The Moments We Never Forget…aka Have You Hugged your Colon Today?

8 May

Mom, reading to our oldest daughter a few years back. This is the stuff of memories. The stuff I hold dear.

You know those moments in your life when you can remember exactly what you were doing when momentous news came your way?

Like when the Twin Towers were bombed in New York. I was getting ready for a typical school day teaching English at a tiny private high school when my students began trickling in with news of a plane crashing into the first tower and soon, “I heard it was two planes,” another student said and I knew that it wasn’t an accident. Or when President Regan was shot, I was in 5th grade, and they broadcast the news over the brand-new school intercom. Or when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in 10th grade and they wheeled televisions out into the locker area of my school and we stood with open mouths and I got in trouble for being late to social studies class – SOCIAL STUDIES! That teacher clearly had no perspective.

Just as those earth-shattering occasions are seared into my memory, so is the time, five years ago this week, when I first heard that my mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer.**

The phone rang and it was my sister, who clearly was upset. I’d had a phone call like this before from her – when Pan American Airlines went bankrupt and our dad, a pilot, suddenly had no job anymore. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong this time and then she told me about Mom and I sat down where I stood and my two oldest kids still remember, “that time when Mom was sitting on the stairs and crying.”

Yes, such things are seared into our memories because we don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know the who, what, where, when, or why of it, and our nice comfortable lives are suddenly twisted – possibly even beyond recognition – and we stand as if on the edge of a precipice, dizzy, confused, unsure.

My sisters with Mom in our pool when we lived in Miami. I was born during their Miami years, but we moved soon after. Perhaps, if we’d stayed, I’d have learned how to swim?!


After the vertigo passes it’s time for action – quite possibly fog-ridden action, but action nonetheless. We make decisions, we make more phone calls, we look at our loved ones and can’t look away. And we want, more than anything, for life to be normal again. We promise ourselves that we’ll never complain about the pick-up line at the elementary school again. We swear 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 normal again.

We want, desperately, to reverse time, to re-claim that rote feeling of normalcy we didn’t even know we had five minutes ago.

And we pray. I pray often anyway, but suddenly that connection with God is vital, real, palpable. Though in those times I often don’t know how to pray or what to say. I remember weeping before God in the days following my mother’s diagnosis, just saying, “Please help”. I knew He’d know how to take it from there.

Mom giving our son a squeeze several years ago. He’s 12 now…and taller than her!


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

As September 11, 2001 went on, we learned that added to the Twin Towers was the Pentagon crash and the crash in a field in Pennsylvania as well. The tragedies just kept piling up. For my mother, the cancer and proceeding surgery turned into a stroke three weeks later. That phone call was, actually, even harder than the first one. The pain in my father’s voice, the uncertainties piled upon uncertainties, the knowledge that, though we’d traveled out to see Mom after her diagnosis in a whirlwind trip of 1.5 days driving out to Eugene, Oregon, 1.5 days with her and then 1.5 days driving back to Minnesota, we wouldn’t be able to join her again, to lend a hand, to comfort and support.

We were alone.

And, of course, when you’re alone and sad you desperately want your mama to be there with you.

Mom and Dad’s wedding – almost 55 years ago!


There is so much more that could be said about those days and, perhaps, I’ll say them someday. Write them down.

Mom was an excellent seamstress! She made Raggedy Anne or Raggedy Andy – depending on the baby’s gender! – for every grandchild, neice, nephew, great niece or great nephew that was born in our family for years – as well as many friend’s children, too. Sewing has been hard for her since the stroke, so we cherish our raggedies!


But for now, a few images:

Biscuits with Sawmill gravy, the dish I was making for the first time ever on the day my sister called and which turned out greasy and separated and which stuck in my throat like paste. I never, never, see, hear of, or eat biscuits and gravy now without thinking of that day.

Or this picture: our three-month old wee girl, 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.

Mom in the hospital – the first time she saw her youngest granddaughter, our youngest child. Even after cancer surgery, it made her smile!


Or this: 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-pocked spiral notebook with my scribbled writing that held all the words I managed to get out.

And this: the Columbia River, rolling alongside the highway; the miles and miles of Oregon flying past my window in a benediction of beauty.

Last Christmas we went out to spend the holiday in Washington State with my entire family. It was so great seeing Mom and Dad – and everyone!


And, 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 understands me when all I can say is, “Please help.”

