What We Wish Were True

Reflections on Nurturing Life and Facing Death

About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Facing death is the hardest thing of all, and Tallu Quinn faces hers in a way that broke and healed my heart. This book is a beautiful tribute to life, to truth, and to love.”—Glennon Doyle, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Untamed

Profound essays on nurturing life while facing a terminal diagnosis, from the dedicated humanitarian and young mother creating “a vibrant legacy for us to hold on to and learn from” (Ann Patchett)


“I am holding both my hope and my grief together in the same hands. It is a loose hold, looser than I am accustomed to. My love is so much bigger than me.”

Nonprofit leader and minister Tallu Schuyler Quinn spent her adult life working to alleviate hunger, systemic inequality, and food waste, first as a volunteer throughout the United States and abroad, and then as the founder of the Nashville Food Project, where she supported the vibrant community work of local food justice in Middle Tennessee. That all changed just after her fortieth birthday, when she was diagnosed with stage IV glioblastoma, an aggressive form of terminal brain cancer.

In What We Wish Were True, Quinn achingly grapples with the possibility of leaving behind the husband and children she adores, and what it means to live with a terminal diagnosis and still find meaning. “I think about how my purpose may be the same in death as it continues to be in life—surrendering to the hope that our weaknesses can be made strong, that what is broken can be made whole,” she writes.

Through gorgeous prose, Quinn masterfully weaves together the themes of life and death by integrating spiritually nourishing stories about family, identity, vocational call, beloved community, God’s wide welcome, and living with brain cancer. Taken together, these stunning essays are a piercing reminder to cherish each moment, whether heartbreaking or hilarious, and cast loose other concerns.

As a mother, a kindred spirit, and a dear friend, Tallu Schuyler Quinn looks into our eyes with well-earned tears in her own and tells us the bittersweet truth: We are all searching for what has already found us—present and boundless love. This love will deliver us and never let us go.
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Praise for What We Wish Were True

“Facing death is the hardest thing of all, and Tallu Quinn faces hers in a way that broke and healed my heart. This book is a beautiful tribute to life, to truth, and to love.”—Glennon Doyle, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Untamed

“Tallu’s essays of living a spiritually and emotionally rich life in a failing body are nothing less than a master class in how to be fully human. They are deeply felt and beautifully rendered meditations on the gifts—yes, the gifts—of struggle. Of suffering. Of temporality itself. A spirit of generosity and flashes of wit shine through even her saddest words.”—Margaret Renkl, author of Late Migrations and Graceland, At Last

“When reading What We Wish Were True, I kept thinking of the famous Mary Oliver line, ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ Clearly, Tallu Schuyler Quinn’s answer is everything. Her life, her mission, her decency, and her love create a vibrant legacy for us to hold on to and learn from. This book, like its author, is incandescent.”—Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author

“With death approaching in the rearview mirror, Tallu Quinn takes us on her final drive, fully present to the gritty, beautiful, excruciating, awe, fullness of family, love and life. I am forever changed by the journey. Thank you, Tallu.”—Amy Grant, Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter

What We Wish Were True is an unforgettable memoir of the most profound and private experience. At the threshold between this world and the next, Tallu Quinn asks the unanswerable questions out loud, so that we may all consider them and become wiser and more openhearted ourselves.”—Mary Laura Philpott, author of I Miss You When I Blink and Bomb Shelter

“Grief inevitably shatters us. But Tallu Quinn has done what is quite unimaginable—holds the pieces up to the light and finds glory in a mosaic of endings.”—Nadia Bolz-Weber, three-time New York Times bestselling author

“Tallu Quinn is living with terminal brain cancer, but she has taken the time to give all of us the remarkable gift of a peek into how she is learning to walk through it. Her words will help me bring light to my patients when I must give them dark news and to my family when life hurts them as it often does.”—W. Lee Warren, MD, neurosurgeon and author of I’ve Seen the End of You

“A lyrical, searching meditation on terminal illness . . . There are moments of pathos, but far fewer than the author deserves to air. Instead, the narrative becomes a prayer to life, with a conclusion comforting anyone on the path to death—which is to say, all of us—that imagines what she might become in the afterlife. A tragedy whose outcome is foretold and a gentle, uplifting contribution to the literature of death and dying.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The author writes movingly and candidly . . . with the power to move readers to tears. . . . Exquisite.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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What We Wish Were True

The Meadow

I am standing in tall grass. It is not soft. The day is overcast, but there is light, and it is slanted and bright in an almost sinister way, like rainbow weather. This meadow is where I have stood many days of my waking life. I know its soil, its roots, its curves, its weeds, its humus, its smell. And since my cancer diagnosis, I have spent nearly every day imagining myself standing here.

