For the past decade, the big turning points in David Kuo’s life can all be plotted on the Easter calendar, and they have tracked the holiday’s themes.
Despair becomes hope.
An old life gives way to the new.
The shadow of death recedes.
In 2003, Kuo was the second-in-command of George W. Bush’s novel domestic policy, an $8 billion “Compassionate Conservative” plan to let religious groups wage war on poverty.
But a few days before Easter that year, Kuo learned he had a brain tumor. In an instant, the course of his life changed. He left the White House. Eventually, he and his young family moved to Charlotte.
Around the world today, hundreds of millions of Christians will celebrate their holiday of renewal. David and Kim Kuo, along with their two children, will do the same at Forest Hill Church.
It’s a tricky time to reflect on personal resurrections. Brain tumors, the Kuos have been told, always come back.
But now more than ever, Kuo, 43, believes God has a personal stake in the lives of those who love him. As he sits in church this morning, he may reflect on what he calls his new future, deeper faith and greater capacity to love.
But to get there, David and Kim Kuo had to spend eight years in hell.
Palm Sunday 2003
To know the Kuos (pronounced Quos), we better start in Washington.
It’s a few minutes before the beginning of Holy Week, nine years ago, and pardon David and Kim if they are secretly thinking their lives will always work out.
David’s failed first marriage had been painful, certainly. But then he and Kim met on Capitol Hill, became fast friends and fell in love.
They married in 1999. At very young ages, both were thrust into the centers of political and corporate power.
At 24 and fresh out of Stanford and the London School of Economics, Kim became a press secretary for Sen. Robert Dole. When Dole ran for president in 1996, he asked her to come along. For two months, she was also acting campaign press secretary for Dole’s running mate, Jack Kemp.
David’s career took the same high trajectory as his wife’s. After college he considered seminary before joining the CIA. As an openly evangelical Christian and a nonpartisan advocate for the poor, he connected with the Beltway’s political, literary and business elites, from Ted Kennedy to Bill Bennett to Joe Klein.
“I’m either a political schizophrenic,” Kuo used to say during speeches, “or I’m after the truth.”
In spring 2003, Kuo is 34, and an ugly truth about life is about to find him. He’s still working at the White House. It has been a Saturday of airports and parties, and the Kuos crave sleep. As the last minutes before Holy Week slip away, David steers the couple’s Mercedes SUV onto Rock Creek Parkway near Georgetown. Kim leans her head on the passenger window and drifts off.
Minutes later, she hears the engine climb to a roar. Then she hears David scream.
David Kuo is behind the wheel, but no longer there.
His 6-foot-5 frame has gone rigid. His eyes have rolled back into his head. His right foot has anviled onto the accelerator.
In a matter of seconds, he has disappeared into a massive seizure. The car gains speed – 75, 80, 85 mph, the Kuos can’t say – veering wildly down the steep and curving road.
Somehow Kim throws the SUV into neutral and yanks the wheel from David’s frozen grip. She gets the Mercedes out of the oncoming lanes and aims at what she hopes will be a safe crashing point. The car goes airborne when it crosses the median, barely misses a light post, and stops 20 feet from people on a sidewalk.
It’s Palm Sunday. Soon, friends will stream to the Kuos’ sides. But in the early morning hours at George Washington University Hospital, Kim gets a glimpse of her new life: brain scans and drug regimens and doctors thinking out loud.
She sees her husband strapped to a rolling gurney. The first pictures of his brain are back. He gives her a thumb’s down.
“There’s something up there,” he says.
Cancer, kids and Charlotte
How to sum up the next eight years? Cancer permeates their lives. It lives in the walls of their homes.
“The whole time they were holding out hope that God would heal,” says a friend. “Sometimes they were holding onto a rope, sometimes a thread.”
David leaves the White House in late 2003, partly because of his health, partly because of a loss of faith.
His 2006 memoir, “Tempting Faith,” focuses on the spiritual price of political involvement. It also portrays the administration’s faith-based initiative to help the poor as a political ploy to control the Christian vote. He appears on talk shows, trades punch lines with Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Some evangelical and Republican circles brand him as a traitor and a spy.
Kuo, at this point, is very sick. Walking sets off seizures, and he’s so drugged up for “60 Minutes” that he hardly remembers his conversation with Leslie Stahl.
Still, in a brazen declaration of faith in God and the future, David and Kim start a family.
Daughter Olivia arrives in June 2005, her brother Aidan in 2007. Their births coincide with two years of chemotherapy for their father, whose tumor starts growing again two months after Olivia’s birth.
Extreme joy gives way to extreme heartache and fear. Kim is a new mother of two, with a husband who’s getting sicker by the day. The strain is suffocating. She breaks out in rashes. She drinks more. She closes her eyes and feels herself bouncing and spinning away.
“We had the children because we believed David would live,” she says. “I remember crying and weeping and telling myself, ‘I can’t do this alone.’ ”
Both are ready to leave D.C. Out of the blue, Kim gets a job offer from a friend and former boss. She hates risks. But the Kuos take one and move to Charlotte in April 2009.
