What others are saying about Letters for Lizzie
From Publishers Weekly:
LETTERS FOR LIZZIE: A Story of Love, Friendship and a Battle for Life. James O’Donnell. Moody, $12.99 paper (250p) ISBN 1-881273-01-6
In 1994, O’Donnell left his Boston life as a high-profile investment executive and took his family to Indiana, where he accepted a position teaching business at a small Christian college. He thought that the family’s greatest challenge would be learning to live on a fifth of their former income. But within months of their move, his wife, Lizzie, was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer and given only a few months to live. This book–a collection of letters written to friends back East from 1994 to 1996 to galvanize a prayer network on Lizzie’s behalf–chronicles dark days of illness, fear and spiritual doubt. There are times when O’Donnell rages against God and other times when he manifests a deep acceptance of the situation. He also eloquently berates the superficial Christianity that is quick to spout platitudes about God’s will. O’Donnell closes with an afterword, noting the miracle that Lizzie is still alive after battling surgeries, heart attacks, blood disorders, pneumonia and kidney failure. This is a mature and gritty account of wrestling with God and what it means to be a “new creation.” (May) –by Jana Riess.
From Christianity Today, July, 2004, reviewed by Cindy Crosby:
Memoir of Hope
As a senior executive at a large investment bank, James O’Donnell had the financial world by the tail. After he left to become an associate professor at an Indiana college, his wife, “sweet Lizzie,” was stricken with breast cancer. Doctors gave her only a few months to live.
“Life is dangerous…it is not ours to control,” O’Donnell writes. In this courageous collection of letters sent to friends back home, O’Donnell invites readers to explore one family’s response to suffering, the importance of community, and the belief that “we won’t have all our questions answered in this world.” His words ring with authenticity as he strikes notes of anger and frustration, love and hope.
Nine years after her diagnosis, Lizzie continues to hang on, and O’Donnell remarks: “We are injured, tired, and malnourished in facing the continuing race to stay ahead of Lizzie’s next setback.” God’s love, he writes, is not safe. “He wants us to become changed beings…still, there are strange, dark expanses of His love that I can’t explain even today, depths that only mystery and faith can plumb.”
In the face of these dark expanses, O’Donnell inspires reader to continue to trust God.”
From Fort Wayne News Sentinel, Friday, May 7, 2004:
Testing body and soul
Huntington man recounts a spiritual trek in the course of his wife’s grave illnesses.
By Bob Caylor for the editorial board
For Mother’s Day, we recommend the newly published memoir — a spiritual autobiography, actually — of Jim O’Donnell, a professor at Huntington College. In it, he tells the story of a period in the mid-1990s when his wife, Liz, faced two seemingly terminal illnesses, back to back.
It’s an often-somber book, filled with fear and anguish and doubt instead of the usual pastel-glazed optimism common in inspirational books. But that’s a virtue in “Letters for Lizzie: A Story of Love, Friendship and a Battle for Life.” He tells the story of her illnesses and their reactions, as well as their young sons’ reactions, with such stark honesty and intimacy that he produces an authentic portrait of faith. The message: Faith is not easy. Keeping the faith is not a simple prescription that guards people from woe. But faith sustains.
That, folks, is a message for real mothers, who face struggles every day, though ideally those struggles will not be so torturous as Liz O’Donnell’s were.
“Illness and adversity — like battle’s heat — are never sought, if one is sane. But if they come our way, few circumstances better define the character of human beings,” he writes.
And so the O’Donnells were tested, fresh after a move that was in itself a test.
For many years, Jim, now 55, had worked in the financial industry in New York and Boston, accustomed to the way of life that six-figure incomes provide. But in 1985, he became an evangelical Christian and began examining whether he served God best in his work as a mutual-fund bigshot. He visited and lectured at Christian colleges around the country and got acquainted with Huntington College, where he accepted a job in 1994.
It was an 80-percent pay cut, and not everyone was thrilled with the move from a world of opera and tennis to one of country music and basketball. One of his teenage sons resented his father’s “destroying my financial security with the dumbest move a father could ever make,” he writes.
Still, they were settling in fairly smoothly when, in December 1994, Liz, now 51, found a lump in her breast. In the course of the next year, she would undergo chemotherapy that nearly killed her and a mastectomy. Soon after she appeared to have beaten the cancer, doctors discovered that the chemotherapy had so grievously damaged her heart that she would die in weeks or months. In June 1996, she received a heart transplant. She’s had many close calls and hospitalizations in the years since, but she remains alive today.