So many early mornings, I circled the lower acres, forging a worn path with my worries, my questions, and my footsteps. Slipping out of bed quietly so my children didn’t wake, dressing in the dark and getting the buttons wrong, desperate for as many minutes to myself as I could steal. I want them back. This meadow is the place of many of my fondest memories, and now it’s a place that is helping me surrender to the great beyond—­that boundless dark.

One winter here my family tapped eleven sugar maples, yielding fourteen gallons of sweet sap that boiled down to only a single quart of syrup and tasted like the smoky fire upon which we cooked it. I remember our children, Lulah and Thomas, diving into the leaf piles while wearing wire butterfly wings. Lulah’s wonky, early cartwheels, and Thomas’s watercolor picnics. My husband, Robbie, with Lulah on his lap, waiting at the end of the driveway for me to return home from work, their faces bearing the widest smiles. The soccer ball lodged high up in the tree and how hard we laughed when our enthusiastic friends Heather and Kelsey finally kicked it out. The black walnuts we collected for dye. The hundreds of eggs the chickens gifted us in those years, and the hot breakfasts that followed. Sharing countless meals on the front porch overlooking the meadow.

And there has also been suffering here. The sixty pullets who died tragically in a coop fire while we were in Maine—­the young birds charred and their wooden coop too. Our farmer friend Cari’s three baby pigs she was raising attacked by coyotes in the open daylight, and countless hens picked off by predators over the years. The deep rivers of rainwater that cleaved our rocky driveway after every storm, and the literal tons of river rock we’d have hauled in to repair it. The massive pile of cleared brush and stumps, and the burns up and down our friend Sally’s legs and arms when she lit it.

What is time in this meadow? Will it be my final resting place? My forever?

I keep visiting this scene in my mind—­this humble place so alive with the memories of my full and happy life. Reflecting on it is helping me learn how to die. My children are there—­young, bright, chubby-­cheeked and glossy-­chinned, smiling, taking in each other and this world we love. Does it love us back?

The grass is long. Robbie is making us laugh. No thought of my own death in the background, just the pulsing slow time of family life. With the chickens and their muck and their spilled-­out food. With the tall weeds overgrown and the cardinals preening and showing themselves.

I meditate on my own death in these visits to the meadow. What will it feel like to die? Grounding myself in the memories of this place connects me to all the physical love I have encountered in this embodied life. With my eyes closed, I visualize strong tendrils shooting downward from my feet, penetrating the soil, pushing through layers of rock, and becoming roots. The roots stretch themselves through the earth’s crust and arrive at the deep and strong core of all I am and have ever been and ever will be.

I come back to my breath, looping through my body as a beautiful figure eight. My mind carries me through this journey, and the present moment is full of curiosity about the unknowable past—­a lineage of ancestors I never met and yet whose presence I deeply feel as I face my own death. I am carried by them, they in me, their love in me, their love is me.

Over and over again I go back to the smiling faces of my children—­their grunts as they nursed at my chest, their first steps, their delight in the world around them. Our joy so big that nothing—­not even death—­could rob us of what we’d found and somehow formed together. I go back and I go back, and meanwhile my illness marches on, moving me forward, closer to my final days. I tell myself over and over what I have been telling my children—­

Love never ends.