Kim, 41, becomes marketing chief at a publishing house. David writes from home. They attend Forest Hill Church that first Easter and hear pastor David Chadwick preach, in part, on the Christian obligation to the poor. Despite reservations about mega-churches, they are moved enough by Chadwick’s sermon to join.
Lent arrives in 2011. By now the couple has lived through two surgeries, 23 bouts of chemo and eight weeks of radiation. David is three weeks removed from joint chemo and radiation treatments when the latest MRI results come back.
It is supposed to be a routine checkup at Carolinas Medical Center. But the tumor, inexplicably, appears to have grown. The right side of a David’s brain had appeared clear in a December MRI. But now it has erupted in a ghostly white.
Stuart Burri, a radiation oncologist at CMC’s Levine Cancer Institute, recommends a strong response – more surgery and stronger drugs.
Otherwise, he tells the Kuos, David has as little as six months to live.
David and Kim barely make it through their front door before they collapse. He remembers the tears of a friend wetting his face.
In desperate times, the couple has always had their faith with which to take a stand. Now, in the worst of times, they call for reinforcements.
Chadwick and Jason Smith, their pastors from Forest Hill Church, come to the house to listen and pray. Chadwick describes a home drowning in sorrow. Olivia and Aidan are sent outside to play, and David is sobbing that he will not be around to raise them.
“It was tortuous,” Kim says. “The kids are joyous and jumping around. We’re praying, ‘Let them have a daddy.’ ”
The ministers try to console them. You’re in God’s hands, Chadwick tells them. Nothing begins or ends without him.
More spiritual help has mobilized. A group of the couple’s friends from around the world and across the political spectrum, from Republican Rick Santorum to liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan, take a Lenten vow and spread it on Facebook: Every day between now and Easter, they will pray or fast for the Kuos. “To pound on the doors of heaven,” as one organizer puts it.
Sullivan mentions the prayer circle on his blog. Who knows how many people join in?
For the second time in his life, David Kuo is in the middle of a faith-based initiative. This time, he is the focus.
Just after last Easter, he goes back to see Burri, back to be loaded into the tube for what he believes will be the inevitable MRI showing the white blob taking over his brain. He can barely walk. His left arm is almost useless.
During the MRI, he feels himself disappearing into a darkness from which he will never emerge.
Then something catches him. Hands, dozens of them, not only stop his fall, but lift him toward God.
The tube opens, and for the first time in weeks, David Kuo feels a moment of peace.
‘This is weird’
Throughout his career, Stuart Burri has treated thousands of cancer cases. Those that track David Kuo’s medical history almost never end well.
Still, there’s a medical condition, “pseudo progression,” in which what appears to be a growing malignancy turns out to be something else.
Those cases are rare. In his opinion, David’s brain tumor is real and spreading. His colleagues agree. Unless David has surgery and starts taking even more powerful drugs, he could easily be dead before Christmas.
Burri shared that conclusion with the Kuos a month earlier, but they got another opinion and decided to wait until after Easter before deciding their next move.
Despite his comforting vision that day during his MRI, David expects the worst when he joins Kim at Burri’s office.
The doctor walks in with the photos. “This is weird,” he says.
David picks up the story from there: “Stuart said, ‘It’s stable, and I’m shocked. I don’t say this very often, but I’m shocked.’ ”
Several weeks later, the next MRI shows the growth clearly shrinking.
By May, the growth has disappeared. Kuo sends an email to friends the same day.
“In a few short moments, the last 11 weeks of crawling through the valley of the shadow ended,” he writes. “It was Easter again. He had risen and so had I.”
Is this a miracle?
Kim says it feels like one. “Out of all the possibilities,” she says, “there was this one little ray of hope.”
Burri: “I think it is safe to say that Mr. Kuo had the most dramatic pseudo-progression that I have seen inthousands of patients.”
Chadwick: “In God’s gracious design, he chose to give David more yearsto accomplish something. I don’t know what, but perhaps it will be revealed to him in time.”
Why the Kuos?
“You’ve asked the right questionand the answer is this: I don’t know,” Chadwick says. “God is God, and I am not God.”
David Kuo gets the same question. Why you?
“Why not me?” he replies. “We forget that miracles are never about the people who receive them. They’re not intended to make much of us. They’re to make much of God.”
Kuo is not cured. Brain tumors, remember, always come back. But his is in remission and his future is now discussed in years not weeks.
He’s getting stronger. He’s writing again, and Kim and he both say they have never been so much in love.
“I have the gift of knowing what most people choose to forget: We will all die. And we don’t know when,” he says.
“Kim and I look around and know that this day is a gift. We are really blessed to understand God in a way that we would never have experienced without what we’ve been through.”
The Kuos moved into a new house three months ago. It has an airy terrace that looks out over big trees and a backyard filled with flowers and birds.
Olivia and Aidan are in the next room. The Kuos, both barefoot, sit on an outdoor couch and hold hands.
Normally the family attends Saturday services at Forest Hill.
But not for Easter, especially not this one. Sunday feels right.