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Sunday, September 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A prayer for Gloria | Gloria was more than just a story

Seattle Times staff columnist

Services for Gloria Strauss

Wednesday: Viewing in the chapel at Kennedy High School, 140 S. 140th St., Burien, beginning at 3:30 p.m. There will be a rosary at 7 p.m. and the chapel will be open for viewing through the night until 9 a.m. Thursday.

Thursday: 10 a.m., services at Kennedy High School. Reception to follow in school gymnasium.

For updates, see reporter Jerry Brewer's journal.

Gloria Strauss asked all the questions the first time we met. She was the journalist. Photographer Steve Ringman and I were the subjects, and she needed to know one main thing.

"Do you, like, write about and take pictures of stars?" Gloria asked.

No, we explained, not exactly.

"I've always wanted to be a star."

Five months later, after writing about Gloria's death Friday, I checked my e-mails.

"You made her a star," one reader wrote.

No, she was already a star. Guess that made us her paparazzi.

Because of Gloria's joyous life, I feel a part of something special. Something very real.

The series has been an authentic portrayal of one family's fight with cancer. Gloria succumbed to neuroblastoma, a confounding and vicious disease, but her family rejoices despite their sadness.

The Strausses exposed themselves in this series, and I did as well. In addition to writing the series published in the newspaper, I kept an online journal, sharing my innermost thoughts and feelings.

It's impossible to walk with someone, especially a child, battling illness and remain unmoved. I've seen reporters cry at their desks while writing stories. I've seen reporters disinterested, furious, shocked — every emotion you can imagine.

Our job is not to suspend our feelings. Our job is to suppress our emotions in order to tell unbiased stories. But in this series, the veil of detachment was removed. I allowed myself just to be a normal person telling a story.

From there, the Strauss family took over. I never felt like I was writing these stories; I felt more like I was arranging them. I've simply wanted to present their story, to put a mirror on them.

When we were determining how to do this series, I told an editor that these stories would define my tenure at The Seattle Times. I told the editor that you had to feel your way through the story, not just think it. I was right. The editor even told me so recently.

For the Strauss family, it took courage to open their hearts to us and thousands of readers. It was bold of Gloria's mother, Kristen, to reveal her belief that God told her he would heal Gloria and change the lives of many.

Those words framed the entire series. Gloria believed in this miracle until her last breath. Because of those words, the family never lost hope.

"I know I'm going to be a miracle," Gloria said at the end of our second interview.

I could have written this series many different ways. I could have focused on the medical side of this vexing disease. I could have focused on the suffering. I could have focused on how a father with a sick child, a wife with multiple sclerosis and six other children struggled as the family's only source of income.

But this had to be about faith.

If I had written about the experience any other way, I would have either ignored or de-emphasized the most pivotal part of the Strausses' lives.

As journalists, we document life. We talk about what our readers are talking about, represent how our readers are living.

I'm proud the newspaper had the confidence in me to write this much about religion. There were so many reasons not to — Seattle's too liberal, too unchurched, faith's too difficult to examine, and don't you have a sports column to write? — but we did it anyway.

In the end, the series leaves you with a conclusion that might be confusing to some. After believing she would receive a healing miracle, Gloria dies. But her family celebrates, declaring that heaven is the "ultimate healing." As a reader, you're left to decide whether you agree.

I've read e-mails of frustration and disappointment because people believed Gloria would survive cancer. But what frustrates some readers is what I like about the series.

What's the simplest definition of faith? It's confidence or trust in something. You have to choose to believe or not to believe. In faith, there is no definitive ending.

I'm so sad that Gloria is gone. She's helped me re-examine my own spirituality. She's helped me learn how to love better. She's shown me what true commitment is.

I never wanted this story to end. I wanted to write Part 46 of this series, Part 74, Part 119.

It wasn't just a story for me. It was therapy.

Gloria's father, Doug, says her greatest gift was her "commitment to a relationship with God through prayer." Gloria showed him the way. She showed everyone who would pay attention.

Doug and Kristen shared a story from the night before Gloria died. An attending doctor, who didn't know Gloria, prayed with the family. When they were done, the doctor said, "You are glorifying God, Gloria, on Earth."

The motto of Gloria's loved ones has always been "Glorified by Gloria."

This level of attention and dedication is a gift only children can provide.

"In this world, it's so hard to be pure when you get older," her father says.

As we age, we lose our innocence. We burden ourselves with meaningless chores, claiming they are important. We forget what really matters.

Over the next week, and with her funeral Thursday, everyone who met Gloria even for five minutes will share memories. She had that kind of impact.

My fondest personal memory came about two weeks ago.

After a prayer session in her hospital room, she painted my fingernails. Pink with rhinestones glued on top.

She was fighting just to breathe and would fall asleep at times while doing my nails, but she finished them with the help of Jennifer Vertetis, a close family friend.

"I only ask one thing," Gloria said softly upon finishing. "You have to wear them for at least a day. After that, all bets are off."

I asked her about people making fun of me.

"If they do," Gloria said, "tell them you did it for me."

Then she grabbed my hand and guided it toward a blow-by oxygen device that she was using for comfort.

I looked at her nervously. She smiled and said, "Your nails will dry faster if you use this."

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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