Bozoma Saint John: Everything Can Be True at Once

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Bozoma Saint John is a successful marketing executive, but she is also a woman who knows the rollercoaster of profound love and deep loss. She shares her hard-won wisdom and complicated grief as she faced her husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

In this conversation, Kate and Bozoma:

  • Give us permission to tell the whole truth (even when it isn’t a neat)
  • Speak honestly about the complicated realities of caregiving
  • Discuss how our roles change within families from daughter to parent or spouse to caregiver
  • Describe anticipatory grief

CW: adult language, death of a child during pregnancy, death of a spouse


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Watch clips from this conversation, read the full transcript, and access discussion questions by clicking here.

Follow Kate on InstagramFacebook, or X (formerly known as Twitter)—@katecbowler.



Kate Bowler, Bozoma Saint John

Kate Bowler  00:01

My name is Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. And today, my guest speaks so honestly about this reality about how much dread and hope and courage and fear and relief and rage can exist all at once in a human life. You’re going to love her honesty. Bozoma Saint John  is a really impressive person. She is an incredible marketing executive serving top roles at you know, little known places like Pepsi, Apple Music, Uber, and most recently as the Global Marketing Officer at Netflix. But she’s also a woman who knows the roller coaster of profound love and deep loss. Her memoir, The Urgent Life tells the story of her hard won wisdom and complicated grief as she faced her husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Bozoma, I am so grateful we’re talking today.


Bozoma Saint John  03:42

Oh, thank you so much. I’m really glad to be here.


Kate Bowler  03:48

If you don’t mind, I kind of wondered if we could start at the beginning. It sounds like when you first met Peter, you had no idea that like that guy would play such a huge role in your life. Tell me about Peter.


Bozoma Saint John  04:02

First, I just want to stop on that for a second you know, because how often does that happen in our lives, though, right? Where you meet someone. And if you had known at the moment that the role that you play they play in your life, right? It’s just like, it just feels like oh wow, we’re barreling through life. And you meet someone and it could be a best friend. It could be a love interest, it could be a future boss. It could be any any kind of relationship. But it’s like how profound it is later to think about that chance means.


Kate Bowler  04:36

You’re like you’re the guy at the coffee shop, you’re that guy.


Bozoma Saint John  04:40

Like if I had known that the obnoxious, big man in line at the cafeteria was gonna have such an incredible impact on my life. I might have behaved differently in that moment that I might have, I might have just pause in the moment be like partying, you know, the halo comes across over his head. He was like that I would have I would have behaved differently, I think but instead, I was like, who in the hell are you and why you’re even good enough to talk to me like me.


Kate Bowler  05:18

And it sounds like you were so in love and yet such different people. You have demands over here. And you’ve got Italians, like really attempt like peak Italian content over there.


Bozoma Saint John  05:31

Yes. Italian Catholic on top don’t forget the Catholic part. Yes, it’s like the differences that we had really didn’t stop any of our connection or love, you know, and that for me is also part of what changed my perspective about people about life, is that you could not have written on paper to more different people, you know, fall in love.


Kate Bowler  06:04

The story of the very rapid and painful move from Ghana to the United States. I mean, your family had been through the wringer.


Bozoma Saint John  06:11

Oh, yeah I mean, look, my parents were also what I consider stereotypically African, but the world didn’t consider them stereotypically African because the picture that has been painted of who Africans are is so vastly different, right? It’s like, when you think of Africans, you think of the children with distended bellies and flies on their eyes and send them a penny a day so they can eat, you know, whereas like, my parents speak four languages each. You know, they are very rich in culture, very proud. Like, there’s nothing about them that makes you think, like, oh, they wouldn’t be ashamed to say they’re African, or they moved to the US for this great American dream and forgetting where they were from, you know, there was no assimilation in their in their entire ethos, none. So it’s I happen to live in America, so we happen to live here, we could just as well live in Italy, or we could just as well live in Finland. But we live in America, we are still going in. So very proudly, so and so we’re very strange for me when I would meet people and it was almost like assume that I should be ashamed of my African pneus. You know, that somehow that was lesser because they come from a place that is exalted as being better than this very dark continent, right? And so even when I met Peter and his family, I think it probably surprised them about how proud I am my heritage, as proud as they are. There’s no like, you can’t talk about Christopher Columbus to them in any kind of negative way you know what I’m saying? Like, you better Columbus Day comes you better not say anything about indigenous people day, like don’t even extra face, you know, meanwhile, I’m just like, well, the rape and pillage of the Americas very much like the rape and pillage of Africa. And it was like so, for me, the idea of my bicultural illness, you know, being very proudly Ghanaian being very proudly American. Like all of that just felt very normal to me. I’m like, yes, of course, I can have all the things of course, I can be all the things, why would I be ashamed of any of it? That makes me who I am.


