How would you live if you knew you were dying?
The 2019 documentary “The Long Goodbye: The Kara Tippetts Story” sets out to make us consider our own answer to this question. It moves us to consider how we should live in light of pain and death, and even puts forward a vision of beauty in the midst of suffering.
Kara Tippetts — a pastor’s wife and mother from Colorado — was known in the evangelical Christian community for her blog, “Mundane Faithfulness.” But shortly after starting what she called her “mommy blog,” Tippetts was diagnosed with cancer in July 2012. She died of breast cancer in March 2015. The documentary follows Tippetts in the last years of her life, telling her story of suffering through footage and interviews with her family and their friends.
The film opens with a clip in which Tippetts ponders her illness.
“What if instead of being angry at life, what if you learned something of love today?” she asks. “Why is it that we withhold love?”
And with that, the audience is brought into the everyday life of Tippetts, her husband, and their four children as they navigate a world in which their wife and mother is slowly dying. Director Jay Lyons moves us to empathize, as best we can, with Tippetts and those closest to her.
In one particularly tear-inducing scene, Tippetts’ husband, Jason, sitting on the bed with his wife, says she “always loved whoever was in front of her.” To this, Tippetts says quietly to her husband, “You’re talking about me in the past tense.”
Interspersed with scenes like this that show Tippetts’ suffering — such as her long, blonde hair being shaved away — we get glimpses of how the family and friends cope with this “long goodbye” to Tippetts.
Watching this documentary with my mother was poignant for me. Her family has a history of cancer, and her mother died of it after a 16-year battle. In many ways, my mother said, she identified with Tippetts’ children, as she grew up with the reality of her mom’s illness. Because of this, Tippett’s story wasn’t just about some American family to me; it wasn’t just “those people.” This easily could be my own family, and in some ways, it had been my mother’s.
The film constantly emphasizes the importance of today, of the present moment. In our culture of distracting technology and ever-full schedules, it is a necessary reminder of the importance of living in the present. Tippetts shows how her pain clarifies this truth — knowing she’s dying allows her to appreciate ordinary moments with her family of six all the more.
“I know that I love today, and I have today to go love another,” she said.
Tippetts and her husband even go so far as to call her cancer a “gift that exposed to us what’s important, what’s valuable.” This counterintuitive view on suffering ultimately comes from the couple’s faith in God.
“The world says I should be angry, that I should be shaking my fist at God,” Tippetts said, adding that suffering is not a mistake. “[God is] present in pain.”
But living a Christian life in the midst of suffering isn’t so easy. In an interview, Tippetts recounts one night she was struggling, right after she received a new cancer diagnosis. She remembers weeping while reading Phillippians 1.
“Lord, I don’t know if I believe you when you say to die is gain,” she said. “Do you believe to live is Christ?”
Tippetts reflects on her cancer as just one facet of her relationship with her heavenly Father, and she finds herself forced to wrestle with reality.
“I feel like I’m a little girl at a party whose dad’s asking her to leave early, and I’m throwing a fit,” she said. “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to go.”
In an ironically beautiful way, it’s this struggle of doubt in the midst of her suffering which leads Tippetts into a deeper relationship with God. Not everything is easy, she says, and that’s OK.
“It shows me that I’m needy,” Tippetts said. “I’m so needy for Jesus to walk with me through these last days, these last moments.”
Tippetts rejects the American notion that “we have to win and be better,” that we somehow have to beat pain to be successful. We’re all dying, she says, but the difference is she’s told that every day. Pain, especially on a small scale, has a role in our friendships, in our romances, in our bonds with family. Tippetts reminds the viewer that love of any kind requires sacrifice.
“If we’re supposed to love more today than we did yesterday, we have to get uncomfortable.”