Angels in the Architecture

I wanted eyeglasses so badly when I was a child. Alas, I was born with excellent eyesight. I bought a pair of fake glasses from a kiosk at the old Fountain Square mall in Nashville in the third grade. One morning before school, I put them on and attempted to slip out the front door without my parents catching a glimpse of me wearing them. But my dad saw me in my fake glasses as I was darting toward the Blantons’ minivan for our carpool and asked me about them. I told him I wanted to wear them to school, and he knelt down, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Honey, God gave you beautiful eyes and perfect eyesight, and wearing these glasses is like wearing a lie.” I expertly squirmed out of his arms as quickly as I could and ran into the backyard, determined to wear the glasses. What ensued was my dad chasing me around the outside of the house to try to get them off my face. Meanwhile the Blantons were just waiting in their van watching this whole scene unfold.

Around the time I turned forty, I did pick up some readers at the drugstore because I was having trouble focusing on the computer screen and small text. These symptoms would eventually worsen a few months later, and one day I experienced a full-­on inability to find and follow the cursor on my computer screen as I typed. And I noticed how I was missing whole sections of text at the end of sentences when reading to my children at night. Even connecting to a Zoom call became unusually difficult, and the reading glasses really didn’t seem to help with any of this at all. I would eventually come to learn that this loss of vision was caused by an emerging cancer on the left side of my brain—­specifically an area that governs vision and reading comprehension.

But prior to these visual changes, my 20/20 vision served me well. I’ve been thinking lately about how much of my identity has been produced by and based on being a visual person, and my creativity has especially depended on it. For as long as I can remember, I have been doing stuff with my hands—­drawing, stitching, cooking, baking bread, taking photographs—­making in many forms. The use of my hands paired with a strong orientation to aesthetics carried me through art school. And many a knitting project has accompanied me in countless work meetings and at conferences over the last decade. With my gaze down on my lap at the handwork, I was always telling workshop leaders, “I promise I’m listening! This knitting helps me pay attention better!” When I went into the hospital for brain surgery, I brought some embroidery to work on, anticipating a long stay. Recuperating in my post-­op room, I picked it up and started to laugh hysterically with my mom because I couldn’t see where to put the needle into the fabric. But I was so used to always bringing along something to do with my hands that I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that my changing eyesight might not support my hobbies anymore.

As an undergrad, I studied fiber arts, which included block and screen printing, weaving, sewing, basketry, mixing dyes, and more, each technique in its own way requiring visual decisions, math, and precision. I then became enamored with both papermaking and bookbinding. Making books and boxes requires a lot of measuring and right angles and attention to detail. The exacting nature of the field drew me in.

When I was in seminary at Columbia University in New York, I landed a work-­study job in the library conserving very old books. My daily tasks were to take massive old volumes, clean them of all smudges and debris, repair torn pages with paper that matched, and then build archival boxes for them to live in. I had my little station in the archiving studio and listened to NPR on my little pocket radio all day, and the sense of accomplishment I felt using my hands was a great complement to the very heady work of deconstructing my own theological claims in the classroom.

Six months into my glioblastoma diagnosis, I discovered that a basic neurological exam always tests hand/eye coordination. So much of the satisfaction of hand/eye work is in seeing it come together, and part of being a visual person has meant I’ve had the kind of eyes that notice the little things. Before I got sick, if you needed something centered on a wall, or labels neatly affixed to merchandise, or leftover soup decanted into a jar for perfect yield, I was your gal! I noticed people’s handwriting and fingernails and personal tics. As a child, I remember riding around in our friend Diane’s Ford Taurus wagon and fixating on the way her thumbs moved over the steering wheel as she drove. I can picture my aunt Cathy’s fingers poking into enriched dough as she taught me to braid bread when I was young. And even though it’s been a few years since I’ve seen live music, my mind’s eye can see our friend Fred’s left hand move up and down the neck of a guitar in his seat in the round at the Bluebird Café, while the other hand expertly plays the strings.

About the Author

Tallu Schuyler Quinn
Tallu Schuyler Quinn was the founder of the Nashville Food Project, an organization that seeks to bring people together to grow, cook, and share nourishing food, cultivate community, and alleviate hunger. She earned a BFA in papermaking and bookbinding from the Appalachian Center for Craft and an MDiv from Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, where she focused on ritual studies. Tallu Schuyler Quinn made her home in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Robbie, and their daughter and son. More by Tallu Schuyler Quinn
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