Kate Bowler  08:25

When you fell in love, and you wanted to move in together? Your dad had this very, I grew up in Canada, and I have a lot of immigrant family friends. And like, it seems like peak immigrant dad move where he was like, Oh, I’m sorry, you’re doing what? Oh,  I’m sorry I might be in China right now but like, I’m getting on a flight, I’m gonna show up in your boyfriend’s office at work. And we’re we’re gonna have a chat.


Bozoma Saint John  08:53

Oh, yeah for me, my dad, our relationship has been one that has been fraught with great expectations. And I say fraught, because, look, I don’t think that my dad ever put those expectations on me because he wanted me to fail at them or because he wanted me to feel trapped, or anything negative. Yeah, he put those expectations because he thought I could achieve them. And still does, you know, he’s like, Oh, no, you are the best and so therefore, I expect the best out of you. And also you are an example to your sisters. And so I want you to go first, conquer the world, and then your sister is going to follow you and conquer their own. You know, that was the expectation. So for me to say, you know, at 23 years old, that I am first of all, moving to New York City, not going to medical school, going to be an assistant, grab somebody’s coffee with my, you know, very expensive education. And now I’m going to move in with my boyfriend that I’ve known for seven Months. He was like, absolutely not no and so he yeah, he flew from China, as soon as I told him, right and didn’t even have a conversation with me about it, because he felt like it was falling on deaf ears. So he’s like, I’m gonna go meet this person who has so influenced my daughter right. And I think it’s, you know, both are beautiful and frustrating because nothing is ever straight is it’s like, it’s always complicated. It made me feel both protected and loved, and also very frustrated, and minimized when he decided to just talk to Peter about it. Because here, he right here he is, like, I’m going to make sure that this person is not going to take advantage of you, I love you enough that I am going to go to hell and back, it didn’t matter where I am in the world, I am coming at the drop of a dime, to ensure that this person is going to take care of you take care of your heart, take care of your body, take care of your needs, whatever it is, right? And the same time I was like, well, why don’t I have a voice in this? You’ve raised me as like the chief heir to every expectation that you have, like a son. And you think I’m not smart enough or knowledgeable enough to make a decision as big as this on my own. You know, the complicated feeling.


Kate Bowler  11:26

Love you have for your dad is so palpable, and the like the dignity we get when people expect the world from us is so intense. And you had such an intensive inversion, though, in such a short period of time because like, when you get married, that just happens to also be the time when your parents marriage falls apart. When your formidable amazing larger than life dad is now like living with you in a studio apartment that must have been a very strange kind of way to I don’t know if it was it, like aging into your own expectations for your life. It’s just so odd when we you have like a different reversion, parents.


Bozoma Saint John  12:10

I know, no one, I don’t think that we talked about that enough, right? We don’t, when does that time happen? Like there’s two inflection points, I feel like with our parents, or someone who’s in a parental role to you, right? The first when you realize they’re human. That moment, we’re just like, Oh, my God, like, they really don’t know, I didn’t know this. They don’t know me. And they’re not like indestructible. Like that, you know, that first moment when you realize that they’re human. And then the second when you realize that you may be in a more powerful position than they are. That is a real mind bleep. Like, you know, I was just at that time, it’s like, all of the complexities and this is why I’m saying that nothing is clean. So why do we expect our lives to be clean all the time, you are battling these two very serious and different emotions. For me, it was like the joy and euphoria of being a newlywed and having like, all of these expectations of this glorious marriage, right, I taken these incredible vows that felt like Oh, of course, I could do this forever. At the same time, my parents 25 year marriage is just tanking, and not just tanking imploding. Even though I had witnessed cracks in it before, I just thought, oh, they’ll be fine. This is what it is, they’ll just stick together and they’ll figure it out the patch it up, and then everything will be okay that’s what marriage is supposed to be right. And then this person, my father, who has been a provider, and a protector, for me, again, undefeated, you’re thinking about, like, where he came from and what he was able to come. Like, he had just hustled everything, and was able to make it. And so then he becomes someone who does not have any power, and needs my help. It was it’s just a very upside down type of feeling. And there is no explaining it in a clean linear way. So if all of the feelings happen at the same time, and that’s why even today, sometimes I look at life and I’m just like, you know, why would you be upset if you can, if you’re living with two opposing emotions. You know, it’s like, it’s like my favorite thing when somebody’s arguing with me or you know, trying to explain something, but I have this and then that and then they did it and I’m like, Yes, but all those things can be true at the same time. You can make this work in your marriage, and scared shitless because you see somebody else’s falling apart that you thought was indestructible. Those two things can be true, yeah, you can feel like do you are protected by somebody and also feel like you are more powerful than them at the same time.


