Some articles must be published at one time and not another, either because their stories are simply of the moment or because circumstances reveal them to be impossible for the moment. “‘Dying for Sex’ podcast follows terminal cancer patient’s wild sexcapades” is one of them. Published in the New York Post on March 4, a week later and it would have been considered not social-distance-kosher.[1] While I’m not sure on the sexual transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, I’m pretty sure any close contact with lots and lots of strangers would not pass muster as a way of keeping the pandemic at bay. And yet the article tells us a lot about the reaction many have to facing mortality. We long to find pleasure, human connection, and a sense of worth in life. Particularly when death becomes more real to us. How we seek it will determine how much of it we will find.

The article in question is about a six-episode podcast with host Nikki Boyer interviewing her friend Molly, a woman who battled breast cancer in her early thirties and then had a recurrence at the age of 41. Before the first round of treatments she had been disappointed with her intimate life with her husband and had hoped to “recharge” it. After a double mastectomy, radiation, chemo, and reconstructive surgery, she recovered but remained unhappy with her intimate life. She stayed together with her husband until her second diagnosis of breast cancer (this time stage four) and treatments, the medication for which increased her libido. Rather than think about finding true love, Molly adapted Dorothy Parker’s advice about getting over a man by getting under another one. In Molly’s case, scores of them. The Post breathlessly narrates:

So she left her husband — and catapulted herself into the dating scene, a series of adventures and misadventures that she shares with her best friend on the show. Like a “Sex and the City” brunch with chemo instead of Cosmos, the pair candidly gab about Molly’s conquests: the Ryan Reynolds lookalike who’s into masochism, the at-home massage with an accidental happy ending, an awkward car romp with a guy who couldn’t contain — or maintain — his enthusiasm, and the mortician she made out with while he was in full clown makeup. In one episode, the pair tries to count the number of suitors in Molly’s phone. They quit at 183.

I have not listened to the podcasts. The article assures us they are not just about sex, but they sound like sonic pornography from the article. Podcaster Ms. Boyer observes, “It’s about healing old wounds and coming to terms with what is happening to her. Sex, for her, was not the endgame.” Podcaster Ms. Boyer tells us, “My hope is that people nurture their relationships.” She seems to imply that the relationships to be nurtured are female friendships, as the “Sex and the City” reference implies.

What’s extraordinarily sad about that is that the sexuality wasn’t really either the endgame or even really a way to an endgame. Molly herself says that all that carnal behavior “makes me feel alive—and is a great distraction from being sick.” In other words, it’s no different from playing videogames or taking mind-altering drugs or any other activity one could do with anybody and nobody.

Distraction and feeling alive are not the same as healing and living.

As C.S. Lewis famously observed in his essay “The Weight of Glory,” the condition of our sinful humanity is not overwhelmingly strong desires, but excessively weak ones: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Molly seems to have fooled about with sex but never really asked what kind of true pleasure it might actually bring.

Strangely enough, I discovered this story just as I was finishing a book about another married woman who had contracted breast cancer, treated it, and then had it return in virulent form. This woman died, but what struck me was how different her story was.

Published almost a decade ago, The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God is the story of Ruth Pakaluk, a “convert, mother, and pro-life activist,” as the subtitle puts it.[2] The book, edited by her widower, the philosopher Michael Pakaluk, includes his biographical sketch of her life along with a collection of her letters and public addresses on abortion and Christian life.

A young woman of Presbyterian background who had fallen away from any belief in God, Ruth Elizabeth Van Kooy met Michael Pakaluk in their sophomore year at Harvard in 1976. He had been raised in a completely non-religious way by nominally Catholic parents, but like Ruth considered himself an atheist or “near to it.” A common search for truth and a path in life led the two to adopt habits of Bible reading, then prayer, then, after the requisite dose of C.S. Lewis, searching for Christian fellowship in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical campus ministry organization, and local churches. After doing the unthinkable, a marriage during college, the two oddballs did another unthinkable thing and entered the Catholic Church, embracing its positions on abortion and even contraception.

When they graduated, Michael went on to pursue graduate work, first for an idyllic time in Scotland, then back again at Harvard for a Ph.D. in philosophy. Open to life, the two had their first child in Scotland. Their blessings continued when they moved back to the U.S. Michael finished his degree and took a teaching position at nearby Clark University, and more children were born. Tragedy struck when Ruth awoke in the night and found their fifth child, Thomas, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Despite the tragedy, Ruth prayed for another child and was given another child, Sarah, less than a year after Thomas’s death. It was after Sarah’s birth that Ruth noticed a breast lump and found out that she did have cancer. A mastectomy followed by chemotherapy seemed to indicate good news, but it was not possible to know for certain. Yet the two decided that they were not going to postpone life to find out. As Ruth later explained to Helen Alvare, a pro-life colleague (and now a law professor at Catholic University of America), “My husband and I decided that it would be better to live life with the hope that my cancer would not recur rather than cowering in fear. Even if my life were cut short by recurring cancer, we felt it would be a beautiful thing to give life to more children.”

