Viterbo University Alumni Magazine June 2000
A FINAL WORD
Beth Jaekel ‘93
A 1993 Viterbo College graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Beth is currently the News and Features Writer for Viterbo. She was diagnosed in 1978 with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and immediately underwent radiation therapy followed by two years of chemotherapy. She has been cancer-free for 20 years. You can reach her by email at bmjaekel@ viterbo.edu.
Celebrating Life with Sr. Thea Bowman
“Courage is being scared to death—but saddling
up anyway.” -John Wayne
It was courage that first brought us together.
By us, I mean Sr. Thea Bowman and me. She was a “shooting star” and I was a shy and awkward 17-year-old. It was March 1988 and the two of us were being honored by the American Cancer Society at their National Courage Award celebration in Washington, D.C. She was the state of Mississippi’s Courage Award recipient and I was Wisconsin’s.
The award was presented to those who had shown “unusual courage” in the fight against cancer. I hardly felt worthy of the award. After all, it had been 10 years since I’d been diagnosed. I’d been cancer-free for eight years. I was no longer “in the trenches.” I was still alive while many of my friends with cancer were not. “How am I courageous now?” I wondered.
But Thea, she was another story. Thea was still battling cancer. I use the term battle because it is a fight. You are fighting not only to keep your body alive, you are fighting to not be looked on with pity. You are fighting to keep your spirits high. And there was no one with higher spirits than Thea.
By accounts, she would have been about 50 then. But, oh she looked young...and beautiful. The funny thing is that I can hardly recall our first encounter that week. But what I do remember is a wheelchair and a radiant woman with an amazing smile. Even when her mouth wasn’t set in a grin, she smiled. She did it with her eyes. There was light there. There was fire. There was passion. And it was all Thea.
My mom approached her first. She knew of Thea through my great aunt, Sr. Laurella Seipel, who worked with Thea in Canton, Miss. for several years. It was this connection that brought us together. My mother, a nurse and an amazing woman herself, immediately took Thea under her wing.
For those few days in Washington, Mom, Dad, and I would pick Thea up at her room and wheel her wherever she needed to be. Together, we attended a celebration dinner where we mingled with singer Leslie Uggams and actress Jill Ireland (who was receiving a courage award for her battle with breast cancer), and Ireland’s husband actor Charles Bronson. We had lunch with our state representatives. And, since the First Lady was also receiving a courage award, we had an audience with her and President Reagan in the White House Rose Garden.
The week was a whirlwind of activity and we all felt a sense of wonder that we were a part of such an incredible celebration of life. Being with Thea made it even more special. She told us about Canton and her busy schedule of appearances. We talked about Viterbo and the changes that had taken place there since she last visited. She encouraged me to attend Viterbo and sang the praises of its English Department.
Being with Thea was like being with a friend. It was comfortable but at the same time, you knew she’d help keep you in line if necessary. Just like family and friends would. In fact, during that trip, Thea called us her “family away from home.” We were lucky to be with her and we knew it.
I never saw Thea again after our time in Washington, D.C., but I did write to her. We struck up a correspondence that spanned the two years until her death. Because she was so ill, many of her letters were form letters, but there were handwritten notes on several. In one dated November 1989, Thea thanked me for my strength and courage. Imagine. Thea thanked me for my strength and courage. Me. This incredible woman who had been battling cancer for five years, while maintaining such an inspirational passion for life, was thanking a girl who battled cancer for a mere two years...and survived.
I have no idea what I wrote to Thea to inspire such encouraging words. I can only imagine them as the somewhat careless words of a teenager trying to do a little of everything all at once. A teen who wanted so badly to live a normal life that she wanted to wish away the fact that she’d had cancer. Pretend, for even a moment, that it didn’t happen to her. To take those two years back and fill them instead with laughter, play, friendships, and nonsense.
I didn’t get it then. But Thea knew. She knew that while cancer itself was a battle, survivors have other battles to face. She knew that the fear takes a long, long time to leave. She knew that only those that had been there could truly understand. And, in her own inimitable way, Thea was telling me I had strength and courage. And that would see me through.
Though I knew Thea only briefly...and not at all very well, I miss her. We all miss her. But we know she’s still reaching out to people around the world with her legacy of words, songs, and memories that remain alive in our hearts and minds. And we know she’s there, lighting up heaven with her smile and helping us “keep on keepin’ on.”