Greta’s Grace

Finalist, 2006 Golden Heart Contest sponsored by the Romance Writers of America  

Professional speaker, Lindsey Foster is faced with losing her only child, Greta, when Greta is diagnosed with cancer. Desperate to be closer to her during this crisis, Lindsey heads to Simon’s Point, Wisconsin, where Greta lives. Although Lindsey finds her greatest joy from inspiring her audiences with the healing power of women’s stories, her heart aches over her inability to heal her emotionally distant relationship with her daughter.

Divorced from Greta’s blustery dad, Brian, Lindsey is drawn to him now as they share their fears about Greta. She never expects to experience the drama of becoming involved with her ex-husband or to confront the dilemma of another man falling for her, especially Sam, her son-in-law’s widowed father. But Sam, quiet and reflective, offers more than friendship and becomes her refuge in this time of crisis.

With her willingness to do anything to make her daughter happy, Lindsey makes questionable decisions and keeps secrets from Greta, causing more heartbreak. Feeling exiled once again, Lindsey faces choices that will define her future—and her relationship with her daughter. But will Lindsey ever receive Greta’s Grace?


I’d wasted too much time longing for what I didn’t have,and waiting for the tiniest indication that it might be on its way. For years, I’d listened to other women tell amusing mother-daughter stories about shopping adventures or wedding glitches or the challenge of finding a free day to meet for lunch. I struggled to keep my heart free of envy, but I admit that too often I grudgingly laughed at these glimpses into other women’s lives. They already had what I wanted for Greta and me.

For years, I nurtured my wish and kept it alive in my heart. Then, in an instant, it no longer mattered. All I wanted was for Greta to get well.


She didn’t look sick when I saw her shortly after her diagnosis, leading me to the ridiculous thought that perhaps someone had made a horrible mistake. I’d hurried to the conference room on the oncology floor at the Bayside Medical Center, but stopped to peer through the half-open door and breathe deeply to collect myself before stepping inside.

Greta had tossed aside her boots and sat cross-legged in the middle of a short couch, her elbows resting on her knees. Using her fingers like a pair of scissors, she captured flyaway strands of her long blond hair and tucked them behind her ears. When she looked up and saw me standing in the doorway, I rushed to hug her.

“Mom, you got here.” Greta’s slender arms stretched up and loosely circled my neck. “I never saw this coming,” she whispered.

“Oh, sweetheart, I don’t think we ever see this kind of thing on the horizon.” Her cheek felt smooth against my own. And did I imagine it, or were the bones in her shoulders more prominent than ever? My daughter couldn’t spare even a single pound on her willowy frame.

When she dropped her arms, I sat in the chair next to the couch and nodded to the older woman across from me. I hadn’t expected to see Greta’s grandmother-in-law, Ida, sitting there with shoulders squared and ankles crossed, stubby fingers wrapped around the strap of the purse she held firmly in her lap.

“It’s nice to see you again, Ida, but—”

“I know, Lindsey. You wish it were a better occasion.” After finishing my sentence, she frowned and moved to the edge of the chair. “I’ll wait outside, Greta, so you and your mother can talk.”

I thought it kind of her to understand, but Greta reach- ed across the space between them and gave Ida’s knee a quick pat. “Oh no, don’t go. I want—I need—everyone here.”

Ida didn’t reply, but she slid back in the chair.

I’d met Ida only twice, the second time at Greta and Jake’s wedding. They’d had their reception in Simon’s Point at the Iverson Café and Bakery, a business Ida had owned for decades and turned into a Wisconsin landmark, thanks to her Swedish pancakes and cinnamon rolls. Theoretically, Ida’s pink cheeks and cap of tight gray curls should have made her look like a cheerful and grandmotherly baker, but I found her stiff posture and frown disapproving, even intimidating.

“Where’s Jake?” I asked out of curiosity, but also to fill the uneasy silence of waiting to learn what was in store for Greta.

“He’s hunting up lunch. I didn’t eat this morning and that drives him nuts, especially now.” Her silky hair again refused to behave and she busied her hands trying to make the wispy strands stay put.

I glanced at Ida and defensively explained that even as a small child, Greta had often forgotten to eat.

“If anyone had told me,” Ida said, “I’d have gladly fixed a container of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and brought it with me.”

