No Margin for Error


It was a year ago this week that I rushed my father-in-law to the hospital.

It was my daughter’s senior year of high school; our youngest. I woke up at 5:30 AM and it was pouring rain. We had a 30-minute drive to school (one way) in good weather. So we hurried to gather our things and get out the door a few minutes early. It took 1.5 hours to get her to school and finally arrive at work. But this was our life. We were in a season that included no margin for error. And no margin for emergencies.

I sat at my desk trying to catch my breath. If I put my head down and worked hard, then I could accomplish my to-do list before I headed to pick my daughter up from school. And then the phone rang.


My father-in-law needed someone to drive him to the emergency room. Everyone else was busy or unreachable. In my heart, I was angry. His health had been deteriorating for some time. And it was mostly from a life of cigarettes and alcohol even though he had been sober and smoke-free for many years. The reality was that he couldn’t escape the abuse he had put his body through. But I was certain this was a non-emergency. And I was angry that it had fallen on my shoulders.

My life during that season was chaos. I always felt I was spinning my wheels. And all of our extended family pressures were mounting. It seemed we were in it alone. I know God was with us. But, frankly, hearing people tell me that God was with me made me want to punch them in the face. Go ahead and judge all you want. You cannot heap guilt on me that I haven’t already heaped on myself.


I’m sure my father-in-law could feel my anger and disapproval radiating from me as I drove in silence. When we arrive, the hospital rushed him inside and later transferred him to another hospital downtown because of the seriousness of his condition. Guilt and shame washed over me to replace the anger that had been there. What had seemed so outrageous was really only an inconvenience. I was only thinking about me and my schedule. And it had no margin for error or crisis.

We all have seasons like this in the course of life. Our youngest was in her senior year. I was a pastor with other denominational duties. And we ran a small business. That trip to the hospital was not the end. But it was the beginning of the end for my father-in-law.


I have carried that guilt for a year. I tried to articulate it to God in confession more than once. But I choke on the words. It’s as if not saying the words will make it go away. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the opposite is true. However, I kept stumbling in the darkness.

My father-in-law died three months later. I wasn’t at the hospital that day. It was a Sunday morning and I was at church. My husband made it to the hospital and he was with his dad when he passed. I think it was good for my husband to be there. And we have spent the last nine months learning to live with margin.


It’s been hard unlearning a bad habit. Yet, living without margin is not one bad habit. It’s 10 or 12 bad habits on top of one another all enmeshed. So changing one means changing them all. The initial chaos that ensues tries to tell you it’s not worth it. You want to keep your tangled mess of marginless life and push on. But that day in the ER one year ago? It was my life crying out and pleading with me to start over.

I am far from where I need to be, but I do have more margin in my life now. And I’m still working through the guilt. If my father-in-law was here, then he would tell me he forgives me. He might even tell me that he deserved it because of how he lived his life. And I would tell him he was wrong. I would tell him that his really bad decisions made me take a closer look at my own life.

And that day in the ER? He might have even saved my soul.

2 Comments on “No Margin for Error”

  1. Thanks for your transparency, JoAnn. We’ve all been there. Maybe not in the ER but in our own spaces. And God is at work in all of it.

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