Kate Bowler  12:44



Bozoma Saint John  13:26

It’s a very complicated feeling.


Kate Bowler  15:10

I think that’s one of the things I care about the most is how limiting our cultural scripts can be. When we were told we’re only allowed to have one, one dominant emotion that suffocates all others men.


Bozoma Saint John  15:28

I mean, I would, I’d love to be a person with a single feeling. Oh, imagine exactly, if you like, you could just have a single feeling all the time, life would be so much more simple. But it’s my belief in that way, right? Like grief is like that, where it’s like, look, I think also it’s a it’s, it’s something we should talk about, because it feels to the person who’s grieving. Like I can’t have any other emotion because it’s not normal. I can’t be grieving and sad and despondent. And also laugh. I can’t also be hopeful for the future. But I can’t be fearful and also relieved. Young, thank you it’s, it’s a shame to feel that way because people have assigned us the singular emotions, although that is not the way life works. And that is not the way any of us operate, and so why is it that we hold this belief? Why is it that we expect people to just be one dimensional and put those expectations on somebody?


Kate Bowler  16:36

I always think it’s so interesting to how people narrate other people’s lives exactly like that, where they’re like, she had it all. Everything was perfect and you know what I mean, like, it’s like a promo and a new segment where you can like see the ad and then, um, yeah, exactly.


Bozoma Saint John  16:53

Actually, she never had it all. Okay, stop putting that on her. There were days when she was over here, like crying in the corner because she thought everything sucked, right. It probably did actually. Also, let’s not pretend like ever perfect all the time like what are you even talking about?


Kate Bowler  17:14

It’s so true, I always felt so uncomfortable when people were describing me when I would do like book tour stuff because they would be like she married her high school sweetheart. She just had a baby and then it was like actually like pretty tough for about a decade missing my arms for bed and like he was none of it.


Bozoma Saint John  17:34

Exactly. Like it didn’t all this like go crashing down there were fissures in the in the perfect plan, you know?


Kate Bowler  17:42

That’s exactly right.


Kate Bowler  17:50

We’ll be right back.


Kate Bowler  19:08

I want and one of the ways that you describe your pregnancy to is so honest about that, because it was like it was a complicated realisation that tell me tell me about that moment.


Bozoma Saint John  20:28

So when Peter and I got married the the truth, right, we didn’t talk about kids, actually, we really did it and I know that’s probably shocking. But we really did it, I think it was just an assumed thing. I had my assumptions, and he had his assumption it was like, I didn’t want kids, I just didn’t want them anytime soon. I really didn’t think I wanted a lot of them. And as I got into my career, and you know, our relationship, I was kind of like, take it or leave it, you know, it was just like, I wasn’t pressed about it. And he really wanted kids. And so his assumption was like, oh, after like your one, here comes the baby. And I’m thinking like, I don’t know, maybe you’re 10 or 12, like what the hell, you know, but that’s the thing is it like I think sometimes, you know, again, you’re in these really in relationships, and even when they’re serious, and even when you’re in love, you’re both over here making assumptions about these very core things that you never actually put real words and numbers to, again, something that has changed me entirely, not just in my personal romantic relationships with at work everywhere else. It’s like we make these assumptions. If everybody’s on the same page, and you are not on the same page, you’re not. And it may feel like ah, it’s uncomfortable to say these things and put times on things or numbers on things to make it tangible, that it will be a lifesaver later on. And we just did not have those conversations. And so in year five, when he’s like, so when are we having this baby? You and I’m just like, Oh, hell no, I’m not coming off the pill. I’m not now we’re gonna talk about that next year. How about next year, we talked about it. And then here I go pregnant. And I was devastated, devastated sad and I couldn’t believe it. Because it just felt like my world as I knew it was going to end. And again, I don’t think we talked about this enough where it’s like, look on paper looks like everything was perfect right? Why should I be sad about that? Here I am in a successful marriage five years in, we lived on, you know, a beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. We both had amazing jobs, great careers. I was like, on the rocket ships so was he. Of course we should have a baby. Healthy, successful, exciting, great friends, great family support, why wouldn’t we have a baby. And when I got pregnant, I couldn’t say that to anybody. I couldn’t tell anybody that I didn’t think it was time that I was afraid that this baby was going to come in ruin everything. Here, ruin my career, slow me down, change my body. Maybe change our relationship when I would? When would I have me time I heard all these horror stories about not sleeping with a newborn. I’m like, no, but I like my sleep see, okay. They’re all of the things. And so I was very, I was very scared and upset, but there was no one to tell that to. I couldn’t even tell my own husband, right. And that kind of pressure made me feel ashamed. Made me feel like there was something wrong with me as a woman because why didn’t I have all those warm and fuzzy feelings? Why is it I found out I was pregnant and then start screaming and crying call my best friend. You know, why was I crying real tears of sorrow and didn’t tell my mother for two weeks? No, it’s like that kind of feeling and so by the time I was well into my pregnancy, and still kind of like resistant to it, but then going into a checkup and realizing that there’s something wrong. Everything shifted again. And then it was I had the feelings of shame because it was like, Oh, but I didn’t appreciate this. You know, I thought everything was normal and fine. I didn’t appreciate what I had is such a gift. And so perhaps it was punishment. Or my for my ingratitude. No, I just didn’t know, that pregnancy could be dangerous or scary or anything because again, we don’t talk about it. Yeah, this was to get the glow, right?


