Cancer, marriage, and refusing to give up
Q&A | Kim Kuo talks about her husband’s 10-year battle with cancer and why he fought to the end
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 3/24/16, 12:15 pm
David and Kim Kuo were a Washington power couple. David Kuo was a special assistant to George W. Bush and deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Kim graduated summa cum laude from Stanford University and studied at the London School of Economics. She settled into a career working for some of the largest and most powerful trade associations in executive-level positions, but then tragedy struck.
David and Kim were driving home from an event when David suddenly had a seizure. Amazingly, they both survived the wreck that followed, but it was the beginning of the end of his Washington career. He had a large brain tumor. David passed away three years ago after a 10-year battle with cancer. Kim is now the senior vice president of public affairs, communications, and communities for Coca-Cola Consolidated, a publicly traded company that is the largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the country. Since David’s death, Kim has become an outspoken advocate for life, speaking and writing against euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Tell me how you learned David had cancer. David is driving home and, all of a sudden, he says, “Kim, there’s something wrong with my leg.” It was about midnight. I was falling asleep next to him and then, all of a sudden, he yells, “Kim, Kim,” and all I can feel is the car speeding up underneath us. I look over, and David’s eyes are rolled back in his head. He’s gripping the steering wheel and his leg is locked on the accelerator.
Long story short, we miraculously survived that car crash. It ended in flying airborne into a patch of grass near the Georgetown entrance onto Rock Creek Parkway and, later that morning, which was Palm Sunday morning, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That was the first day he got a six-months-to-live diagnosis. We ended up walking that road for 10 years, never knowing how long we had from that first moment on. David was 34 years old at that time, very young. He was given that same six-month diagnosis three times over the course of 10 years.
Talk about the life you were living up to that point. It was a charmed life, you might say. Very much so. It’s very sparkly. David had worked on Capitol Hill. I’d worked for the majority leader of the Senate. I worked in the ’96 presidential campaign as a press aide. I worked at a huge association at that time; I was spokesperson in D.C. People said about us, we’re this young power couple. We went to the White House Correspondents Dinner and all the big parties. David worked in the White House. He rode on Air Force One. He was incredibly smart and gifted and had an incredible circle of friends, all the city’s top journalists and Christians in town. We lived it up.
Did you go public with his diagnosis right away? Yes. There’s really no other way to do it. I mean Karl Rove was his boss and was the first one to send over food and flowers, and we knew journalists, as I mentioned, all over town.That’s just the way David lived his life. … He was very gregarious. He was very open with his ideas. He was always very, very full of life and very transparent with his faith.
I met David at a dinner for an organization called Generous Giving. I noticed he was stiff, and he said he had just run a marathon the day before. He ran the D.C. Marathon about three weeks before [the crash] happened. … I remember the Generous Giving dinner. We attended that, and David was talking about his purpose and what God would have him do because he was incredibly talented. He was a brilliant writer, brilliant speaker, very passionate about serving the poor, in particular, in social justice. We talked about how his real purpose was creativity and producing these wonderful arguments and messages in a Christian context in a very un-Christian world.
His job in the White House was to work in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He was hoping to use his position to advocate for the poor. He left the White House with some disillusionment and, ultimately, wrote a book about that. What it came down to was that David always crossed party lines in trying to pursue social justice and help the poor. He worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. He worked with Attorney General John Ashcroft. He worked with Bill Bennett. He worked with a lot of different people. The issue had just become so politicized. He was far more than disillusioned with Bush. He was disillusioned with the political process.
Ted Kennedy, for example, who should have been very on board with this—it’s faith, it’s helping the poor, social justice—announced early on he and all his staff would block any initiative whatsoever that the president went to push through to help the poor just to hurt the president when the issue should have been “how do we all come together and help the poor?” David was very disillusioned that politics had completely drowned out faith and people of similar faith put politics above their faith. Really, where he came down is, “Everyone, let’s step back from politics.” He didn’t like to see Christians sold out to any political party. He wanted them to really focus on their faith and what Jesus would have them do and what Jesus told us all to do.
It was interesting because friends like Chuck Colson were very opposed to that at that time and, within two years, called us and said, “You know what? You’re exactly right. I totally agree with you. What we need to do is focus on our ministries, not buy in to any political party, not buy in to a Supreme Court justice fight or anything like that. We need to be out there in the community and be Jesus in the community.
