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The Trouble With Envy

Why appearances are rarely what they seem

Do you know people who appear to lead impossibly charmed lives? Friends or acquaintances whom you watch from a distance and think, "How lucky they are! I wish that could be me!"

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Nancy Perry Graham

Nancy Perry Graham, Editor, AARP The Magazine learns one family's internal struggles. — Photo by Art Streiber

The Darling family, to me, were those people. They seemed perfect. I first noticed Jeff Darling at church one Father's Day when he gave a moving talk about being a dad. His wife, Ginny, a striking redhead, is a church elder. Their son, Max, 11, and daughter, Izzy, 7, are adorable. They all have big, Colgate smiles. Some people have all the luck.

But appearances — as our cover girl, Sharon Stone, would attest — rarely reflect the whole truth. Listening to Ginny speak at a worship service, I was stunned to learn her real story. Years of migraines, severe insomnia and fatigue, on top of three miscarriages, had turned her into a chronic worrier. Then, early in 2009, Ginny received a devastating double diagnosis: late-stage Lyme disease and cervical cancer. A hysterectomy showed that a 2-millimeter tumor had spread to her pelvic lymph nodes. She was just 37.

"My husband and I cried a little," says Ginny. "We did a little praying. But once the initial shock wore off, there was relief to finally have an answer." 

An aggressive treatment of radiation and chemo, plus antibiotics for the Lyme disease, left Ginny unable to keep down food or water. "There were days I felt like I was dying," she says. Jeff's steadfast response: "Tomorrow is going to be a better day." Recalls Ginny, who still struggles with Lyme disease but is now cancer-free: "He wouldn't ever think of an alternative to getting better."

Ginny's mother moved in with the family for six weeks, neighbors delivered meals, and Brambleton Presbyterian Church in Ashburn, Va., held prayer circles. At tea one day, Pastor Elizabeth Brookens-Sturman, 53, asked Ginny, "Do you feel frightened?" Ginny's response: "I do not." What she learned from her medical ordeal was this: "I have no control. I had to turn it all over to God. It was my moments of prayer that made me feel 'I really am going to survive.' "

The Darlings are indeed a special family. But it's in spite of their luck, not because of it.

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