Ida’s gruff tone grated on my nerves, but Greta’s ex- pression reflected only fondness and good-natured acceptance of the older woman’s quirks.

“All I want is to get this meeting with the doctor over with so I can go home.” A shaky tone seeped into Greta’s voice. “I’m sick of this place already.”

I understood why. Sadly, Greta was destined to spend many hours at the Bayside Medical Center, an older square brick building set back from the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The half-open door was a compromise between preserving privacy and encouraging more air into the hot, stuffy room. Everything had a dull cast, from the matte gray walls to the blue-gray carpet and the matching tweed fabric on the couch and chairs.

We already knew that a stubborn flu hadn’t caused Greta’s on-and-off fevers, or the malaise that dragged on through January and into February.

Jake had first noticed the swelling above Greta’s collar- bone and from that moment on, worry and waiting took over and consumed every hour of every day. Greta was my only child, my heart. I wasn’t ready to contemplate losing her.

At first, any news about Greta and her symptoms fell into simple categories, bad and good. When the biopsy led to a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease, the categories were shaken up, leaving us suspended in despair, while at the same time holding on to reasons for optimism. That explained the dizzying euphoria that rushed through my body when I heard the magic words, Stage I! Although she had symptoms, the disease itself was confined to one side of her upper body. Only caught up in the terrifying world of cancer could we find ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude that Greta’s case fell into the least bad of the bad.

I’d driven northeast to Green Bay from a hospital in Madison, where, ironically, I’d delivered the keynote at a two-day conference for several hundred cancer patients and survivors, most of whom were women. Many nurses and a few doctors who’d fought the good fight themselves also attended. I presented my usual topic, the healing power of women’s stories. True, professional speaking isn’t exactly show business, but we do live by the ethic that the show must go on. Over the previous days, I’d given my talks, and then immediately rushed off to find a quiet place to check my texts and voice mail. I lived with the paradox of de- sperately wanting to hear some news while dreading the message itself. As soon as my last workshop ended, I drove away, ready to give Greta all my support.

Suddenly, Greta straightened her spine and squared her shoulders, as if remembering one of her signature qualities, great  posture. “Mom? Does  Grandma Annie  know yet? Have you talked to her?”

“No, not yet,” I said with a sigh. “I left her a message, but she’s still off on her hiking trip in Costa Rica. She’ll be back in a couple of days.”

“She’s where?” Ida leaned forward and tapped her index finger against one ear as if checking her hearing aid.

“Costa Rica,” Greta said in a slightly raised voice, “the country in Central America. She’s on a hiking trip.”

Ida’s eyes widened in alarm. “My stars! Hiking in a foreign country at her age.”

“My mother is what one would call active.” I hoped my tone came across as dry but amusing.

Ida shook her head. “Lots of good hiking right here in Wisconsin. No need to fly way down there.”

I stifled a snicker, but Greta hooted. “Oh Ida, you are so funny.”

Our light interlude ended when Brian, my ex-husband, appeared at the door. Two long strides later he had Greta in his arms.

“Daddy, oh Daddy.” She wrapped her arms around him and dug her fingers into the back of his sweater, desperately grabbing at the fabric and hanging on tight. She scooted over to make room for him to sit next to her, and then rested her head on his shoulder.

With one arm draped around her, Brian rested his chin on the top of her head.

Ida stood, but Greta straightened up and quickly spoke. “Don’t go.”

“I’m sure she isn’t going far, honey.” Brian raised his free hand in a half wave that could have meant either hello or goodbye, or in that moment, both.

That settled that.

“Jake should be right along,” Ida said, narrowing her eyes at Brian as she gave Greta’s hand a quick squeeze before she left.

Brian gently rubbed Greta’s shoulder as she talked about the alphabet soup of tests, the CAT and PET scans and the vials of her blood drawn and carried off. I was certain that like me, Brian had heard much of this before, but he let her tell the stories over again without interrupting.

I had talked briefly with Brian a few times over the previous days, but I hadn’t seen him since Greta’s wedding, not that he’d changed much over the last year. His thick hair had once been the sunny color of Greta’s, but before he’d turned forty, it had turned snowy white. That feature alone triggered quick double-takes from women young and old.

