“I would never have chosen cancer five times, never. I mean, who would? But after all I’ve learned, I wouldn’t trade anything I gained as a result…”
by Hannah Brinks • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
It is not often that someone with so much to say finds themselves at a loss for words, but in speaking with Sister Sue, OP (Order of Preachers), it is hard not to be rendered speechless by all that she is and says. She dislikes being called a “miracle.” She prefers the term, “mystery.”
Sister Sue was one of four children growing up in Detroit and as a teen, she spent time working in her father’s radiology office. She knew she wanted to be a Sister since she was 10. After attending an all-girls Catholic school, she studied English at Aquinas and found herself drawn to Grand Rapids—both the city and the Dominican Sisters Marywood campus, which is located on Fulton Street.
“They were down-to-earth, homey, humorous, and just approachable,” she said. “I think in my 19-year-old self I felt like I could be who I was.” She quickly fit in and became known as the “Flying Nun” or the “Funny Nun,” growing to love the place she would call home.
“God wrote straight with crooked lines,” she explained. It was true; though she couldn’t see the path set before her when she became a nun, she found herself living in the convent for 56 years. It is easy to get caught up in the myriad of details that make up Sister Sue’s background and the paving stones of where she’s been; they called her the “Flying Nun” for a reason. She participated in LaughFest, spoke, counseled, wrote for Chicken Soup for the Surviving Soul, taught, mentored and served those struggling with cancer for the last 15 years as an oncology chaplain at Spectrum Hospital.
She had spunk, especially for someone who had endured cancer herself. In her voice, you can hear that she didn’t simply beat cancer, she experienced it. After her most recent diagnosis, she kept a mask and tongue depressor they used during her radiation treatment, thinking she might wear it for Halloween. When Halloween came around, she found she couldn’t. She found it too macabre to bring out for daily life. She faced five cases of cancer in 29 years; breast cancer twice (1986 and 1993), multiple cases of skin cancer, and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma twice (1999 and 2014), the second of which moved to the brain. It was unlikely she would come out of it.
“I told a friend,” she recounted, ‘I just want to close my eyes, fall asleep and slip into eternity.’ It seemed like I was trying to ward off what felt inevitable.” She found she couldn’t pray; however, she saved a few methodical, two-word prayers. One of them, which she passed to me on a card, read: “Calm me, quiet me, settle me… Plant me, root me, embed me…” She was flooded with support, and her response to all the love and prayer that surrounded her was to be gracious and grateful. It was her role; it was all she could do.
“It’s so hard when you’re that low,” she explained. “I’m an optimistic person by nature, but we all have another side to us. We have a shadow side.”
It’s hard to imagine a shadow side to the colorful woman seated across from me, the one who had recently been told she would be receiving the “Spirit of Gilda” award from Gilda’s Club, an organization whose opening she helped cut the ribbon for in Grand Rapids. It meant she embodied a kindness, a gentleness, and the ability to cope with hope, all while sharing that hope with everyone else. When the cameras asked her then what she felt was the gift of cancer, she responded, “The gift of cancer for me has been the privilege of getting to meet and know some incredibly beautiful people whose courage and resilience have enhanced my ability to cope with hope and celebrate life.” She wouldn’t change a word.
The thing that is most striking about Sister Sue is not her humor, although it is marvelous. It is not her optimism, although it is extraordinary under her circumstances. It is her gratitude. It is her gratitude for the people around her and for the extra measure of life she has been given by the grace of God. It is something she learned when she was low; when she planned her funeral during her last bout of cancer, during one of the 14 radiation treatments she has endured thus far.
“People are the most important,” she realized. “Relationships. I’ve traveled the world. I don’t need to go anywhere else.” She speaks highly of her siblings, of her roommate Sister Kathy who she describes as a “fabulous chef” and a “wonderful lady,” and her oncologist Kathleen Yost.
“I would never have chosen cancer five times, never,” she admitted. “I mean, who would? But after all I’ve learned, I wouldn’t trade anything I gained as a result . . . I’m not bitter. I’ve become better, more sensitive.”
I don’t think that Sister Sue means that we should fool ourselves into thinking that cancer is a beautiful thing, because it is not. It is traumatic, it is sad, it is unfair, it is painful and emotional; but the body and spirit of cancer warriors, and cancer survivors? Now that is beautiful.
To read more about her cancer reflections and humor, follow Sister Sue at www.toodooloosue.com.
Aside from chipping away at her ever-growing reading list, Hannah enjoys writing, running, traveling, and sipping coffee with her family and friends.