Kate Bowler  24:57

Yes, we’re going to eat full, what to expect when you’re expecting montage.


Bozoma Saint John  25:02

Oh my god exactly didn’t tell me that the glow was just swelling. And tell me uncontrollable it didn’t say anything about that. So here I am, like I can’t even do this right. You know, it’s just a very, it was a very difficult and difficult time and by the time I was really in danger from a physical and health standpoint and also the threat to my pregnancy, I was just confused about how to feel. And I wish I knew then that all the things can be true at the same time that you can be fearful and grateful at the same time that you can have regret. And also hope at the same time. I didn’t, I didn’t know that that was could be true so if I didn’t have a right to feel protective over this life that I didn’t want. I didn’t know I had the right to do that. And I wish I had known that. I wish I could have embraced all of it. I wish I could have said you know what? The last five months were terrible. You know what, but now, but now now I’m gonna celebrate now I’m gonna be okay it just I didn’t feel like I had the permission. And how terrible is it that like I couldn’t even say that to anybody who even articulate so here I am arguing with myself in my own head about that.


Kate Bowler  26:31

And then to process a traumatic pregnancy and delivery and an a terrible loss with all the physical reminders.


Bozoma Saint John  26:44

That’s right, because you know, at the end of my pregnancy, I had to deliver my daughter early because I developed preeclampsia very early, severe. And while on the delivery table, and just fighting with every everything that I had in me, the realization of my complete failure was devastating. You know, I just felt like, wow, like, I didn’t even have that natural maternal instinct to begin with. And then when I did realize that I want to protect this child, I can’t even do that. Like that, the devastation of that, and then on top of the grief, of actually losing her. So it’s not just psychological, but the physical. And then, you know, in the weeks following with having to deal with a gorgeous breasts, that then the milk cane, but no baby. You know or, like healing, and I’m sure there’s some sort of I haven’t looked into this, but I’m sure there’s some sort of biological, like the endorphins and things that happen to help your body heal, you know, that just weren’t happening for me. And so all of that complicated feeling was also sitting aside my hope for the future. My hope that like okay, I’m ready, okay, I’m gonna do this, don’t I want a baby now I’m not ready, and I want to go for it again and then it was like, I have fighting spirit to make it happen. You know, all of those things at the same time was devastating.


Kate Bowler  28:46

The fact that you chose the word failure, as opposed to tragedy, like it’s so it’s such an insider view of this, like, terrible math that we do when we suffer, you know, just to like, transform these tragedies into I remember that feeling so intensely, like, I have failed. I have failed, I haven’t I have not I terrible things are happening. And I am not in control of this. This must be and then you know dot.


Bozoma Saint John  29:19

Yeah, but right, but do so right? Because we do that over everything. It’s like, tornadoes complete your house, you’d be like, damn, and I failed in my house.


Kate Bowler  29:33

I shouldn’t have turned on the blow dryer. I made all this wind.


Bozoma Saint John  29:36

Exactly right, and it’s like, yes, we laugh about that and at the same time.


Kate Bowler  29:42

It’s devastating.


Bozoma Saint John  29:43

You and I could probably sit here and compare notes about so many situations where you would tell me and I’d be like, come on, girl that was not your fault. You know, or you’d sit there and be like, beause I mean, come on, like you really like this was pretty fancy. He really could not have done anything to be different, and I’m like not grabbing facts. need that extra garlic? Which by the way, my mother in law did make me eat garlic, the rest of my next pregnancy.


