erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Honestly, the whole experience didn’t seem real.  When my daughter, Hope, finished her race, we knew something was wrong.  Her gray lips and ghost-white skin looked way off.

We cheered anyway as she crossed the line, but she never heard us.  She couldn’t hear anyone.  As other runners walked off the track, she collapsed.  And suddenly, celebration was the last thing on our minds.

I’d seen her tired before at other races, but this was different.  Her eyes rolled back and closed.  One runner caught her, and then trainers came to move her to a safer spot.

We had just talked with Hope only a few minutes before.  She had smiled and waved as she made her way onto the track, proud to be part of the conference track meet hosted by her school—John Brown University.  And now?  I stared at her limp body.

It was every parent’s nightmare.  My little girl’s body lay there, and I couldn’t think.  Nothing came to mind to even pray.  All we could do was watch from the other side of the fence as anyone with any kind of medical experience moved into action.

“Hope, can you hear me?” one of them said.

The response was a weak head nod, but at least they had that.  Beads of sweat mixed on her skin with the rain beginning to come down.

The head trainer, Todd, ran to the circle of people.  Hope’s eyes were still closed as he put his hand to her forehead.

“She’s burning up,” he said, “Let’s get some ice on her.”  People worked fast.  With a tenderness and focus that was beautiful, they lifted her arms and legs like wet noodles and placed cold bags under them.

“Hope, do you know where you are?” he asked, checking her pulse.

“Um, a track meet,” she whispered.  People nodded and smiled with relief as the rain started to come down harder.  Athletes and spectators ran for cover.

Her one free hand slid under the fence.  She was helpless, laying there with no strength.  I had to let her know I was there.   Squatting next to her, I held that hand—the one that held my finger when she was born.  The one that held my hand during scary Disney movies.  And the one that pushed her dolly’s stroller.

She was hot and soaked.

“Jesus, please help my little girl,” I prayed, squeezing her hand.  “Heal her body.”

There was no response from the squeeze.  Only heavy breathing.

“Okay Hope,” Todd said, “can you sit up for me?”

She nodded, eyes still closed.

“Your stomach might feel a little upset as we lift you up,” he said, placing his hands behind her back, “but I think even if you lose your lunch, you’re gonna feel better.”

They lifted her up, and she did exactly what he predicted, spraying all over her shoes and the track.

“Wow Hope, is that corn?”  he asked, and everyone laughed.

He waited.

“How do you feel now?” Todd asked.

Hope was quiet for a moment, eyes still closed, but she worked up enough energy to respond.

“It’s an ‘L’ I threw up on my shoes,” she said, slurring her words and wiping her mouth.  She waited some more, and then the rest of her words came out slowly.  And it’s an ‘L’ that. . . I’m probably done for the season.”

Nobody said anything. And now the rain was really coming down, like in sheets.  Todd squatted next to her, supporting her back.  Ben, one of the coaches, took off his jacket to cover her.  And everyone else leaned in over the top, forming a dome of bodies.

“Let’s try to get her inside,” Todd said.  “Ben, can you grab the gator.”

Ben ran off on his mission as the rain continued to pour, and Todd leaned over Hope.  While his back took the brunt of the torrential downpour, he checked her pulse again.

I looked at Todd’s wet back.  He seemed to be about my age, so I knew that awkward position wasn’t exactly the way he’d choose to spend a rainy afternoon.  He had to be in pain.

The gator finally rolled up, and a few of the coaches helped Hope to her feet and got her in the back.

After we got her inside, lying on a table, people circled around her, including her roommate Lexie who was holding her stuff.

Peter, another coach, walked into the room and put his arm around my wife, Deb.

That’s all it took.  Immediately, tears filled her eyes and started running down her cheeks.

Then someone gently nudged my arm.  It was Regan, one of Hope’s teammates.

“We’re gonna pray over here,” she whispered.  As Deb wiped her eyes, teammates, coaches and trainers—all wearing their John Brown swag—stood with us in that little room.

Regan asked God to heal her friend. The peace in her voice stirred a kind of wonder inside me, and then tears filled my eyes too.

The people praying with us had been strangers to our family only two years before.  We had dropped Hope off for her first day of college, struggling to let go of the girl who was our miracle.  I cried then too, but I believed God would hold her hand when I couldn’t.

Now, we weren’t strangers anymore.  We were bonded to the coaches, the teammates, and the trainers through something much more powerful than the JBU letters scrolled across our clothing.  There was a living God moving among us.  His body was at work—sheltering (despite an aching back), supporting, praying—and Deb and I got a front row seat to watch it all unfold.  These people were His hands and feet, and we were being loved.

Hope eventually sat up, and I got to see that familiar smile again.  Then, Lexie brought her some dry clothes.  But the evidence of one very important truth had been on display from the moment Hope collapsed on the track, speaking more loudly to my heart than the rain pouring down outside—through all those beautiful people, God still held Hope’s hand.  Two years before, I had to let go, but He never did.


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