The phone rang and I grabbed it, juggling dinner preparation and a two and a half month-old baby. It was 12 years ago, this week.


It was my sister, and she was crying. My thoughts first went to her husband, Charley. He’s an electrician. A boater. A busy, active guy. But it wasn’t Charley.

“Mom was visiting Aunt Betsy and had terrible pain and went to the hospital. She has colon cancer.”

I sat down where I stood and our two oldest kids still remember, “That time when Mom was sitting on the stairs and crying.”.

There are moments that are seared into our memories, when our nice comfortable lives are suddenly twisted and we stand on the edge of a precipice, dizzy and confused.

After the vertigo passes it’s time for action - possibly fog-ridden action, but action nonetheless. We make decisions, we make phone calls, we look at our loved ones and can’t look away. And we want, more than anything, to reclaim that rote feeling of normalcy we didn’t even know we had five minutes ago. We promise ourselves that we’ll be better people, that we’ll cherish every moment and take out the garbage and do the dishes faithfully just so that life can feel ordinary again.

And we pray. Even though we may not know what to say. Suddenly that connection with God is almost palpable. I remember weeping before the Lord in the days following my mother’s diagnosis, just saying, “Please help.” I knew He’d know how to take it from there.

The irony of these moments - these times when we don’t think we can take anymore - is that, sometimes, the trauma is just beginning.

For my mother, the cancer and proceeding surgery turned into a stroke three weeks later. That phone call was even harder than the first one. The pain in my father’s voice, the uncertainties, the knowledge that, though we’d driven out to see Mom after her cancer diagnosis in a whirlwind trip of four and a half days, we wouldn’t be able to join her again, to lend a hand, to comfort and support.

Or to be supported.

I have mental snapshots of that trip:

  • Biscuits with Sawmill gravy, the dish I was making for the first time ever on the day my sister called. It stuck in my throat like paste. For years I could not see, hear of, or eat biscuits and gravy without thinking of that day.
  • Our baby Lucy, lying on the hospital bed beside Mom. It was the first time Mom had seen her, and we wondered if it would be the last.
  • Me, sitting in the passenger seat as we drove home, unable to stop crying, desperately trying to capture in words my roiling emotions. The tear-stained notebook with my scribbled writing that held all the words I managed to get out. I never was able to decipher my writing.
  • The Columbia River, rolling alongside the highway; the miles and miles of Oregon flying past my window in a benediction of beauty.

Or, the image that is above all else, the image that came to me several years before this event, but which always returns in times of crisis: Me, a wee brown-haired girl, walking along the dirt road by my house where I grew up, holding the hand of a man far larger than I, a man whose face I could not see, but whose love I did not doubt. A man who is far more than a man, who loves me far more than any man ever could.

A man who answers my prayers with all the power and grace that can be given, when all I can say is, “Please help.”

“Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!” Psalm 66:20 NIV


Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is