Greta inherited her height and angular stature from Brian, along with his light blue eyes, clear and bright as marbles. Their resemblance was nothing less than startling. I provided the contrast. Short and curvy best described me, not a straight line anywhere. Brian had once said my hair and eyes reminded him of bittersweet chocolate, mouth- watering bittersweet chocolate to be exact, but he’d said those words long ago. Only the most scrutinizing eyes could see that the slope of Greta’s long nose was identical to mine, but then her nose had never been her favorite feature.

“So, like I told you on the phone,” Greta said, “today Dr. Hunter is going to explain the treatments my team is recommending.” She snuggled deeper into Brian’s shoulder. “I’m so scared.”

“I know, honey, I know.” He cupped her shoulder in his palm and drew her even closer. “So, who is this Dr. Hunter?”

Greta frowned. “My oncologist, Daddy, like I told you on the phone.”

“I know, but how do we know he’s the best?”

Greta pulled back, her eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Everyone agrees she’s the best.”

“Hunter Passwater,” I explained, “but her patients call her Dr. Hunter.”

“Thanks for the info, Lindsey, but that tells me exactly nothing.” He emphasized his dismissal with a flick of his hand.

“Well hello to you, too,” I said, glad I could manage weak sarcasm in response to his rude gesture.

“I’m trying to get some real information here, Lindsey.” “Oh no,” Greta said, looking at me, “don’t start in on

each other or I’ll make you both leave.”

Brian quickly skimmed away beads of sweat that had formed at his hairline. “It’s okay, Greta. We’ll be fine.”

It was so like him to raise questions about a doctor he hadn’t handpicked and doubt anyone else’s ability to find the so-called best.

“You two better behave,” Greta said. “I don’t want you embarrassing me.”

Brian looked sheepish and started to respond, but the door swung wide open and the aromas of garlic and starchy steamed rice filled the room.

“Your favorite spicy chicken, darlin’.” Jake set the containers on the end table next to Greta. “And wonton soup that’s still hot.”As he tore the plastic wrapping off a fork and spoon, he nodded at Brian and me. “I’m glad you were able to get here.”

He lifted the lid off of the soup and handed it to her. “Please, please eat.”

Brian stayed put, oblivious to the commanding presence of his tall, broad-shouldered son-in-law planted in front of him.

Since the dad showed no sign of giving up his place to the husband, I stood and touched Jake lightly on the shoulder. “We’ll leave the two of you alone.” I cast a pointed look at Brian, cocking my head toward the door. He followed me out only when Greta shifted her body— and her attention—away from him and toward Jake.

We walked a few feet down the hallway before he said, “You managed to hustle me out of there pretty fast.”

“Anyone could see they needed to be alone, Brian.” “Right, right.” He raised his hand and snapped his

fingers. “How could I forget? You know everything.” Resting one hand against the wall as if to steady himself,

Brian glanced toward the glass partition that looked into the large waiting room. Ida sat in one of the overstuffed chairs in the room, while Jake’s father, Sam, leaned against the wall next to her.

“You won’t like this question, but why are they here?” Brian asked.

I deliberately let out an audible huff. “Because that’s what Greta wanted. They’re her family, too, whether you like it or not.”

“You really do have an explanation for everything, don’t you?” He tightened his mouth in an angry grimace.

I slumped against the wall and a gulping sob came from deep in my throat. “Oh my God, listen to us.”

Brian exhaled a tired sigh, and then drew me close to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend...” He swallowed hard and tightened his embrace.

I rested my cheek against his chest and breathed in the soapy lemon scent of his wool sweater. His embrace felt strange. Aside from the quick hug we shared at Greta and Jake’s wedding, it had been years since I’d felt Brian’s arms around me. Until we’d both heard about Greta’s illness, we’d spoken only when we had a specific reason and ended our calls after exchanging polite questions about each other’s wellbeing.

I tilted my head and looked up into his face. “We can’t do this, Brian, we just can’t.”

He quickly released me, but his hands slid down my arms and he gently held on to my wrists. “I suppose I reached out to console myself as much as to try to comfort you.”

“No...I meant that we can’t snipe at each other like this.”

Brian was about to respond when I spotted a woman walking toward us, and he followed my gaze down the hall. I knew she was Dr. Hunter, because Greta had described her black hair, worn in a distinctive braided twist sitting like a crown on the top of her head.