David’s book though was pretty critical of the Republican Party. He was, for a season, ostracized as a result of that book. Did he or you find that criticism troubling? He was crushed by that because he felt that, again, politics was breaking up friendships, breaking up Bible studies, was suddenly more important. … He was really focused on the issue and he would always, always, always choose his faith. He was also extremely loyal. … He believed in the president. I will say the president was extremely classy throughout and afterward and had written us letters afterwards. President George W. Bush was extremely classy throughout. Other staff members were incredibly disappointing.
After David left the White House, you moved to Charlotte, N.C., at some point and entered a 10-year season where David was told three times he had six months to live. What was that season like in your life? It was a continuum of trying to live life in a completely different context and things going along okay. David had pretty severe seizures as a result of the brain tumor for the rest of his life, so it changed every aspect of our life. … He couldn’t drive much. If he went for a length without seizures, he could drive, but he couldn’t drive much. He was afraid to play pickup football and basketball like he used to. We had a huge conversation about whether we’d even have children, which we decided to dare to do, thankfully. We had two beautiful children.
How did you make that decision? It was the fundamental decision of whether we were going to live whatever time he had left or whether we were going to hide in a corner and wait it out. Both in a different way were excruciating. I can’t tell you the number of times David was tucking in the baby and came out crying and sobbing because he didn’t know when that might end. He didn’t know if he would see his son graduate from kindergarten and walk his daughter down the aisle.
I remember once he did this Donuts with Dad thing with Aidan at preschool, and he called me afterwards just sobbing. I said, “How did it go? Was it OK,” and he said, “It was so wonderful, but I’m looking around at all these dads and all these kids, and I want to do this. I don’t want my boy to be the only kid without a dad at these events the rest of his life.” It was constantly present, and it constantly drove us to our knees. It drove us to God in a way that we never would have gotten to. Having kids in general was a huge leap of faith.
I remember when I was feeding our daughter and tucking her in one night when she was 3 months old. We hosted a home church in our house twice a month back then, and a friend of mine came in. I was sobbing. I said, “I don’t want to do this alone. I can’t do this alone.” We had just gotten back from [the National Institutes of Health], and they had told David they wanted him to start chemo two months after our first daughter was born.
What did David and you say and do with your kids to prepare them for this? How did you all talk about that as a family? There’s two key pieces of advice that I got from very wise friends along the way that we really held on to. No. 1 is that God is going to write His own story in your children and, at some point, you don’t have control over that. I know that God wanted those two children in this world. We prayed about it. We had others pray over it, whether it was a responsible or the right thing to do to even bring them into the world, so we knew that was right.
Then another friend told me, look, God, from the beginning of time, knew that this was their story. This was our family’s story. This was Aidan and Olivia’s story, and he would give them everything they needed to get through this and to live out their ministry and their calling. I have tried to carry that on, to always talk to them about our truth and our story. They were so little. Aidan was 5 when we first told him, and Olivia was 7. We did not tell them until very late in the process. … They always knew Daddy was sick, they always were very open about his going into surgery, that it was going to take two or three weeks at a time, whenever that was.
We were very late in telling them that he’s actually going to die. I think that was good for us because that interim time between when we told them and when he actually passed was the absolute worst and hardest for them. They kind of knew it was going to happen, but they didn’t know what life was going to be like. We just surrounded them with friends staying with us, with people around to be with us during that time. Truth be told, Aidan, at 5, really did not have the tools to even process that. He is still processing that.
We had a great counselor at our church that we went to through the entire process, and we still work with, who said, “Look, your kids are going to process this over and over at different developmental stages. Stay with them. Stay in counseling. Keep talking about it. Keep answering the questions, giving them all the resources they need. Keep it an open dialogue,” so that’s what we try to do.
During that period of time in your life, what kind of help was most helpful? If I could write a book, it would be about this. We had a group of people from all over the world who became far more family to us than our natural-born family. I truly believe God puts people in your life to be your grownup family. It was things like flying across the country to just be with us. It was sending us incense—a friend of ours who spent a lot of time in India, but every time I burned it, I knew he was praying for us. The second time David got a six-month diagnosis was right at the beginning of Lent, and [a friend of ours in Kenya] started a Lenten prayer program for us. … It was presence. It was a lot of people coming in to stay with us. It was a lot of people praying with us. It was very practical things, whether it was food, or people would take David out to a concert or drive him home.
