Helo Matzelle thought her relationship with God was as good as it could get. As a busy stay-at-home mom and devoted wife, she would have described her life as beautiful. Then, one Friday afternoon in 2011, her life changed. In her new book, Halo Found Hope: A Memoir, Matzelle shares how her life went from planning ahead for the weekend to relearning basic skills after being diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. What’s most remarkable is not what she endured physically, but how she grew spiritually.
Q: Halo Found Hope is a memoir written about an especially harrowing time in your life. Can you share a bit about what led you to write this book?
I never thought I’d write a book. This one started out as a simple diary, on a yellow pad, hidden in a drawer. . . . Private notes written to God helped carry me through a difficult time. I’d scribble down my fears, doubts and frustrations and then lift them up in prayer. I often included verses from His word for encouragement.
After a year of diary input, I shared my story with an acquaintance, now a dear friend, and he pointed out an eagle in the sky. To his surprise, I remarked, “Wow, that eagle is beautiful. . . . God made it!” He joyfully responded, “Helo, no one else has ever described that eagle the way you just did, and I point it out often.” Then I shared my harrowing journey and all that God pulled me through. My friend told me, “Sister, you have a story to share.” And from that day forward, God helped me turn my simple diary into a book.
Q: Prior to 2011, how would you describe your life?
My life was beautiful, good and busy. I was happily married to an amazing man. We were blessed with three incredible children. I loved being a wife, mom, daughter, sister and friend. I went to church, loved God as much as I thought I should and took nothing for granted. Or so I thought.
Q: What symptoms did you start experiencing, and did you think they were anything major? How did everything come to a crashing halt after a visit to the doctor?
Looking back, I might have paid more attention to the symptoms and worried more about them. But at the time, I thought no one would believe me even if I shared them. I heard voices in my head, as if a movie clip was playing in mind. I’d stop whatever I was doing and try to figure out which movie they were from. The voices quickly stopped, I’d sense a brief metallic taste in my mouth for a few seconds, and then it vanished. I felt like I might faint, but I never did. The majority of these symptoms took place while I was in a building that was painted often. I attributed my peculiar sensations to the intensity of the paint vapors. I told my dad (a retired physician) about the odd symptoms, and he attributed them to my type-A, busy-mom lifestyle. His reasoning made sense to me.
In the weeks that followed, I experienced loud ringing in my ear that got so loud at night I couldn’t sleep. More than 50 million Americans suffer from this, and I thought, “It’s not a big deal.” However, I decided to see my Ear, Nose and Throat doctor with ringing in my ears as my chief complaint. A test revealed I had lost more than 50 percent of the hearing in my right ear, which was masked by the noise. My doctor ordered a MRI to rule out a benign tumor in my ear canal.
My Friday afternoon of planning a busy weekend ahead quickly turned into being told, “This has absolutely nothing to do with your ear. You have a golf ball-sized tumor lying over the main artery in your brain that needs surgical removal as soon as possible. You have an appointment scheduled with a neurosurgeon on Monday.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and fell into a state of complete shock.
There is nothing like sitting in a room with three doctors talking about things you don’t understand. Thinking, blanketed by shock, doesn’t come easy. Although I was not sitting by myself, I’ve never felt more alone. I silently cried out, “God, please hold onto me, and don’t let go.” Moments after diagnosis, I was shocked, speechless and trembling and felt frozen. I wanted to fall to my knees and cry out, switching back and forth “God, tell me this isn’t happening! Father, I need You. Your will be done.” After crying out, I was no longer frozen, but melting in the hands of God.
Hours before, everything was “just fine.” I was looking forward to the weekend and writing a to-do list. After hearing terrifying news, my mind began to race: “Why me God? This doesn’t feel real. Tell me this is a mistake. What will happen to my family if I go to Heaven now? Who will love them and take care of them like I do? I am too young to die.” It is odd to think, “Will this be the last week I will be around? Or will I be OK?” Time felt like it was simultaneously freezing and vaporizing at the same time. And although that may not make any sense, none of this did to me. I wanted to rewind the clock and make this nightmare go away, but God is in control – we are not. God is our refuge and strength and ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1 NIV).
Q: In those first hours and days following your diagnosis, what kinds of prayers did you pray?
The prayer I remember the most was lifted up when my husband walked me to our room and asked me to pray. It was very simple. I whispered, “God, please make something beautiful out of this.” After that, my prayer life felt like it was on auto-pilot, as if I was walking around in non-stop conversations with God. When I watched my husband, Rich, I’d pray, “God, please take care of my best friend. Find him someone new to be his wife, if You want him to have another bride. Help him watch over our children. Never leave Him. Give him the comfort, strength, wisdom and peace he will need should you call me home. Tell him not to miss me too much while I’m gone, because I’m in Heaven, where I belong. Remind him how much You love him.”
When I watched my children, I was absolutely heartbroken. One by one, I’d pray for them and often found myself alone in our room to pull myself back together. I wanted them to see the strong side of me -not frighten them with my weak side. Privately I cried out, “Dear God, I don’t want to leave my children. I want to watch them graduate from college, get married and have children of their own. Most of all, I want to watch them grow in their love for You.”
Sometimes my prayers consisted of cries of anguish, “Why this, God? I am scared, and I feel so alone. Please hold on to me and promise me You will never let me go.” I wasn’t afraid of where I would go. I knew Heaven was waiting for me. I just didn’t want to leave behind a family encircled in pain. Each day ended with a prayer like this one, “Father, we all need You. Please protect us and don’t let go. Keep reminding us how much You love each one of us.”
Q: What advice can you offer to parents on how to talk to their children about what is happening in situations such as your own?
I’d tell them: Ask God to hold on tight, and not let go of your family. Take time with your spouse to pray together and ask Him to take the reins on the conversation you are about to have with your children. Tell them you have something hard to share, but God is our refuge. He loves them, and no matter what happens, we’ll be all right. Share the news with the knowledge of assurances you have from the great physician and medical staff (as it applies to your situation). Ask if they have any questions, listen and close in prayer. This approach may vary with the ages of your children. Ours were 19, 14, and 12 at the time. My husband and I held onto optimism and faith – after all, my projected hospital stay was only six days followed by two weeks of recovery – and God was in control.
Helo’s diagnosis is just the beginning of her story. Her recovery from surgery led her down a road she never anticipated. Click here to read the rest of her interview.