Kate Bowler  30:05



Bozoma Saint John  30:06

No, yeah, well, yeah, it’s the most Italian solution ever. And it has to be roasted to right […] now yep and she swears by it by the way, she’s like, see? I told you, of course because when my daughter was born, she’s like, I need the garlic.


Kate Bowler  30:28



Bozoma Saint John  30:29

You’re right, you’re right. Let me give her give it to her.


Kate Bowler  30:32

But it sounds like a like a switch was flipped and you’re like, okay, that’s it, like, I like I do want to be a mom that became a very like you were determined.


Bozoma Saint John  30:41

To tell you the truth, though.


Kate Bowler  30:42



Bozoma Saint John  30:44

I don’t know if it was that I said, I’m ready to be a mom. I think it was that I want to be successful at pregnancy.


Kate Bowler  30:53



Bozoma Saint John  30:56

Yeah, if I’m telling you the whole truth, I think I wanted to be successful. The idea of being a good mom, or being a mom to this living person. Didn’t happen until she was actually here. Man, that’s that’s really the truth is I like I said, as I felt like such a failure in pregnancy. I just want to have a successful one. I want to feel like I did it. You know, and even in my second pregnancy, when some of the same things started happening. They were happening. And that actually, let me say this was like my preeclampsia my first pregnancy. The symptoms started about 24 weeks, you know, so even though it’s early, it was still in a, quote unquote, reasonable time, where you would expect to preeclampsia to start. In my second pregnancy, my symptoms started eight weeks. So that was it was very early but I felt more successful about it again, even though it’s irrational, because it had nothing to do with what I could do or not do, you know, but I felt more successful at it because I was prepared, because I had a doctor who’s a specialist, because I had my band at home and I could take my blood pressure on my cuff, I could take my blood pressure at home. I had my Lovenox that I was shooting myself up with every day to find my blood. I was taking my medications and my vitamins. Like I was like, oh, yeah, no, look, I’ve got the man on this one. I’m gonna do it you know, even though this preeclampsia has come back with a vengeance. And when I went into the hospital for the last time with my daughter, Lael, even though it was only a few weeks after I had gone into the hospital with Eve, and my first pregnancy, I felt more successful, because I was like, oh, well, he’s I gave myself a few more weeks. You know, that is what I that was the feeling I had. And when he was born, was when I was like, Oh, now there’s this human here. That I’m supposed to be a parent to it okay, well, that was not part of the deal, y’all you know what I mean? I don’t know what this was just trying to pregnancy, that’s all that’s all so you know. And so it wasn’t until then, I don’t know if other people feel that way ever, but I really didn’t understand what it was going to mean. You know, to be a mother until she was born. And if I can tell you some more truth I think every day, every day makes me feel more confident about my motherhood. You know, I feel better as a mother today, even though the challenges are different, and we’re dealing with a whole different set of new things from deciding. I don’t remember reading this in the handbook. You know, every day something is different, but I feel more confident. I feel happier in my motherhood today than I did back then. And I wish if I could go back and tell myself, I wish I could, I could tell myself that, you know that my own motherhood journey, not necessarily for anybody else with my own motherhood journey would get significantly better as time went on, you know, as she grew as our relationship grew, as I got to know her as her own person, not as a ward. No, but as their own human who is interesting and funny and, you know, just like she’s just a special person, like I that I like her. I don’t just love her. I like her, and it’s so much better now.


Kate Bowler  35:08

We’ll be right back.


Kate Bowler  35:33

The devastating loss of your first pregnancy it sounds like it like opened up a space in your marriage that you I mean, didn’t mean to be there and was kind of a it’s like a shocking deterioration.