She walked to us with her hand outstretched. “You must be Greta’s parents. She mentioned you’d both be here today.”

Her palm felt comfortably warm and she held our handshake long enough to communicate concern. And as if I’d been holding my breath, I released all the air in my lungs and the stiff muscles in my neck relaxed.

Glancing through the glass partition, Dr. Hunter raised her hand in silent greeting to Ida and Sam. “Greta’s a lucky young woman,” she said, looking back at me. “So many people love and support her.”

Brian folded his arms across his chest. “I’d like to talk with you about the protocol. I assume you’re recommend- ing a combination of drugs. Correct?” It sounded more like a challenge than a question.

Dr. Hunter cut her eyes to me before focusing on Brian. “First, I’m going to talk with Greta and Jake,” she said, her voice kind but firm, “and after that, if it’s okay with Greta, I’ll be happy to answer your questions.” With that, she walked the few feet to the conference room and knocked softly before she entered.

His face pinched, Brian looked like someone had just landed a blow on his cheek. “Don’t start in on me, Lindsey.” He puffed out his cheeks and sighed. “I don’t mean to act so obnoxious, but I guess it’s the best I can do when I’m scared out of my mind.”

“I know, I know.” I didn’t need him to tell me what it was like to live in fear. It had left me clinging to ropes on a swing, riding up on my impatience over Brian’s bluster and bullying, then swinging back and feeling as sorry for him as I did for myself. With no words left, I turned away. Through the glass, I caught Sam and Ida watching us. Sam quickly shifted his gaze to the window, but Ida, her forehead still wrinkled in a frown, continued staring at me as I walked into the waiting room to join them.


Despite its twists and turns, I found the footpath through the woods easy to follow. I shivered as I grabbed the collar of my jacket and pulled it tighter around my neck, all the while wishing for a thick scarf to protect me from the damp wind blowing off Lake Michigan. Marianne, the desk clerk at the Iverson Inn, had given me directions to Sam’s workshop, so I’d headed down a path behind the café and around the tennis courts before it veered off into the woods along the shore.

Rather than going back home to Chicago, I’d followed Greta and Jake to Simon’s Point and checked into a room at the inn that Sam and Jake owned together, along with their rental cottages and cabins. Before leaving Green Bay, I’d pulled Greta aside and told her my idea about moving to Simon’s Point during her months of treatment. At first she objected, but in a distracted sort of way, arguing that moving would disrupt my life. Her words sounded like a reflexive response, and a weak one at that.

I’d also told Greta that I wanted my mother, her beloved Grandma Annie, to be comfortable during what I expected to  be  extended  visits. A  place we  could really settle into appealed more than a room at the Iverson Inn, no matter how lovely. When I spoke with Jake about it, he assured me that his dad would be happy to show me one of their cottages.

As I shoved my cold hands deeper into my coat pockets, I wondered again how I could be so poorly pre- pared for the biting cold of an Upper Midwest February. I’d endured raw Chicago winters all my life, after all. But the nature of my work as a professional speaker had led to the habit of dressing for short jaunts between airports or parking lots and hotel check-in desks. Walks in the woods weren’t part of my typical day.

The faint sound of piano music filtering through the trees caught me by surprise. As I continued on the path the lilting melody became louder, and more unlikely yet, recog- nizable. I could match only a handful of classical pieces with their composers, but this Chopin waltz happened to be one of them. Greta had leapt and twirled to its rhythms in ballet class when she was perhaps seven, certainly no more than eight years old.

The memory flowed through me in one heartbreaking piece. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself sitting with a dozen or so other mothers in a row of folding chairs, each of us fixing our gaze on our own miniature ballerina in the sea of black leotards and pink tights moving in a wave across the floor. I felt lightheaded as the image sharpened. Even in the woods, I could almost smell the damp and slightly sweaty scents that filled the air in that old dance studio.

When the path took a sharp turn the workshop appeared, and the images from the dance studio vanished back into my memory. Through the open door I saw Sam bent over a piece of wood stretched across two sawhorses. I froze in place and watched as he tapped his fingers back and forth over it, as if playing the Chopin piece on a key- board.

