mom was for me and was sensitive to that. My middle daughter, Claire, was very quiet and didn’t want to talk about it a lot. She is not as much of a verbal processor, and I realized it’s OK for us to process differently. My youngest daughter, Brenna, was very distraught and upset about the news. She was afraid her grandma was going to die and talked about it to me often. She had a lot of fears and sadness.
I chose to be open with my children about my grief because, for one thing, I couldn’t hide it. It was just so heavy and present with me, I couldn’t keep it from them. I also saw value in letting them walk with me, letting them observe how I dealt with my strong emotions of sadness and fear. My mom was teaching me how our faith is an anchor during these storms of life, and I wanted to do the same for my daughters. They saw me hold on to Jesus during this time, and I think they learned the value in grieving well. I remember Brenna wrote me a note one day, telling me I looked beautiful when I cried because she could see my heart. She was seven years old and very open and tender-hearted. She connected with me in my grief in a profound way.
Surrender. My mom taught me what it looks like to surrender, especially when things turn out differently than we had hoped. She accepted what was happening, even though we had prayed for something different. She entrusted herself to the One who is all-loving and wise and trusted in His plan. This posture of surrender brought a deep, abiding sense of peace leading up to her final moments on this earth. She was deeply at peace and taught us when we surrender to God, we really don’t need to be afraid. He is completely trustworthy.
Q: Even though cancer plays a major part in your book, isn’t there something everyone facing trials can take away from reading Cancer, Faith, and Unexpected Joy?
Absolutely. I think the commonality and place of connection is when we find ourselves facing something out of our control, a problem or trial no one can fix. A sickness no doctor, no treatment and no amount of money can fix. A loss or tragedy that cannot be reversed. From a human perspective, these are hopeless situations with circumstances that cannot be changed. Yet there is hope of another kind. We have our faith as an anchor, and God promises His presence and help in every difficult trial we face. He promises never to leave us or forsake us. This is true hope — not that our circumstances will change, but that God will get us through those circumstances.