Bozoma Saint John  38:30

Mm hmm well, you know, it was so shocking to me, because we had been on the same team during my pregnancies, right? That when we found out that I was sick with even my first pregnancy was like the two of us together, trying to figure out how to make it work, you know, and then she died. And it was the two of us in our grief you know, like, nobody else could understand what we were going through, but us. And so it was two of us together. And then I got pregnant. And even though our reactions were different, because here I was celebrating my successful, you know, successfully impregnated […] check stuff, watch, you know. And he was feeling fearful and unsure. We were still a team, because like, okay, now that this has happened, we’re going to get this group and get through this together, right? And then Leo was born and all of a sudden, we were not a team. And I promise you happened overnight, I promise you, but all of a sudden, it was like, who could protect her better? Who could just do better by her? Who was not going to fuck her up? And so even when she was like in the NICU, and Peter would go to work and of course now I have much better perspective right on the situation like thinking like an empathy for him and having to leave the NICU or not even go to see her in the morning and go straight to work and then half the hours at work, finally get off, be able to come to the hospital, see her for maybe an hour, and then we’re kicked out of there meanwhile, I’m there all day, you know, he woke up to go to work, I woke up to go to the hospital. And he would come and that hour that he had, he was trying to learn the things I had been learning for nine hours, you know, how to change her diaper or how to fix the feeding to bore, you know, swaddle her or any number of things. You know, and when she came home, it was worse. Because it was like, you know, I, I felt that he was doing everything wrong. And he felt like he couldn’t learn because I was in his way. And he wanted his own kangaroo time. And even then I was just like, but your chest is too hairy for that you realize that? She didn’t want to be on that. And he’s like, how do you know, like, skinny, she can’t tell you that. I’m like, I can feel it I know I’m her mother, you know, say, and so we went from being partners, true partners, to then our homeless I battlefield on who could take care of her better. And that was something that became and reference you, you know what I’m trying to say? irreparable, thank you irreparable break that we couldn’t fix? Because there was no winning that argument.


Kate Bowler  41:42

Yeah, it’s so wild the way that caretaking changes us, like gives us it’s like it takes our relationship and then hands people jobs.


Bozoma Saint John  41:51

Yes, you’re right yeah, I have had time to think about this to be introspective about it and think about the empathy that I should have had for him. And the grace I should have given myself too, certainly wasn’t giving myself any grace zero, because I had to be perfect, know in the end, again, it’s like I look back at that time, and I wish I would have given us some grace, to be the imperfect humans that we are to be the first time parents who don’t know anything who are guessing through this. I wish I knew that she was indestructible, and that she’d survive our mistakes. That like, you know, one diaper that was wet an extra hour won’t kill her. You know, I just I just wish I knew that and some grace about it.


Kate Bowler  42:48

Yes, we’re so we’re so different sometimes with the people we love the most when we’re operating in a place of fear, which is, you know, for so many of us, like most of the time, but the separation between you and Peter sounds like it was was like, what, three, three years?


Bozoma Saint John  43:08

Yeah, right was about three years.


Kate Bowler  43:11

And then you just get like a full strange, like, echo of having to deal with difficulty all over again, when your mom and Peter are both diagnosed with cancer at the same time and then and then you’re a caretaker again?


Bozoma Saint John  43:27



Kate Bowler  43:27

Were you? Did you find yourself different in that second time around? Or would it? How do you think you were as opposed to like, your first time mom fierce?


Bozoma Saint John  43:38

Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Um, you don’t think I was just too overwhelmed by it all, to be honest with you to even behave any differently than as a survivor? You know, we often talk about survivors of cancer as the patient, right, but never as a survivor as a caretaker. And there are survival tactics, and then wounds that come off of that survivor that exist, and we don’t talk about that. You know, so it’s, it’s a very difficult place to be because I didn’t feel I had the permission, much like in my first pregnancy, to express my frustration, my fear, my anger, my exhaustion. I didn’t have permission to do that, because who is I compared to the people who are sick? Like, how do you even fix your face to say that? How do I say I’m tired? When he’s just gone through chemo and radiation? How do I say I’m scared when my mom is on her second battle? And she doesn’t know if there’ll be a third. How do I say I need some relief when and they’re both sitting there with hair falling out and don’t even want to look at themselves in the mirror. The outside, how do you express that as a caretaker, you can’t, you don’t have the permission to. And so my behavior that second time around, perhaps even felt more like a prison, then the first time because now I’m like, I’m a caretaker for my kid, I’m a caretaker for my estranged husband, I’m a caretaker for my mom. And I’m just trying to keep all the balls in the air and not complain about it.


Kate Bowler  45:36

And, and then you’re presented with a kind of, I mean, like an unthinkable choice, when you get that phone call that says that Peters diagnosis is, that it’s untreatable, what was going through your mind when you’re trying to figure out what that new crisis would mean for your life?