David lost a lot of his capacity over the years. He ended up in a wheelchair for a long time. He was in a walker. It was friends who used to play football with him wheeling him around in a wheelchair and a walker and spending hours sitting by his bedside. I spent weeks of my life in 24-hour sessions in ICUs and in recovery rooms, in rehab centers. There are friends who came in for days and weeks at a time who sat in rehab centers with David and read him Psalms, read him stories, played him music. It was that presence that sustained us because, at that time, I was a full-time working mom with two kids trying to take care of David, so any level of presence for us was so life-giving.
As his abilities were diminishing and you had to step up, how was that for you? When David would be going through chemo or radiation or things like that, he didn’t necessarily want to hear about whatever I was going through, which we learned a lot along the way. Bottling things up for me was one of the biggest mistakes I made. I had a lot of psychological side effects. I had stress rashes. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown at one point when David was in the midst of two years of chemo. I had a toddler who was 2 and I had a newborn. I was nursing when Aidan was newly born. I handled it in a lot of bad ways. I had all kinds of stress reactions.
Later, as I learned to open up about it with friends, it was much better because there were times when I felt like I was going to break because David needed so much of me in time, in collaboration. The side effects of the drugs don’t just work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It was up all night, dealing with tapering of steroids that made him just nearly bursting out of his skin, just the paranoia and the rage that comes along with steroids alone after all the surgeries. He ended up, over time, having five brain surgeries, being on severe chemo for about two solid years, radiation, a year and a half of “light” chemo, which is never light, and then nonstop seizure medications throughout those 10 years. It was always something.
In spite of what you’ve just described, you have gone public recently against assisted suicide. What has caused you to want to go public in this way? I think Christians are not thinking about this whole issue the right way. Actually, Pope Francis said it very well, that assisted suicide or euthanasia, whichever way it happens, is a false sense of compassion. [It] is very much like the original sin. We want to be God. We don’t want God’s help. We don’t want to trust what God has for us. … We want to be a god at the end.
For us, we obviously look at Job a lot. If you look at the second chapter of Job, interestingly, it’s when Satan attacks his body. He’s lost his children. He’s lost his livestock. He’s lost so much, and everybody says, “Be faithful,” whatever, but, when Satan attacks his body, his wife of all people comes to him and says, “Enough. Don’t you see it’s time to curse God and die?” It’s something about the attacking of our body that we’re no longer going to trust God, we’re just going to say, “enough.” We want to take this over.
Living through that, I just see that God never, ever stopped using David to minister to others, to change our lives. There are a million Bible verses that speak directly to taking up your cross and trusting Me and following Me—all of Paul’s admonitions to trust that suffering will drive us deeper to Christ. I am telling you from living it, that is true. … There was not a day of his life where suffering was useless. I can tell you, as I mentioned, a hundred friends, a thousand friends through the ripple of his ministry over the years who deepened their relationship with Christ, whose marriages were saved, who came to Christ out of atheism, who saw that, “Wow, if this guy can raise the name of Christ in love, then maybe there is something to this, and maybe there’s something beyond this.”
Did David and you talk about the possibility of your remarrying some day? David was really fighting for his family. That was part of what motivated him. He desperately wanted to grow old with me. He wrote me letters to open on our 30th anniversary.
He was fighting to walk his daughter down the aisle. He was fighting to raise his son. We didn’t really talk about that openly. This so defined our life and our marriage. We’d only been married three years when he was diagnosed. I was 32. He was 34. It’s so hard to even think about all that time.
You asked me another question that I will weave into this. I remember so clearly one time at UCLA, David was in a series of tests. I was just sitting in the waiting room, and he was watching people go by, just going in and out, having lunch, and I called my dear friend and mentor and just lost it. I screamed and cried on the phone, “How did my life turn out this way? How did I end up here? How do all these people just float in and out, and they’re just getting their tonsils taken out or they’re just eating lunch. … Why me? Why did I get chosen for this journey?” I was about at the end of the rope. That was 9 1/2 years into the journey before I kind of got there, but I just sort of lost it.
That was the closest I had come to just wanting out and wishing I had a different story and not quite sure why I got this as my story. It’s not that I didn’t want David. I wanted David with all my heart. I just wanted the David before that grand mal seizure driving down Rock Creek Parkway. He was my soulmate. He was perfect for me, so part of the answer to the question of “can you ever see yourself getting married again?” is really hard because it’s sort of, “does lighting strike twice?” Especially at my age and with two kids, what does that look like? It’s just really hard to imagine that because you wait so long to meet that perfect person and you just want that person to live, and you’re fighting for that person with all your heart and soul.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Kim Kuo on Listening In.