Within that bare sketch of terrible misfortune and uncertainty, Jim lays out a record of his spiritual reflections, wrapped around letters he posted during her illnesses to a circle of hundreds of friends helping and praying for them.
In his upbeat periods, he soars, finding consolation in the jarringly new perspective cancer imposes: “We so often live our lives unknowing of how little we actually control, of how limited is our ability to protect that which we care most about — and those we love most. As strange as it may sound, cancer can become a perverse gift in helping draw people — even as close as we already were — to focus on what is ultimately important in life.”
In the lowest points, he and his wife slog through overpowering sadness. He fights God in their anguish, and searches for his faith persistently. He reveals his weakest moments, and his wife’s, on the terrible ride that seemed never to stop.
The first words in O’Donnell’s book are: Life is dangerous. The rest of the book adds, implicitly, that life is unfair, that suffering can be unbearable, that turns of fate are frustrating, that God’s will can be inscrutable.
That is not so bleak as it sounds. They persevere. They grow wiser, fonder, even more faithful. And whether your motherly burdens are staggering or ordinary, walking the O’Donnells’ path for the span of a book reminds you that life is all the more precious for its very precariousness.
Bob Caylor wrote about Liz O’Donnell’s illnesses for The News-Sentinel in 1996.
From CBA Marketplace (Reviewed by Ted Lewis, 4/04):
It is one thing for O’Donnell to move his family out of state and take a job at one-fifth his former income. It was quite another when in the same year his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the following two years, he wrote a dozen letters to close friends to chronicle his rough journey of deepening faith.
These letters, collected and framed with added narrative, show O’Donnell as one who intimately joined his wife in her battle for life. Exhaustion was common, but so was the experience of receiving God’s strength. Perhaps this is why Lizzie, even after a heart transplant, has lived another nine years.
This personal account serves as a heartwarming road map for all who travel through the valley of the shadow of death. Amid his darkest fears, O’Donnell found hope, which he shares with readers ambushed by suffering.
From Relevant Magazine, by Dusty Abshire, June 2004.
As a Christian twenty-something, I struggle to find a life that is relevant, with meaning and purpose. Often times that struggle seems to be tied up largely with ingesting ideas that challenge me to think with a social conscience, seek my unique giftedness and strive to have new “life-developing” experiences. Recently, I have been challenged that the important experiences that develop personal character and spiritual depth are not necessarily internships or cross-country treks, but rather, sincere and honest reflection on my experiences, especially the most tragic ones.
Letters for Lizzie is an autobiography by James O’Donnell about a relatively new Christian who took an 80 percent pay reduction to leave the world of high finance on the East coast and assume an executive-in-residence and teaching position at a Christian college in the Midwest. Within several months of their relocation his wife, Lizzie, is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. This book is a collection of letters James wrote to keep his friends and family on the East coast informed of Lizzie’s condition. Each chapter also includes present day reflections of what was going on in other areas of his life at the time each letter was written. In essence, the reader is swept back through the turbulent times, heartache, frustrations, glimmers of hope and manifestations of God’s faithfulness related to this dreadful disease from the husband’s perspective.
On the surface, this story does not resonate as the most necessary “must-read” for a single, Christian, mid-20’s male. However, I was intrigued by the intense honesty of James’ writing. He describes in detail the vulnerable moments he would express his anger with God, the physical effects of sleepless nights in the midst of teaching and delicately discusses the effects the surgeries and medications had on the physical intimacy of his marriage. His writing effectively comes across as a heartfelt, sincere conversation with an old friend. It is quite obvious that he is sharing well-earned pearls of wisdom from remarkably difficult situations that, unfortunately, many of us will face to varying degrees in our own lives.
It seemed that two reflections stuck with me as I finished the book. One is that the book seemed to highlight well the desire that through this experience they wanted to help non-Christians, as many of their friends out East were, to come to a better understanding of his and his wife’s faith. It was not a naïve, happy-go-lucky version of faith. It was an in-the-mud, yell-at-the-heavens kind of faith. Somehow they still found the beauty and joy in the moments that most others would have missed. The second reflection is the Christian response to offer support to families in similar situations. James speaks to this issue near the end of the book, though not in a detailed or practical manner. This may be considered a weakness in the book, but I think the point is clearly stated: do not follow the instinct to avoid such situations, but persevere as the community of faith to support wholeheartedly, sharing in the struggle as much as you are able.