Bozoma Saint John  45:59

Well, there was a big dose of regret over how I treated, especially the three years prior to his illness, you know, that I was just like, oh, I wasted so much time. You know, we could have we could have figured this out, like, a waste of time you know, and then feeling like, hopeful. So I’m okay well, here’s a chance for us to like, really live it up for as much time as we have left like, we are going to lie be in love I teenagers, you know. And then in the middle of caretaking, beyond, I don’t know how many caretakers will admit this, but now admitted to you, which is that, at some point, you start thinking like, what would life be like afterwards, and you feel relief? You know, just like, I just wish this would end already oh, and it’s a terrible feeling to have, because all you’re doing is praying that they get well, you know, right it’s like, that’s the way you’ve got to be, but then at the same time, he’s just like, what was gonna end can you just end now, so I can, I can stop being afraid of when it’s coming. Because even up until like, the last day, when, you know, we had or I would say last days before that, like we had reconciled. We were in love like teenagers again, and it felt different, you know, the butterflies were not the same. But it felt like a coming home. And at the same time, it felt like just trying to squeeze as much time into it as possible, because you know, when you’re in love, you just feel like you have all the time in the world. So there’s an intensity to loving in the face of death. There’s a different intensity to that. It makes you more intentional about the love about things you choose to do. It makes you intentional about forgiveness. Not even so much like, oh, I’m gonna forgive him for putting the socks on the floor when I told him that the bin was out over there. You know, it’s more about the forgiveness of like, the things that you thought were irreparable. The big things. A personality trait.


Kate Bowler  48:15

Yeah, being the person that you needed them to be exactly when for something that big?


Bozoma Saint John  48:22

Yeah or, like I said, like to give him some grace, to give him some grace. Give myself grace, because I had to forgive myself a lot too, in order to be open to loving him and to being loved. You know, because after I wrote the book, a lot of people asked me, like, you know, what was it like to, you know, love him again. You know, it’s like, it’s not just that it was what was it like to be loved by him again, like that. That was the gift also that was giving myself was that I wanted to also feel what that was like, again, before it was gone. So some of it was selfish. Knowing that I wanted to be able to I wanted to be able to remember that feeling in the present and to be aware of it, you know, because you can be loved very well and be grateful for it and know that you’re being loved well, that’s a different feeling when you know it’s going to go away. And so then you are more intentional about receiving it and holding on to it and saying okay, let me tell you remember what this feels like this intensity of his gaze. You know, the way that he has light that his eyes light up and a walk in the room. I want to remember that. You know, and so there are some parts of it that the cossetted everything can be true at once. Now where I can be fearful and angry at him for getting sick. And I should have worn that jacket that three years ago when I told you put on that coat before you went out aside, I bet you that’s where you got an answer from. I bet you that’s what happened. What kind of ridiculous? Just listen to me, and also, you know, being mad at God, and just being like, why is this happening all the same time? And why is my mother better? But he’s not? Who decided that? And not that I want them to trade places, but I’m just like, well, why can’t they both be well? You know, like.


Kate Bowler  50:37

Once we all learned our lessons, we’re all better now.  Thank you so much, I have become a better person.


Bozoma Saint John  50:42

I’m a really different human, now take this away, you know, it’s like all those things at the same time, and also feeling the grief for my daughter, not even in her present moment, but for what the future would hold I was grieving what she didn’t even understand what’s coming at me and I still do, you know.


Kate Bowler  51:04

I just love how I’m like, even then, in that, like, bright, terrible beauty, which is, somebody’s dying, like the strange holiness of it, and how clear everything gets. And you’re describing this man looking at you and saying, like, this is my kingdom, like the love he has for you and yet, at the same time being like, well, but I really wish you would have written the letters to her daughter that I would have, like, could you also just do this in a way that I need for my future parenting self? Like, you’re so honest about the like, this is all happening in the same.


Bozoma Saint John  51:45

At the same time, at the same time yes. Like at the same time, I can look at him and want to just squeeze him and like, just get all the love and the hugs, and remember what his arms around me at the same time I’m just like, and I also want to strangle you at the same time, because I really need you to write these letters. Just like this hug now is going to turn into murder. Like? Yes, because I’m like, and by the way, also, close the book, in part two of the book, is the fact that like, there were many times now where I’ll still be like, told you should have written that letter, because I can give it to her right now you know, it’s like, the day that she told me about her first crush. I was like, Peter, if you had written that note that I told you to write when she first like finds that, like that great moment to give it to her. No, I’m thinking about her 16th birthday, which is in two years, and I’m like, oh, I wish she had something to read from her dad.


Kate Bowler  52:48

Oh, that’s so real.


Bozoma Saint John  52:51

I mean, of course, I just it but there are also unforeseen things like, you know, a year ago, she had gone out with a friend. And I don’t know what triggered it, really but she went over to a friend’s house and so we’re hanging out with her dad, you know, and she came home and she was so upset. You’re not here I am ready to go, you know, bust down the door and like hurt her friend’s dad. Because look, I got some muscles, okay, I can beat people up.


Kate Bowler  53:20

I believe it.


