Editor’s note: Kate Holbrook passed away on August 20, 2022 after a long battle with ocular melanoma. This article was originally published in July 2021.
Samuel Brown is a graduate of Harvard College and earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School. He is a shock trauma ICU doctor, an academic, and the author of multiple books. But nine years ago, his wife, Kate Holbrook, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and is the managing historian of women’s history for the Church, was diagnosed with cancer in her eye. Ironically, the very real possibility of losing his wife opened Brown’s eyes to changes he needed to make in himself and in his marriage.
In his new book, Where the Soul Hungers, Brown writes, “I love my wife with my whole soul; the painful betrayal of her body by the cancerous cells of her eye is her story to tell, not mine. Still, the reality stands: light and grace have gained easier access to my broken heart than to my comfortably proud one. My heart and mind have been remade in tragedy.”
Read about the changes that Sam and his wife, Kate, made in their home in the excerpt below. You can also listen to the episode in full in the player before or by clicking here. A full transcript is available here.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones: I want to talk a little bit about change that has taken place within you as you have gone through years of marriage now together and have had children. Sam, one of the things that you said in in the book is, you said, “I know that I come across as sentimental now”–which is different than what you described yourself as initially, you said, “I’ve become a subject better fit for Hallmark cards than the strenuous realities of our cutthroat economic systems. I still feel the occasional pain of self-consciousness when I realize how soft-hearted I’ve become. Sometimes I miss the strength I perceived in protective indifference. Then I realized that aloof skepticism for all those years stole from me the holy proximity of other people. I know how little the youthful me would admire this turn into weakness, but this new world is where divine love has drawn me, and in this vulnerability stands the possibility of a life beyond my former authenticity.” So, what served, Sam, as the catalyst for this desire that you had to change and extend this idea of authenticity?
Samuel Brown: That’s a good question, and one that’s hard to answer, but I’ll try to be a little quicker than I usually am. I was pretty selfish early in our marriage, and I’ve spent a lot of time grieving how mean I was that first year. And it was all about my self-absorption. And we’re very different personalities. It’s not that we’re opposites attracting, but we’re also not identical, not by a longshot. And I just couldn’t see through it. I’d figured out the God question, but I hadn’t figured out that people question that was a lot harder to do. And then I got pulled into, you know, one of the terrible downsides to Harvard is that it tells you that you’re only worth what Harvard believes you’re worth.
If you haven’t been inside it, you don’t quite realize it, but it exists by token of persuading people, that they’re worthless outside it. That’s its whole point if you look at it from the side. Now, of course, there are plenty of great people at Harvard doing great things and trying to discover, but fundamentally as an idea, it’s the top of the meritocracy. And I got suckered into that. I kept my faith in God, but I got pulled in. And when you get pulled in, you work 70–80-hour weeks, you’re doing everything you can to succeed professionally, you’re just not around much.
And I kind of let Kate run the family and figured it was in good hands. And I’m busy doing Harvard things.
And that went on. And then about nine years ago, there was a health crisis, there was a cancer of the eye. And all of a sudden I had to woman up. I had to like, represent, do the right thing, and not just always be gone. And then I had to come face to face with the reality that I had not been the husband and partner I could have been and should have been. And that was a kind of heartbreak. I realized how much I’d hurt her over the years—that I’d always wanted to do the right thing but was often sort of blind to where I was getting it wrong. That kind of created this crisis. Confronting the possibility that your beloved may die, that’s hard. That shakes you up. I saw a lot of things I’ve been doing wrong.
Kate Holbrook: It was also, as I recovered, as we had some successful surgeries, and I started to get better and started to get my strength back, it had created a big shift for me. And I realized I was super angry. So while I expected to be having a happy moment of getting better, I had a lot of resentment over—and Sam was not a monster.
Morgan Jones: Well, I was going to ask, from your perspective in the beginning of your marriage, what was that like?
Kate Holbrook: But some of the things he said are true. And I hope that I’ve also grown to be more supportive and less selfish. But he definitely helps a lot more around the house now. And even if I didn’t have a profession, it would still be really important that he do that, because otherwise I feel unseen, taken for granted, un-respected, and like our whole family life, which is so important, doesn’t matter. For us to get clear together on those messages was kind of rough. Because I didn’t–I wasn’t immediately able to just open my heart and say, “Oh, it’s okay.” I had a lot of work to do myself. And I think maybe even pushing back until I could see that I could trust him, that this change was real, that he was going to stick with it. So it was complicated and hard.
Morgan Jones: I believe it. So how do you, together, work through those things and those feelings that you had?
Samuel Brown: We did some therapy. We did some couples counseling. It was important, it was painful. Sort of embarrassing, and . . . and I’m so skeptical in general. I sorted the God thing, but it’s not like my skepticism disappeared. So I’m always skeptical of authority, and here’s the counselor’s authority looking into your failures as a marriage partner. So it was hard. But that helped.
Kate Holbrook: We just started doing a date night. Which sounds, I mean, I’d always heard you should have a date night. But when your kids are young, and our kids were still young, and you have to pay for a babysitter, and then plan it, and we were so overwhelmed, to have to plan something felt like a big deal. So we just started going to a movie every Friday night. And it made a huge difference. I started to feel like I felt when I was in college, and I looked forward to the weekend and looked forward to having some fun. It wasn’t just good for our marriage, it was good for us as humans.