ELIZABETH PALMBERG—Zab to her friends—says her motto is “Cherish each moment, even the ones that suck.”
Nine years ago, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She has had her ups and downs in her battle against cancer, but many moments in that journey have undeniably sucked.
In 2001, Zab was a college professor in California when she applied to be an intern at Sojourners. We decided her Ph.D. (in Victorian literature) perhaps qualified her to do the data entry and fact-checking work required of our editorial intern, and when her yearlong internship was over we invited her to become a full-time member of the editorial staff.
She’s been gracing us, and our readers, with her brilliant analysis and quirky wit ever since. Her knowledge, passion, and insight informed and often challenged those of us who’ve worked closely with her—and led to outside recognition as well. In 2011, for instance, Zab joined a Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia, visiting communities engaged in the difficult work of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Her report on the trip—the last feature she wrote for the magazine—was honored by the Associated Church Press as the best news article of the year.
In November 2012, she wrote on her blog, “Just as I was planning a big six-year hey-they-cured-my-cancer party, it turned out I have cancer again.” Months of difficult treatment followed, and she chronicled the good times and the bad with (most of the time) her sense of humor firmly intact. For instance, she wrote that “technically, the exact wrong thing to read [during chemotherapy] is Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which also happens to be the wrong thing to read in almost *every* context—that book really puts the “ick” in ‘Victorian.’ My deepest apologies to the one class I forced to read it. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Zab recognized the spiritual importance of being present to the moment. “I’ve experimentally verified that you can’t predict the future,” she wrote, “but you can screw up the present moment obsessing about the future. Or you can be present in the moment, whether you’re weeping or worshipping or eating a carrot or looking at a glorious dandelion or just breathing. Presence takes practice. But it’s so worth it.”
Faith, usually expressed in Zab’s singular way, saw her through some difficult times. For example, she explained how hymn lyrics helped her deal with the anxiety of waiting for test results. “Did you know that the median wait time for biopsy results is all eternity?” she wrote. “Okay, technically that’s the subjective wait time ... When trying to get to sleep while waiting for biopsy results ... go over hymn lyrics in your head. ... If you are not into Jesus you could try other songs, although presumably, say, metal might be less likely to work.”
Amid her blog entries on the mundanities of dealing with cancer, she would often throw in profound spiritual and theological reflections. While discussing the infection risks (for immuno-compromised people) in sharing the communion cup, she wrote: “The Eucharist is supposed to be in your face. When Paul told church members to greet each other with a kiss and to throw away their society’s entire class hierarchy over the Lord’s Supper, that was pretty in-your-face. ... Whether you take that with a side order of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or just deep symbolism, if this sacrament is not a little edgy, you may not be doing it right.”
Her hunger for justice was always close at hand. Last September, just before the launch of Healthcare.gov, Zab wrote, “Heck yes, you need health insurance. Two weeks from today you can sign up to buy individual health insurance even if, like me, you’re a cancer survivor who would have had a zero chance of buying an individual policy under the current system. I say: good, because you need health insurance. This. Means. You.”
Recently, Zab wrote that she’s been “focusing on trying to think about heaven, which is a bit hard because ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed.’” Zab’s life is a compelling witness to the idea that such revelations are all around us—sometimes joyous, sometimes painful, often both at once—and we’re called to cherish them. Even the ones that suck.
Elizabeth Palmberg died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Washington, D.C., on the morning of June 23, 2014. Per her wishes, memorial donations in her name may be made to any of the following: Christ House (1717 Columbia Rd NW, Washington, DC 20009); St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church (1525 Newton Street NW, Washington, DC 20010); Sojourners Internship Program (PO Box 70730, Washington, DC 20024-0730) .
More about Zab, including a list of articles she has written, can be found on her staff bio page.