Bozoma Saint John  53:22

And she was upset because she was saying that she couldn’t really remember her dad’s voice. So here I go scrambling looking for every video that I have in my phone that saved on you know, in some hard drives somewhere, trying to find videos, and then I’m mad because I’m like, I should have taken more videos. You know, I have voice notes from him, some might and they’re mundane, stupid things. You know, and I’m just like, oh, I should have I should have recorded like conversations. Like we’ve actually just put the phone down and let it record us just talking about anything. Like what a gift that would be for her today, and so yes, all things can be true like I can be in real joy that she is such a well rounded and grounded person, right because the grace that I was talking about before you know, I allow myself grace not to be perfect. I allow her grace not to be perfect. And I can still feel anger at Peter for not writing the letters. Ah, that’s so true.


Kate Bowler  54:40

Yeah, I love you. I love you. I hate you. I love you.


Bozoma Saint John  54:43

Yes, yeah, exactly.


Kate Bowler  54:46

Boz, you are a joy and a truth teller and I have just like loved talking to you. Thank you so much for doing this with me.


Bozoma Saint John  54:54

Thank you so much for having me, I really have so enjoyed it.


Kate Bowler  55:11

Life has so many unexpected twists and turns. But I don’t have to tell you that you’re you. And you know that sometimes the things that happen to us along the way, expand our hearts in ways we didn’t expect, either. So it made me think about this blessing that I was writing when I realized that I was going to be a lot of things. And then maybe it was okay to feel at all. So if you’re someone who always just felt a little bit embarrassed that you’re feeling everything, then this one is especially for you. All right, a blessing for feeling at all. I feel things big. And for the longest time, I felt so much shame because of it. I need reminders that my emotions are not bad or good. They’re just information. You feel angry, because this is unjust. You feel sad, because this is awful. You feel tired, because this is exhausting. Your emotions are not wrong or bad or lying to you or the full truth. They’re giving you a bit of data you shouldn’t ignore. We love and loose and fall and get back up and fail and try again. This is what it means to be human. To feel the pain, the grief, the stress, the risk, the fear, the heartbreak. So you beautiful creature you here is your permission slip, to feel it all. To feel the joy and delight and excitement, and the sorrow and fear and despair. All the yellows and pinks and violets and grays because you are the whole damn sky.


Kate Bowler  57:16

Hey, I have a new book of passings and devotionals and minutes to think through and it’s coming out in January, if that’s your sort of thing. It’s called have a beautiful, terrible day. And you can preorder it at your favorite bookstore now, and there’ll be a link in the show notes for you to learn more and see a sample of what’s inside. Oh, I also wanted to tell you about those a sister a lulu a lulu moved in with bows when Peter was dying and witnessed all of the practical bits that come up when we lose someone we love. The paperwork, the wills, the hard conversations. Inspired by that season. alua has since become a death doula, helping other people prepare for that seeming impossibility. So you can watch the conversation I had with Elisa Arthur and Katie Couric. And I’ll put the link in the show notes for that too. Okay, now is my favorite part of the conversation where I get to say, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you to the amazing people at the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment for making it possible for me to tell stories about faith and life. I’m so grateful for all the work you put into this. A big shout out to my theological home Duke Divinity School. And thank you to my podcast network Lemonada. And the biggest shout out of all, to my absolutely indefatigable and that is a word team who makes it all possible. The great love of my life. Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Glen Higginbotham, Brenda Thompson, hope Anderson, Kristen Bowser. Jeb, Bert and Catherine Smith. Thank you guys. And we love hearing from you. So if you leave us a voicemail, we might even be able to use it on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731 Okay, lovelies, next week, I’m going to be having a conversation that many of you have been waiting for. I got to sit down with the thoughtful and gorgeous writer Catherine May. Oh, she’s so good at the contemplative Thank you think who are we in the world? And what a perfect way to walk into this season a winter and Christmas and add denting. Oh, speaking of Advent, we have a free daily devotional for the Christmas season. If that’s your kind of thing. Download it at Kate And you can do it by yourself or with your family or a friend. But it’s just a minute of peace and it’s not too late to join us. And in the meantime, come find me online at Casey bowler. This is everything happens with me. Kate bowler. Oh, right. Yes real quick. If you liked this conversation, could you do me a huge favor and leave for review on Apple podcasts or Spotify, it makes a weirdly massive difference to help people find us and recognize the show or if people you’d like agreed to be guests, so that would be really a big favor. And if you want to make sure that you’re subscribed and you’ll know when the episode The new episode drops, click that subscribe button which I just figured out on some of them looks like a plus new a new to technology. Amazing all right, I’ll see you there.

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