23 Oct

I have written the opening lines of this post several times in my head over the past week. I have questioned and prayed and cried. I have wondered whether or not I ought to even write it. Are there things so sacred that they ought not to be written? Things that, in the writing, are depleted by the very act of putting them into words? Or is it just that I, as an imperfect being, am frustrated that nothing I say can begin to touch the truth of a life which was…but is no more?

I am not a painter. I am not a sculptor, or a carver of fine wood. If I were I would attempt to remember through my art, to present a portrait of my cousin that could be admired, touched, hung on a wall or put on a pedestal for all to see. Even then there would be limits: her hair was not quite like that. Her fingers were surely longer: a pianist’s hands. How can I portray her laugh?

My medium is less tangible, but no less imperfect: words.

Andrea loved words. She handled them correctly, used them honorably, and her conversation was intelligent and enlightening. I always enjoyed talking to Andrea and she always made me think. I only wish we could have talked more often, and for many more years ahead. She would comment on my blog from time to time, and I cherish those comments – never wasted words, always seasoned with grace.

Andrea’s sense of humor was dry and sharp, much like her mother’s. I didn’t realize how alike they were until, in recent years, I read letters from them both and saw how closely they resembled each other in viewpoints, in political ideas, in tone of voice. Their letters – or e-mails as the case may be – are ones I sit down to read with a cup of tea and a smile. And it is they I am thinking of when I proof-read my Christmas letter each year, knowing even as I do so that I probably have a few errors which they will notice but be too kind to point out.

Andrea wrote about her visit to the plastic surgeon after her mastectomy. She had me doubled over in laughter as I read, describing his harem of nurses, his words of assurance that her new chest would be gorgeous and compelling. She could laugh at herself, her world, her cancer.

When I was eleven or twelve, Andrea came from Ohio to spend the summer with us on Orcas Island, Washington. Living so many hundreds of miles apart had done nothing to encourage relationship, and, while I’d met her several times over the years, I didn’t really know this cousin who was eight years older than me and I didn’t really know what to expect when she moved into our house for three months. After all, I already had two older sisters; did I really want another one?

Turns out, she enjoyed spending time with me! She even wanted to make cookies with me and didn’t mind me hanging around! She helped me with stuff, she laughed and giggled and schemed with me. She even led me in a culinary triumph: Hot Dog Cookies, just so she could help me trick my dad, her uncle Dave – or, as the cousins all called him, “Jungle Dave”.

The cousins. I’m the little one on the end…Andrea is five over from me. This is most likely the first time I met Andrea…though, to be sure, I don’t remember it!

Together Andrea and I taught Dad that if he asks for Hot Dog Cookies, he’s going to get them. And let me tell you, there’s nothing like Snickerdoodles with a slice of hot dog hidden inside.

I’m pretty sure he even ate one.

After that summer it was back to sporadic sightings of each other, but every time I saw Andrea, I was glad: our grandparent’s 50th anniversary, and later their 60th, family weddings and reunions. She even came to Minnesota for my wedding, and once, she came for work. My husband and I drove over to Rochester to see her that time, about three years ago. We had lunch and we talked about her cancer – briefly. It was easier to not talk about it. Easier to believe the doctor’s words that, while chronic, it shouldn’t be fatal.

That was bone cancer, I think…after the breast cancer and before the brain cancer. Before she couldn’t see to read, couldn’t walk, couldn’t play her piano. And it was before she got married, if I remember right. Andrea waited a long time to find the man who was perfect for her. She told us about him at my parent’s 50th anniversary, when we all met at the Washington coast to celebrate.

We were so happy for Andrea. They got married not too long afterwards. Two years ago? Three? Either way, it wasn’t long enough. Not long enough when you say your vows, believing that, “till death do us part” will still be a long way off, a distant and aged event you both can enter into, wrinkly and bent, but willing because you’ve led a good and long life.

She led a good life, yes. But not a long one.

It’s not fair. It’s all wrong.

The fingers that played are still. The voice that laughed is quiet. She told her family that she was looking forward to seeing her brother, also gone far too soon from a terrible disease. I think to even say such a thing was to acknowledge that she knew that hope, that intangible, wispy miasma, was gone.

Or, rather, is it this way? Was it hope which allowed her so say such a thing? Hope, faith, whatever you want to call it. She knew – as much as a human heart can – that she’d see her brother again someday because she knew Whom she had believed.

Faith in Jesus is what held Andrea together. When she wept, when she questioned “why”, when she cried out to Him that this was not what she wanted, it was faith and faith alone which enabled her to face death, knowing that it was not the end. It was merely a change in viewpoint. A new piece of sheet music upon her piano. A new word – or whole strings of words, of understanding – to add to her vocabulary.

“Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55. The sting of death was destroyed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We will see Andrea again.

Yes, Andrea’s body betrayed her. But her God never will.


34 Responses to “Betrayal”

  1. Minnesota Prairie Roots October 23, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    Dearest, Gretchen,

    This is a heart-breaking, sad, powerful and inspirational love story all rolled into one. Thank you for sharing what must have been an incredibly difficult post for you to write emotionally. My condolences to you at the loss of your beloved Andrea. To possess such grace, such faith, such courage is a gift from God. Andrea sounds like the most delightful person and I think, in many, many ways you two are very much alike in your writing abilities and faith and care and love for others.

    That you know you will see her again in heaven is the peace that emerges from all of this.


