The last time I saw Chanda she was smiling.
Never mind the scarf she was wearing to cover her nearly bald head. Forget the intensive chemical treatments that weakened and wracked her body. And pay no attention to the ominous prognosis of the best oncologists who could be found. As Chanda sat there on a balmy summer evening with a group of old friends, chatting and reminiscing, she was smiling.
And that’s how I’ll always remember her.
Of course, it wasn’t the bright, buoyant smile I remember from her teenage years, when long blonde tresses cascaded over her shoulders and mischief danced in her bright, inquisitive eyes. It was more of a Mona Lisa smile — pensive, almost wistful. She didn’t speak a lot that night about a month ago. Mostly, she listened and nodded and laughed.
We talked about some of the crazy things we all shared 25 years ago when I was the young and sort of dorky lay leader of their church congregation: the river run, the musical production. We talked about where they were then in our lives, and we marveled at how much we have all changed and grown and matured.
Most of all, Chanda.
She had already been through some rough times in her life leading up to her cancer diagnosis. She’s always been a sweetheart, no question about that. But things haven’t always gone sweetly for her. Anyone would have understood if she had just given up, or chosen the bitter, hateful, shake-a-fist-in-God’s-face approach to coping with her illness.
Instead, the ultimate adversity brought out the very best in Chanda. This sweet, fun-loving, slightly ditzy teenager who I knew and loved evolved into a strong, courageous woman who looked cancer in the eye and spit in it. She bravely faced each new test, treatment and surgery. She handled each staggering setback with indomitable faith and resolute pluck. She learned to cherish and savor every moment, every sunset, every giggle with her children. And for all of us who were hurting and anguishing for her, she had words of peace and comfort.
We didn’t talk about her illness during that gathering last month. We didn’t have to. We were all aware of it and we were all concerned, because we all love Chanda. But for this night, we just talked as friends, and it wasn’t until we were about to part that the subject came up.
“We’ve got to do this again sometime soon,” I said to the group. “So nobody can move away — you’ve got to stay close.” Then I fixed Chanda firmly in the eye and said: “Nobody goes anywhere!”
Everyone else laughed. But Chanda just smiled that enigmatic smile.
“I’ll see what I can do!” she said.
And earlier this week, that’s just what she did.
Some are saying, with great respect and profound sadness, that she lost her valiant battle against cancer. I don’t see it that way at all. Chanda kicked cancer in the proverbial backside. She conquered it with her attitude. She overcame it with her spirit. She dominated it with her will. And when the time came, she did what she could do by robbing cancer of the only thing it had over her — her disease-ravaged body — and going heart and soul back to God.
Chanda 1, Cancer 0.
I’ve learned a lot from Chanda through the years, but the last thing she taught me is the thing I’ll remember most: You don’t have to defeat adversity to overcome it. Because at the end of the day, our battle isn’t really with what happens to us, but it is with ourselves. Adversity comes to every life in one way or another, so it doesn’t really matter that we have adversity. What matters is how we choose to respond to it. That’s what makes the difference.
Especially if we can do it smiling.
(To read more by Joseph B. Walker please go to www.josephbwalker.com.)
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