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After a near-fatal medical emergency left her facing a lengthy and difficult recovery, she wondered where He had been during her trials.
Springtime in the Rockies. I sat at my desk, gazing out a row of windows at green hills and distant peaks. Golden late-afternoon sun poured into my home office. This was where I worked, writing books and articles about faith.
At least, it’s where I’d worked before everything changed. Now I wasn’t sure I’d ever write again.
A year and a half earlier, giving birth to our fifth child, I’d had complications. I underwent two surgeries, suffering massive blood loss and severe lung damage. My brain was damaged too.
I was put in a medically induced coma. Doctors couldn’t promise that I would wake up whole. Or at all. But eventually I emerged from the coma. My body began to heal. So did my mind.
“A miracle!” everyone exclaimed when they heard my story.
It didn’t feel like a miracle to me.
Of course, I did my best to keep a brave face. I didn’t dwell on the trauma my near death had brought to my family. I didn’t talk much about waking from the coma barely knowing my own name, not even remembering I’d had a baby.
I didn’t bore people with stories about learning to walk, eat with a fork or brush my own hair again.
And no one saw moments like this one now, as I sat alone, wondering if I’d ever go back to my life as a writer. A notebook lay open in front of me. But all that came to mind as I stared at the blank page was a question that had been haunting me for months.
I didn’t dare utter the words out loud. Where were you, God?
Where were you in that delivery room when everything went wrong and my life nearly ended? Where were you when Caroline, our fragile baby, looked for her mom and didn’t find her?
Caroline was a toddler now and I still wasn’t sure whether we’d bonded. It was months after I came out of the coma before I was able to care for her on my own.
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And where were you, God, when waves of sadness and anxiety kept crashing over me? My doctor called it post-traumatic stress disorder, from repeatedly coming so close to death. I didn’t tell anyone about those feelings either. They weren’t miraculous. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. Especially not God.
About three years earlier, my husband, Tim, and I decided we wanted another child. Our youngest at the time was nine, our oldest headed for college. We were a fun, raucous family. But Tim and I, both in our early forties, felt there was room for one more.
The pregnancy was uneventful, the birth easy. I was a pro at this. The nurse handed Caroline to me all wrapped up. I held her to my cheek. I was all set to nurse her as soon as she got cleaned up and weighed. But before I got a chance, I was in excruciating pain.
Doctors hurried to my bedside. I heard the words uterine rupture. Tim clutched my hand and choked out a prayer: “God, keep her safe!” The last thing I saw as my gurney raced down the hall was Tim’s confused, terrified face. Then it was as if I fell into a black hole.
When I awoke, six weeks later, I was a different person. My muscles, weak from disuse, didn’t work. I breathed through a tube. I couldn’t talk. Couldn’t think. It was weeks before I was fully coherent.
Tim, an accountant, was at work the day I said my first words. With a nurse’s help I called him and left a garbled message. My voice sounded like someone else’s.
Our whole family was turned upside down. I was in the hospital for 107 days. Tim ran himself ragged working, taking care of the kids and spending every spare moment at my bedside.
Jacquelyn, age 18, and Claire, 15, helped look after Collin and Allison, 12 and 9. Sometimes everyone spent the night in chairs in a waiting room.
Jacquelyn’s life changed completely. After talking with Tim and our friends, she decided to withdraw from college so she could stay home with Caroline. Friends from church took turns helping her, staying at the house, showing her how to care for the baby, cook and clean.
But even with their help, my illness had placed a huge burden on our family, I knew. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. The pointlessness of it. Really, God, where were you?
I put down my pen and closed the notebook. Obviously I wasn’t ready for this. I was too angry. I gazed at my hands, each finger illuminated by the golden afternoon light pouring through the windows.
Those hands, I thought, should have been holding Caroline during her first months of life. Instead it was Jacquelyn who held her. Jacquelyn and my dear friends who bathed my baby and fed her formula and changed her and wrapped her in blankets and settled her to sleep with lullabies.
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My best friend had offered to keep Caroline at her house on weekdays so Tim could work and Jacquelyn could remain a student.
When I asked Jacquelyn why she’d stayed home to care for the baby, she said, “Mom, Caroline’s an O’Connor. She needed to be with us. My voice sounds just like yours. I knew if I stayed with her she’d get used to that voice. Then she’d know you when you woke up.”
I paused now, remembering that conversation. When you woke up. I’d let those four words slip by the first time Jacquelyn said them. Now I wondered. Why did she think I would wake up?
The doctors had not been optimistic. When I suffered multi-organ failure, they’d even told Tim I likely wouldn’t make it through the night. He’d brought the kids to the hospital, telling them to think about how they wanted to say goodbye. The thought of that made me shudder.
Yet Jacquelyn never let her fears defeat her. Neither did Tim. Nor did Allison, Collin or Claire, nor anyone else who’d sat at my bedside talking to my inert body, reading aloud, praying. They believed.
Why was everyone else so sure their prayers would be answered even when all the evidence pointed the other way?
Sitting at my desk, all I had were questions. I gazed out toward the mountains. The sun was so intense I had to squint. I sat there for a long time, the questions and doubts inside me like dark shadows cast against all that light. Would I ever be okay?
And then, so quickly and so subtly I hardly perceived it, everything changed.
I thought of Jacquelyn postponing college. Tim moving heaven and earth to be at my bedside. The kids pulling together to care for one another. Our friends, our family, our church all working around the clock to keep us fed and keep me company.
Illuminated by that gorgeous sun, all my questions suddenly turned from darkness to light.
Yes, everyone’s life was upended. But that didn’t mean God was absent. Was there any surer sign of God’s presence than the love that drew Jacquelyn to Caroline? Or the love that kept Tim at my side? Or the love that buoyed our kids and inspired our friends and our church to care for us?
God was even in my questions. I wouldn’t have been arguing with him all this time if he wasn’t there to argue with. I certainly wouldn’t be sensing him right now, here at my desk, patiently absorbing my doubts and depression like the sun dissolving shadows.
My mistake wasn’t asking God to show himself in the midst of chaos. That’s natural when you’re in distress. My mistake was assuming that God is present only when we feel him near. His presence is deeper than that. He enters the darkness with us. He stays by our side.
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And he’s there when we emerge from that darkness, even if we don’t see him right away. I saw him now, clear and bright as the sun on the hills. As the light in Caroline’s eyes when she saw my face. I picked up my pen and opened my notebook again. I couldn’t wait to tell the story.
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Lindsey O'Connor is the author of The Long Awakening: A Memoir (2013) from Revell Books.