For Ruth, sex was obviously resumed. But it was not as a “distraction” or simply to “feel alive.” It was to act in hope and to give life. Anna Sophia (Sophie) was born in 1993 about a year after her chemotherapy ended.

The cancer had not been destroyed entirely, but Ruth was not regretful about her bringing new life into the world. Writing the next year to an old friend, she observed, “When you know you have little time left to live, how should you conduct yourself? To a certain extent, I am glad that I have no burning desire to live any differently. I really enjoy the way my life has turned out. But I do feel it is important to spend more time with the people I enjoy being with.”

Writing a year later (1994) to a pro-abortion debate adversary whom she had befriended, Ruth observed the blessing it is to know death is coming sooner rather than later: “I have enjoyed—no, savored—these past two years more than any others of my life. My youngest child, Sophie, is now two years old. She has been among the most enjoyed children in human history.” She went on to express her “most frequent regret” as “not having another baby.”

Three years after that, as the cancer now started into its endgame, Ruth wrote to a friend that she was not afraid to die but would love to stay around as there was “a lot of worthwhile stuff for me to do here.” But she was content: “Sophie is already five—I remember when the one thing I hoped for was that I would live long enough for her to have a clear memory of me. God has been very good to me.”

Her final letters were to her children. In her letter to Sophie, she seeks to allay a thought that might have occurred to the child—that she was the cause of her mother’s cancer.

I once got a phone call from a woman who had local breast cancer. She was pregnant and afraid that having her baby might cause the cancer to return. I told her I did not think it would make a difference—the cancer either comes back or it doesn’t. But even if it did make a difference, I told her I had you under the same circumstances, and looking at you, I could say without hesitation that I would happily die in order to have brought forth such a creature. I still mean it. Of course, I would mean it regarding any of my children, but in your case it is very clearly true.

I suppose some readers would say that I am “judging” Molly. Or that such a comparison is “unfair” because Ruth Pakaluk had a happy marriage and Molly did not. Of course I know not at all how she stands in the sight of God, but I plead guilty to judging Molly’s behavior. Celebrating such behavior in a woman is a surrender to the notion that, as Ruth made clear in one of the addresses included in the book, that “male patterns of sexual behavior,” namely sex and freedom from consequences, are the “ideal.” They are not ideal for men or women.

Such behavior is, to use an unfashionable term, sinful. This is not a term designating an irrational “taboo.” It is a designation that it offends God because it renders the human who takes such a course of action unable to find God or true happiness. It is behavior that makes one skim across the surface of life, content to make mudpies in the slum while the seashore awaits.

As for the idea that Ruth’s behavior was different because she was simply happier in her marriage, I don’t know what Molly’s husband was like, but I do know that every marriage is difficult. I think it better to say that Ruth was happier in her marriage because her behavior was different. Her behavior was different because she sought out truth and found it in God. As she wrote in her last letter to her oldest son, Michael, without her Catholic faith she doubted that she “would have had the patience and forgiveness to stay married to Dad.”

Not only did she have that patience and forgiveness, she was thinking about Michael and her children’s earthly happiness even as she was dying. After a declaration by Michael that he didn’t think he could marry after her death, she smiled and replied that she thought he should. She also had the woman in mind she thought was best. After her death and a period of grieving, Michael did indeed contact Catherine, the woman his wife had picked. They’ve been married now for nearly twenty-one years and have eight children.

If Molly’s story is one that could not be told now because of circumstances, Ruth’s is a tale for all seasons. It’s got the cancer. It’s got plenty of sex in it. How could it not with all those kids? It’s got the female friendship. It’s got the sense of spitting in the face of death and living life to the fullest.

But it also has what Molly’s doesn’t seem to have: the reality that sex promises and is supposed to build. Love till death—and, frankly, beyond death—and the glorious fruit of life flowing from it.

Ruth was not too easily pleased.

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Notes:

[1] Kirsten Fleming, ” ‘Dying for Sex’ podcast follows terminal cancer patient’s wild sexcapades,” New York Post, March 4, 2020.

[2] San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011.

The featured image is “The Vale of Rest” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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