He appeared completely absorbed in the rhythms of the music. I stopped while still some distance away and made a quick decision to call out to him. When he glanced up I said, “I hate to interrupt a man so deep in concentration. Should I come back later?”

He smiled broadly. “No, no, you’re not interrupting.” He reached behind him and flipped off the radio, abruptly silencing Chopin. “Jake said you’d be looking for me.”

Sam’s long, narrow face with its high forehead and slightly receding hairline struck me as more pleasant than handsome, but he had the appealing lanky build of a long- distance runner. As I approached him, though, his dark blue eyes threatened to disarm me. They communicated such kindness that I had to focus on something else. I’d been trying so hard to stay strong, and knew I couldn’t han- dle looking into a face capable of revealing such empathy.

With effort, I kept my voice casual and light when I spoke. “I can’t resist asking what you’re going to do with that piece of wood you’re, uh, examining so carefully.”

Sam tapped the wood a few times. “It’s going to be two storage-locker doors for the boat I’m building.” In a softer voice, he added, “But that’s not important now, Lindsey. Why don’t you and I go take a look at one of our cottages? I imagine you want to make your plans.”

Sam grabbed his gloves and led the way up another narrow path along a crescent-shaped cove, where the dull gray of Lake Michigan matched the color of the smoky bank of clouds hanging heavy in the afternoon sky. I tried to fall into rhythm with Sam’s sure steps and match the crunch and squeak of his boots as he left footprints ahead of me on the hard-packed snow. But my steps were awkward and kept me a frustrating half-beat behind.

“I understand why you want to come up here and stay for a while,” he said. “Greta must be pleased to know you’ll be nearby.”

“We didn’t talk for long, of course, but she warned me not to disrupt my life too much. She assured me she had many people to help her...blah, blah, blah.”

Sam laughed softly and turned his head halfway around. “Words...those were only words she felt obligated to say.”

Since we were talking about Greta, I couldn’t be certain Sam was right. I didn’t expect him to understand my daughter’s ambivalence about our relationship.

“Before I even see the cottage, Sam, I want you to know that I insist on paying the full seasonal rent. I’ll probably stay here all summer. No favors just because—”

“I know, I know,” Sam interrupted, “just because we’re family and our Greta is in trouble, blah, blah, blah.”

Sam’s mimicking tone amused me and coaxed a smile to my face. I hadn’t found much to smile about in the last couple of weeks.

Then I saw the place ahead of us and drew in a quick breath. “Oh my—how lovely it is.”

Painted white with cranberry trim on the windows and porch, the square frame cottage looked like a present wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with red ribbon. Someone’s loving hands had tucked it under the protective branches of pines and white birches. “Thank you, Sam, thank you so much.”

He glanced down at me, smiling. “I’m kind of partial to the little place myself. I call it the Christmas Cottage.”

He brushed his foot back and forth across the snow- covered steps and shuffled his fingers through a key ring until he found the right one to unlock the door. “We drained the pipes after the holiday renters left. We’ll fix that and warm it up for you.”

We stood side-by-side on the porch, and before we went inside Sam pointed behind us to the expanse of the lake visible from the cottage. “That’s one of my favorite views.”

I understood why. Bare tree branches arched over the wide path leading to the water’s edge. Even on an overcast day, the beauty of the shore invited me to stay and make myself at home.

Suddenly, Sam pointed over the porch railing. “Hey, look who’s joined us. It’s Joplin. Do you remember him?” “Hmm...I can’t say the name rings a bell.”

A stiff-legged dog appeared rounding the corner. At one time, Joplin must have been a fine looking dog, but his coat had lost its luster and his face showed patches of gray. With obvious effort, he lifted one paw and rested it on the bottom stair. His eyes glassy, he stared at Sam and cocked his head.

“Okay, Joplin, I’ll get you.” Sam went down the steps and with a soft grunt bent over to scoop up the dog. I pushed the door open with my hip and he carried Joplin inside. He gently put the dog down on the crocheted rug in front of the kitchen sink.

“If Joplin’s here, Jake can’t be far behind.”

“Oh, he’s Jake’s dog? Now that I think about it, I do recall Greta mentioning a dog.”

Sam leaned down and rubbed Joplin’s head. “He belongs to everybody, but he stays with Jake and Greta most of the time. Sometimes Jake brings him to my place. He can’t go too far on his own anymore.”