On the surface, exploring these issues raised by this book may not have seemed as important as reading the books that I “should” be reading. Letters for Lizzie is a far cry from books entirely devoted to becoming a fit marriage partner, being a bold evangelist, or planting a deeply rooted, relevant foundation. However, if you read and reflect just a little deeper, I think this book gives some attention to all of these issues. The added bonus is that it demonstrates how Christians can genuinely approach tragedy with hope, live truthfully in an unbelieving world and find that joy in commitment. The book also illustrates how faithfulness and honesty are the foundational stones of living a truly relevant life.
From the Indianapolis Star
Faith tempered: Cancer shakes one couple’s relationship with God.
Jim O’Donnell couldn’t understand why God would treat his family this way, especially after they had sacrificed so much to follow what they regarded as a call from God.
To change his life, O’Donnell had taken an 80 percent cut in his $200,000 salary as a financial investor. He, his wife and their three children had also left family, friends and a beautiful home in Boston to move to a small town in northern Indiana, to try to have an impact on the future of young people.
Privately, O’Donnell believed he would be blessed by God for making the move to teach ethics at Huntington (Ind.) College. Yet three months after he and his family took their leap of faith, their world — and their view of God — was upended when Jim’s wife, Lizzie, faced two health conditions that doctors believed would kill her.
“Once in Indiana, Lizzie’s life came under relentless attack, first from a terminal cancer diagnosis, then from end-stage heart failure,” O’Donnell recalls. “As Lizzie’s crises deepened, my simple trust that God would never let me down began to give way to dread and fear that perhaps I’d misunderstood who God is.”
The struggle to find faith and hope amid tragedy and suffering marks the life of O’Donnell. That struggle also marks the theme of his recently released book, “Letters for Lizzie: A Story of Love, Friendship and A Battle for Life.”
After Lizzie was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 1994, O’Donnell began writing emotional letters to friends in the East, seeking to start a prayer network for her. When cancer treatments kept her alive after nine months, the family had hope — at least until doctors determined that the treatments had destroyed her heart.
Lizzie not only had to fight the cancer, she had to hope for a heart transplant.
“Then, and only then, did I think my faith in God was misguided,” O’Donnell, 56, recalls. “It would take a couple of years to come back from that wasteland of toxic skepticism.”
Lizzie received her new heart in 1996, after a 21-year-old committed suicide.
Eight years later, Lizzie is still alive. She has kidney and degenerative disc problems from taking medicines needed to battle organ rejection. The threat that the cancer could return is still there. So is the knowledge that the average heart-transplant patient lives 10 years after getting a new heart.
Still, she has marked 33 years of marriage to Jim. She has also seen her children grow. Their oldest son, Nick, 28, is an actor in Seattle. Andrew, 25, is an investment banker in New York City. And Jon, 16, is a high school sophomore.
“My faith was very challenged by the diagnosis of cancer and the poor prognosis for me, a wife and a mother,” Lizzie recalls. “I was shaking my fist at God. But I came to the point of just putting one foot in front of the other and finding grace where I could. There were times when I lost hope, but my hope was changed into living out each day the best I could.”
At 51, Lizzie volunteers at a hospice, trying to give comfort to those close to dying.
“I know what it’s like,” she says about being a hospice patient. “I’m not afraid to be around people who are dying. I’m just trying to help them live the life they have left in the best way they can.”
Her concern has also extended to her husband as she watched him struggle with his faith as he juggled caring for her, rearing their sons, running their home and starting a new job.
She’s glad to see his faith has become more mature and solid. Still, Jim O’Donnell says, it’s also touched by pain and doubt.
“God is good, but serving him is not safe,” he says. “When we came to Indiana, I thought God was going to shower us with blessings. Maybe through all we have been through, and all he has preserved us to do, maybe those are the blessings — writing the book, speaking to frail, suffering people all over the country, Lizzie being a hospice volunteer.”
Still, he won’t offer any easy words for a life-changing time that has been anything but easy.
“Underneath a mature faith must be the certainty that God loves us, cares about us and is competent to help us in our hour of need,” he says. “But those certainties are often shrouded — at least for me — in the midst of our suffering.”
Call Star reporter John Shaughnessy at (317) 444-6175.
Transplant Chronicles – Summer 2005 issue (pdf)
The Wall Street Journal (pdf) – Part of a series of cancer survivor stories reported by Amy Dockser Marcus for The Wall Street Journal that won her 2005 Pulitzer Prize
Women’s Day (pdf)
Arizona Daily Star (pdf), Tucson, AZ, 11-10-04. A battle for life bolstered by love in ‘Letters for Lizzie’ by Kathleen Conti.
Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (pdf), 7-17-04.