  2. cecilia October 23, 2012 at 8:24 am #

    That must have been very hard for you to write. So sad to lose a friend and cousin to the nasty cancer. But this is the miserable cycle of life, our mortal coil. Such is life. Often it stinks. She was a wonderful woman by the sounds of it and will be remembered. You wrote a lovely tribute for her .. well done honey.. c

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 23, 2012 at 8:58 am #

      Thanks, Celi. I thought about the cycle of life thing as I read your post today, thinking about your piggies and such. Yes, we face it every day, even if we don’t stop to think about it. I am fascinated by your self-sustaining life-style – it brings so much in life into perspective: where our food comes from, how our animals are treated and cared for, no less so if they are destined for the table. You are a great example of loving care on so many levels.

  3. treadlemusic October 23, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    I write this with tears threatening….there are many who cannot rest in the assurance of Who has paid for our redemption and Who eternally loves us enough to prepare a place for those who will spend eternity with Him. Truly a bittersweet post. Just a thought: a sadness/sorrow shared is a sorrow halved and a joy shared is a joy doubled…..blessings and a warm hug to you, dear ‘bloggy’ friend, Doreen

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

      Yes, it is good to share – though I didn’t want to step on any toes and I hope I didn’t. And double yes: I couldn’t help but talk about her/my hope in the Lord – I think she’d be glad to know that her death brought about such an opportunity. I don’t want to proseletize…I just want to speak truth as I see it.

  4. Barbara Bamber | justasmidgen October 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    What a beautiful painting with words you’ve made. I’m fighting not to cry right now because of your lovely tribute to your cousin. Her life, though brief, sounds so rich and full of love. Sending you love from across the miles.. xx Barb

  5. Tami Scott October 23, 2012 at 2:31 pm #


  6. Deb Anderson October 23, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Dearest Gretchen and cousin,

    So beautifully written. Thank you for putting our thoughts and feelings into words. I am in tears and sending love.


    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      Oh, Deb – no words could be adequate, could they? Thanks for sharing your thoughts as well. Yes, tears are still so close to the surface. It will be so good to see everyone next June, is it? But also so very hard.

  7. cravesadventure October 23, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    Beautiful post that brought tears to my eyes – Andrea would be honored and by the sounds of it flattered too. Sorry for your loss.

  8. Hotly Spiced October 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    That was so beautifully written Gretchen but what a sad story. I have a friend who had breast cancer then the reconstructive surgery then bone cancer then brain cancer and then she passed away at 42. It is all so very sad. I’m so sorry for you loss xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 24, 2012 at 8:50 am #

      Cancer can be so unrelenting, can’t it? Strange how some people are able to recover and some are torn apart time after time. Sounds like your friend’s story is very similar. Life can be so hard…

  9. whatimeant2say October 23, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

    I am so sorry that Andrea passed. Your tribute to her is beautifully written. These things really do seem so unfair.

  10. Alice October 23, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

    I well imagine you brought her joy and delight.

  11. Beth Allen October 23, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

    “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in Andrea has brought it to completion.” It is a beautiful thing to think Andrea has finished all that was planned for her from the foundations of the world. It is those left behind that must wait for that glorious day and miss the ones we love who have gone ahead. Praying for peace and comfort.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 24, 2012 at 7:46 am #

      Thanks, Beth – yes, she’s achieved her goal! And yes, we’re the ones left to muddle towards it as we miss those who have gone ahead. It’s good to be able to truly say that I’m not afraid of death…

  12. Mel October 27, 2012 at 1:49 am #

    It’s terrible, no getting away from that – and I feel sad for your sadness. Yet there is a beauty, a light, that not even death can take away… perhaps death serves only to illuminate the good, more than anything else could, precisely because it is so dark, so unfair, so far from what was originally meant to be. Love to you today…

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

      Thanks for your lovely comments. A person may be gone but not forgotten, that’s for sure, and we can remember them by the things they said and/or did that inspired us – like you say, the light they brought to the world. Good reminder…

  13. Grinelda Markowitz October 27, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    loss is something that can be dibilitating if we allow it to be. we’ve all heard the glib comment that the individual we’ve lost lives on through the memories we created together while they were alive. it’s not a bit of triteness. we can most effectively move beyond our grief when we get to the point in our grief that the positive memories allow laughter to reenter our hearts. your cousin sounds like a person i would have wanted to meet. i’m sorry for your loss.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 28, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

      Thanks so much for your reminder that good can continue even when we’re grieving! I am struck by how many potential friends there are out there in the world – so many whom we will never meet – but from whom we can still be inspired.

  14. Cameron Von St. James November 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    Hi Gretchen,

    I am so very sorry for your loss. You will be in my thoughts. I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?



  15. Jude October 14, 2015 at 10:52 pm #

    I was thinking of Andrea today, three years now, and came upon you post on her Facebook page. I am a long-time friend of Paul Smith, we met in our 20s in Kathmandu, and served together in LA for many years. What an a amazing piece, I feel like I know Andrea more after having read it. Thank you.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 19, 2015 at 10:20 am #

      Oh, wow. Thank you so much for your note. How cool that you found my post. Andrea was so smart and so interesting and so funny. I miss her a lot. I’m glad that I was able to “introduce” more of her to you! I don’t know Paul well, having only met him once, I believe, but it’s still wonderful to have him in our family. We actually have a mutual friend – Peter Peterson – whom I know from Minnesota and Paul knows from LA. Small world, eh?! Thank you again so much for your comments.

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