“Well, he’s still a beauty,” I said, trying to be...well, charitable. All in all Joplin cut a depressing figure. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him looking so comfy in the place I planned to call home. A brief stab of guilt followed, but I’d never been much of a dog person.

“I guess he’s a beauty to us, but arthritis has slowed him some.”

We stood at the long counter separating the kitchen from the larger living room. A brick fireplace with book- shelves on either side filled the far wall. The cushions on the couch and reading chair were a color that closely matched the outside cranberry trim.

Sam went past me and into a small hallway and disappeared behind what I assumed was a door to one of the two bedrooms he had mentioned. Within seconds, the lights came on in the two main rooms.

“What a beautiful fireplace,” I called out in a voice loud enough for him to hear. “Does it work?”

“Sure. Wouldn’t make much sense to have one if you couldn’t use it.”

I couldn’t see him, but he sounded annoyed. “Sorry,” I said, “that was a stupid question.”

“Well, you’re not the first who’s asked it.”

Small consolation. The stupid question hung in the air. I distracted myself by browsing through a row of paperback mysteries and romance novels, most likely left behind by vacationers. Other shelves held little porcelain figurines of fiddlers and dancers, and odd dishes and glasses, filled with pebbles and stones.

“This cottage is perfect,” I called out. “I definitely want it for the whole summer.”

“I’m glad.” The male voice came from behind.

I pivoted around to see Jake standing in the kitchen. “So, you really are staying,” he said.

“I am. My work allows me to  be based anywhere  I choose, and right now I desperately want to be close to Greta.”

“Good,” he said, nodding his approval. “We all want you here.”

I felt a rush of warmth toward Jake, but at the same time I hoped he wasn’t just being polite to the mother-in- law he didn’t know all that well yet.

Sam soon joined Jake at the counter. While they took out pocket-sized notebooks and made a list of what needed to be done, I peeked into both bedrooms. One had twin beds with classic plaid spreads and matching curtains, a room perfect for my mother’s periodic visits. I chose the bedroom for myself that had a brass double bed and a yellow and white quilt, plus two large windows that overlooked the side yard where small pines poked through a patchy carpet of snow and wet leaves.

“We should go,” Jake said when I was back in the living room. “We’ll have the place ready by Saturday. There’s not much to do.”

I clapped my palms in front of my chest. “How won- derful. This cottage is spectacular and you’ve both been so very kind.”

I immediately felt like an idiot. The silly clap was bad enough, but where had those stiff, formal words come from? I sounded phony, but even worse, condescending, as if dutifully thanking a couple of strangers. But like the stupid question about the fireplace, I couldn’t inhale the words—or the tone—back into my mouth.

Sam’s expression gave away nothing, but Jake’s raised eyebrows let me know that my patronizing attitude hadn’t gone unnoted.

“The way I see it, Lindsey, the whole family is in this together, and Greta is all that matters.” Jake’s raised voice echoed in the cold room, and Sam frowned in his direction. “I agree, Jake.” Not wanting to meet their eyes, I turned away.

What an odd collection of characters Greta had gathered around her. There was Jake, of course, a sturdy young man, the type who inspires great trust. She also had no-nonsense Ida, who clearly loved her, but perhaps tilted toward overly stern. Based on what I’d seen, Sam had great affection for Greta as well. Then she had my mother, her Grandma Annie, who would soon return from her latest foreign adventure. As always, Greta would lean on the first hero in her life, her dad.

And she had me, although I hadn’t figured out quite where I fit in to Greta’s circle of support. I kept my back to Jake and Sam so they wouldn’t see the tears pooling in my eyes. My daughter had a disease that could kill he ut I

had no idea what she would want or need from me.


Reviews:S.N., Amazon wrote:

Greta’s Grace is like a tapestry of love and support weaved together with raw yet powerful emotion.

Andrea, Amazon wrote:

Greta's Grace is so well-written that I felt the characters were friends of mine and I was sharing a difficult period in their lives, hurting for them but also rejoicing as moments of joy, peace, and even comic relief took place

Writer007, Amazon wrote:

What a lovely story…McCullough’s storytelling is friendly and comforting, something that two friends would share over a cup of hot Apple Cider. I felt unrushed as characters came alive in my mind.