In fact it was a Christmas card that delivered her searing message. Under the words of holiday cheer she penned a few breezy lines, the last of which was, “Guess what? I have cancer, darn it!” Confronted with a terrifying diagnosis she was seized by neither despair nor self pity but exasperation. Cancer was a postscript to her note, and to her addendum. An irritation, an intrusion. Something to deal with summarily and then brush away, like a wayward cinder from the eye. In months to come she refused it respect; it loomed on her horizon and made difficult many days, yet she defied its threat and went on living, something at which she excelled. She almost made it to another Christmas.
So contagious was her joie de vivre that even those who knew better began to suspend doubts: she would prove the exception to a lethal sentence. But the harsh reality of metastatic carcinoma could not be willed away. Her indomitable spirit was finally betrayed by perishable flesh. One Sunday in October, Ann O’Donnell died.
Who was she? Readers of this magazine know her name. She, Anne Burleigh, and I, rotated in writing this column. Writing was one of her talents. It reflected, however, only a fraction of her abilities. She was a wife and mother, a woman moved to and capable of speaking out on sensitive issues affecting family, church, and society. She spoke to small groups and to large groups, on college campuses and on The Phil Donahue Show. But this is not her biography, nor is there space sufficient here for all that needs telling. I am only her friend, reeling from the impact of her death, trying to cope with those two most irreconcilable words. She was, I think, the most vibrant woman I have ever known.
The most incredible aspect of our friendship, and the grief I feel at her loss, is that Ann and I spent a total of twenty minutes in each other’s company. It takes years, usually, to establish the bond we cemented in less time than a half-hour sitcom — an outrageous comparison she would relish.
She arrived in San Francisco two years ago to participate in a television forum, defending a strong defense posture against a panelist who displayed a naive inclination toward pacifism, which concept later entered the language as part of the “seamless garment.” I was in the audience, struck by the external package: here was Ann O’Donnell, a good looking woman with a lithe, tan body, draped in a chic little silk of understated elegance. She registered the kind of impression that pushes envy control to outer limits. Worse, her head was a file case of information from which she deftly presented her case, skillfully fielded polemical parries, and never for a minute lost her poise or sense of humor. She was a cornucopia of assets, the kind of person who initially sets into motion, among those of us not yet canonized, the terrible need to locate a flaw.
That problem quickly gave way to cheerful acceptance, because any kind of contact with her disarming buoyancy led one to forgive her her blessings. There was a kind of luxury in being exposed to a woman supercharged with the sheer exhilaration of living. She tackled everything with unalloyed zest, from mid-wifing a litter of seven Irish Wolfhounds to chiding archbishops with dereliction of duty. If she harbored a petulant gene in her body it never surfaced. She met challenges that came her way with an attitude of “great, let’s do it!” If people could be symbolized by punctuations, Ann would be an exclamation point. It even followed the report of her cancer.
I would learn about her, of course, incrementally. After I drove her to her hotel from the television appearance, I never saw her again. We began, however, continuous communication via letters and phone calls, inevitably ranging over most human concerns and frivolities. I was never sure how she worked me into a schedule heavy with commitments. She traveled, but home was her priority. Wherever she was, her brain and her energies were in gear. Her home was often a way station for transients, celebrity or otherwise, who had missions in St. Louis or were merely passing through. I accused her of running a Bed and Breakfast without a license. Hospitable by nature, she loved having houseguests. She was Mary to my Martha, never lapsing into the fevered white-glove Martha trap, about which Christ had rather censorious comment. She twitted me for pulling my forelock about my lack of advanced credentials when writing about issues which provoked my attention. She had a low threshold of patience with most academics, convinced that those of us in the trenches have a much better perspective. Time and again her jaunty script arrived to bolster my faltering morale, reinforcing by her own vision opinions I was sometimes hesitant to express. If I am tentative, she was confident. Never arrogant, never overbearing. But sure.
I last heard her voice this summer, having called and been told she was resting. Fearful of that implication, I replied I would call another time but, realizing who it was, she quickly came to the phone. In a perky voice she made it abundantly clear that her exhaustion was due to an afternoon spent bricking a patio. I felt a great wave of relief. We chatted and shared our usual liberal quota of laughs. It pleased me that I could make her laugh, although I guess she was a good audience. The best part of making Ann laugh was that you got to hear the most musical sound this side of the bells of St. Mary’s. To describe it as an infectious giggle is hardly accurate and distressingly coy. It was at once delicate and hearty, an unbridled explosion of delight. It was a perfect reflection of her sunny disposition. Now it, and she, are silenced.
This is the moment fists get shaken at heaven, and faith put to the test. Why, in her prime, Ann?
It occurs to me, not without pain, that the person who could defuse anger, dissipate confusion, and make sense from apparent perversity is no longer with us. We are left to lurch about on our own, seeking some kind of answer.
I’m not making much headway with the pain, but I’m spared the anger. I stand bewildered by professed Christians who berate God Himself in the presence of personal anguish. We are talking about a God Whose Son was born in a stable and died on a cross. There is no ambiguity in that message. Suffering is part of existence. We do not like it, we may rail against it, but it is integral to the mystery. It is difficult to line up with those who would instruct God if one only pauses for a minute to scan the night sky, or walk by the sea. Some of us have the bad habit of holding God accountable — to us. When it comes to death, we expect He will meet our timetable. Most certainly, the good among us should not have to endure trials, tribulations, or injustice. In other words, according to our by-laws, earth should be heaven. Such hubris is demolished, our dependence reestablished, and our fragility laid bare, by just such a human tragedy as Ann’s death. Which may be, I suspect, one reason it happens.
We who mourn her continue in our struggle. But Ann is free, to rest in the peace and light of the God she loved, and around Whose message she so steadfastly focused her brief but radiant life.