The Mystery Woman

by Joy Butler


On a windless day in the Baja, I paddled out into the calmness of the bay in awe of the rugged, bronze mountains rising from the water like bookends. It was the start of a three-week, much-needed vacation after enduring the rigours of chemotherapy for several months.

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I spotted a woman alone in a kayak in the distance, and I watched as she beached her vessel to take what seemed to be a luxurious swim. She floated on her back kicking only to keep moving gently through the water. I had an urge to approach her and found myself paddling towards her. She had got out of the water to towel off, and as I got closer I could hear her saying out loud, “what a wonderful place.”

My shadow took over then—the voice in my head that tends to govern decision-making about how to behave in uncertain times. You can’t go up to a complete stranger; it’s not how we do things in the UK. We need an introduction.

My arms kept paddling in her direction.

My attention was suddenly redirected from the woman to some beautiful sparkles emanating from just below the water. I sat down on my paddle board to watch.

“What do you see?” she called out.

“Look at these magical sparkles!”

“Oh cool, they’re sardines catching the sunlight.”

We both watched spellbound for a few moments until the spell was broken by two very large fish chasing the sardines underneath the bow of my board. Before either of us could say “wow,” about fifty pelicans flew over and divebombed the two large fish and the sardines. We felt under attack as the pelicans crash dived within two feet of us, and we both covered our heads with our arms for fear of one miscalculated dive.

The pelicans left as quickly as they had come, restoring the tranquility of the water and the sparkles of the sardines. The woman, Magdalena, and I chatted about the magic of the moment until my shadow, ever present, dictated that I should leave and not intrude on the woman’s privacy and space any longer.  

The next day, my partner Claire and our friend Tracy went fishing off the beach in Loreto. Dragging their catch back in bags, they ended up in Orlando’s for lunch. Who should walk in but Magdelena. They enjoyed lunch together and shared their professions. Magdelena explained that she was an immunotherapy cancer researcher.

“For what company?” Claire blurted out.

“MERCK.”

“The company that makes Keytruda?”

“Yes,” she replied. “It’s our most successful immunotherapy drug.”

After picking up their jaws from the floor, they shared my story and Magdelena agreed to get involved. We had been paying out of pocket for Keytruda ($7,100 every three weeks), since we were turned down by Sunlife Insurance, because there were no successful trials examining Keytruda combined with the Eribulin chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer.

Magdelena has been true to her word and has relayed information to us that helped build our case to appeal to Sunlife. The insurance company recently accepted our appeal letter and is now paying for me to receive the Keytruda, and I am responding to it!

Perhaps, it was my instinct for healing that propelled me that day, to ignore my shadow, to meet a lone woman swimming in the ocean in the Baja. Was it serendipity that the woman and I would experience magical moments together with sunlight and sparkles and the intricate interplay of sea life engaged in life cycles around us? And that she would turn out to be the person I needed who could help us persuade the insurance company to pay for the drug that is keeping me alive? Oh the wondrous mystery of life and the healing that can come to us in such surprising ways.

Joy Butler attended her first Callanish retreat in February 2017 and then her second in February 2018. She is a regular attendee at Callanish in Vancouver and particularly enjoys the Callanish Writes Circle. Joy is a Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. She is also the coordinator of the Health, Outdoor and Physical Experiential Education (HOPE-Ed) program at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the author of the book Playing Fair: Using student-invented games to prevent bullying, teach democracy, and promote social justice.