65: Barbara Minty McQueen

65: Barbara Minty McQueen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 65 •
BARBARA MINTY MCQUEEN

Photographer, widow of actor Steve McQueen; author of Steve McQueen: The Last Mile

Steve McQueen and I had only been together for four years and married for one when he died at age fifty. He had been extremely ill for some time. He suffered from a form of cancer called mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos, and it had widely metastasized. Being one of the biggest movie stars of the time, the glare of the press was nearly constant.

Steve had been using some non-traditional approaches to treating cancer available in Mexico and he had decided to go there for an operation that was essentially a last-ditch effort to save his life. The minister of our evangelical church in Ventura knew Billy Graham, and Steve asked the minister if they could meet before the surgery. They really wanted to see each other, and it just happened that Billy Graham had a break in his schedule that allowed him to come.

When he arrived, Billy sat with Steve for a long time. Nobody was at their meeting except the two of them, so no one else will ever hear what they discussed, though I know that Steve told Billy that he had found Christ and they talked about it. I love that Steve got to have this meeting with Billy and didn’t have to share it with his fans. Even I wasn’t allowed to hear about what transpired, but I can imagine some of it. I think it was like Steve’s last hurrah.

Steve was always curious about life, and I think he wanted to meet Billy Graham so he could get some guidance, some answers. He probably perceived Billy Graham as someone with the wisdom and experience to guide him to the unknown. He seemed relieved and happy when the meeting was arranged. I didn’t get to talk to Steve about his impressions of the meeting because he went right to Mexico, but I knew it had given him serenity. I drove instead of flying, but Steve’s right-hand man, Grady Ragsdale, traveled with him and told me that Steve was at peace after his time with Billy, that he was good with everything. I am so grateful for his time with Billy Graham.

When Steve arrived in Juarez, he settled into the clinic and the rest of our small group settled into a funky, little hotel. We knew that his heart might not be strong enough to survive the procedure, but if successful, it could have given him a few years. He had the operation the next day, but his heart failed and he passed that night.

When I got the phone call at four in the morning, I was in shock. The first person I called was Billy Graham. He spoke with me for quite a while. He was strong, yet kind, and somehow he made everything okay. He helped me understand Steve’s death as a loss of one type, but a gain for Steve. I’m not a traditionally religious person, and I hadn’t followed Billy Graham before that time, but I am very spiritual. I took what he told me and put it into my own terms and I work with it. The kindness he showed and the words he shared remain with me to this day.

After some confusion, we got Steve home and gave him the most glorious sendoff. I feel him with me in spirit every single day. I especially felt his presence taking care of me for the years it took me to get my feet on the ground and know I was truly okay.

Those events provided the biggest lesson of my life and I see it all as a gift that keeps on giving. Life throws all sorts of curve balls at you to see which way you’re going to hit them. It makes you strong, so you can be healthy and go on with it. Each day I learn a little something, and I think about things that Steve might have done or said or how he would have handled a situation. I start complaining about stupid things and then I remember that I am blessed just to be alive. It’s as if Steve is trying to straighten me out and kick me in the behind, saying, “Hey, you’re there; I’m here,” wherever “here” is. “Put a smile on your face and enjoy yourself.”

When Steve took that flight to El Paso on his way to Mexico, Billy accompanied him to the airport and was with him when he boarded the plane. Right before he left, he gave Steve a Bible. It looks like a personal travel Bible that had accompanied him on a world tour. It says “Billy Graham” on the front of it, and is extremely well worn, complete with what look like coffee stains. It contains verses, notes to President Nixon, and notes for big speeches, as well as for presidents of foreign countries and other people with whose names I’m familiar. It’s spectacular.

When the clinic where Steve passed made it possible for us to see him, Grady found the Bible on Steve’s chest. He graciously gave it to me, and I still treasure it to this day.

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