And so, in light of Mother’s Day this Sunday, I say thanks to God for my Mama! I’m so thankful we have her with us still, with her laugher and her sense of humor and her theological discussions and her encouraging words.

I love you, Mom.

**Click on this link for important Colon Cancer information or on this link for colonoscopy information.  Now that it’s been five years since mom’s diagnosis and my colonoscopy that followed, I’m due for another this year!  Aren’t I lucky!  (People without a family history of colon cancer do not have to have colonoscopies as often or as young as I am.  Yes, I’m young, thank you very much!)  Colonoscopies are the best way to keep yourself from suffering from colon cancer.  Just go out and get one if you haven’t yet and you’re over the age of 50.  DO IT.  No, it’s not the most fun thing you’ll ever do.  But it doesn’t compare to getting cancer.

I figured Dad should have a picture, too! This is Mom and Dad last Christmas. Dad is a fantastic and tireless care-giver for Mom. “…In sickness and in health…” Dad took most of these photos – he’s fantastic with a camera!

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22 Responses to “The Moments We Never Forget…aka Have You Hugged your Colon Today?”

  1. treadlemusic May 8, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    Gretchen, A lovely tribute…..one of those bitter-sweet moments of flooding memories! Thank you for sharing……Uber hugs, Doreen

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 8, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      Thanks, Doreen! I feel the love! Enjoy your day – spring in Minnesota!

      • treadlemusic May 8, 2012 at 8:27 am #

        Will do!! Bed linens in the washer, will hang outside shortly—-wonderful! Blessings,…….

  2. gardenfreshtomatoes May 8, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    Lovely post.
    And yes, you should write it all down. Not to share in a public sense, perhaps, but for yourself and your girls…
    Big hugs!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 8, 2012 at 7:28 am #

      Thank you – I really need to find that spiral notebook I wrote in on the drive home – I have no idea where it is.

  3. Minnesota Prairie Roots May 8, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    This post is an incredible gift of love. It’s powerful and moving and honest. Thank you for sharing this deeply personal story. I think we can all understand those “moments.” In fact, I also posted about one today.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 8, 2012 at 9:32 am #

      Thanks, Audrey. I have been HORRIBLE about reading blogs lately – so busy. But I will definitely check yours out!

  4. Laurie (Morrill) French May 8, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Very nicely written Gretchen. I really enjoyed the pictures too. I LOVE your parents! They both took me under their wings on Orcas Island. I’ll never forget the things they did for me spiritually. And they helped me feel good about myself when I didn’t feel so special at school. Please tell them that I still think of them and still love them, OK? You are very blessed to have them as your parents! But I guess you know that…HA

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

      I will definitely pass that on, Laurie. I’m so glad you have those great memories! Those are tough years to get through – it’s so great to have someone to help you along! Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. Valerie Fletcher Adolph May 8, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Beautiful! You are so lucky.

  6. whatimeant2say May 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    Great pictures and post! I am glad that I got a colonoscopy last November even though I complained about it the entire time!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

      Thanks a bunch! I know – I am NOT really looking forward to my second experience this coming fall…but it’s worth it! I’m glad you got one, too!

  7. cravesadventure May 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    I came close to losing my mother at 19 and thank the lucky stars that she is still with us. Beautiful post – thanks so much for sharing! Have a Great Day!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 8, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

      I’m so glad your mom is still with you! And thank you – I hope it might encourage some people to get checked!

  8. Zen and Genki May 8, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    Such a lovely, touching post (got me a tad teary there, I don’t mind telling ya!) The love you and your family share is very special, that is obvious. Thank you for sharing it with all of us (and such wonderful pictures to boot! What a treat!)
    anne

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 9, 2012 at 7:12 am #

      Thank you so much! You are very kind. I’m so glad that you came on by and thanks so much for your comments. I love hearing from new readers!

  9. Paws To Talk May 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Gretchen,

    What a moving story! We love our mommy too!

    Bella and DiDi

  10. hotlyspiced May 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    What a lovely post for your mom. That must have been an awfully hard time for everyone in your family. I love the photo of your mother in the pool with that bathing cap – very retro! And the one of them on their wedding day is so special. xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell May 14, 2012 at 11:02 am #

      I know, I love that pool shot, too. So fun. It worked out well that her five year anniversary was right at Mother’s Day here in the US – finally I got something to her on time!

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