The Ones I Can

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM   May 2, 2020

umbrellas on a rainy day copy

They came by the hundreds. Their numbers stretched out as far as the eye could see. This was not some bad dream. This was my ongoing challenge in a rainy season that seemed to have no end.

Before you think I’m obsessed with earthworms, let me note that in NEPA the forecast has included rain, light rain, heavy rain, showers, flash floods, and thunderstorms nearly every day and every evening during the month of April. When the downpour happens overnight, the already waterlogged ground becomes so saturated that earthworms are forced to leave the shelter of their homes. And so they appear during daylight scattered across parking lots, sidewalks, asphalt, macadam, places that hold the potential of killing them if the worms don’t move before the available moisture dries up.rainy-day-wallpaper6 copy

Standing on the Heritage Trail lot today, I was overwhelmed by the sight of so many creatures presenting themselves for rescue. The limitations of my not fully healed leg and back prevented me from scooping up all of them and returning the lucky ones to the safety of grass. Indecision paralyzed me. What should I do? What could I do? How could I possibly make any difference to the hundreds scattered before me?

I remembered a line from “The Guardian,” a film about Coast Guard rescue swimmers whose job it is to respond to frantic calls from swimmers or boaters in distress. The Coast Guard swimmers risk their lives daily, often leaping out of helicopters into huge swells during fierce storms in order to save people clinging to life in the waters below. In the film, a novice Coast Guard trainee asks the weathered instructor how he decides who to help when there are multiple cries for his attention. He replies, “I swim as fast as I can and as hard as I can for as long as I can. And I save the ones I can.”

I save the ones I can. That was good enough for me at the moment, so I slowly moved forward, picking up any struggling earthworms that were in my immediate walking path. I needed to be at peace with my inability to save them all.

My interrupted walk gave me a chance to reflect further on the real life situation of our first responders and healthcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the Coast Guard rescue swimmers, they’re facing a daily tsunami of critically ill patients clamoring for rescue. Wave after unending wave of the faces of the desperately ill looking for a glimmer of hope on the faces looking down at them through layers of protective gear. Every one a mother, father, sister, brother, relative. Someone’s beloved. Someone’s caregiver. Someone’s partner, friend, mentor. Every one of them torn from the embrace of their loved ones to avoid contagion. Every one of them facing the possibility of unaccompanied death. Every one of them fearful and looking for reassurances when there are none that can be given.rainyday copy

No nurse, doctor, paramedic, law enforcement officer should ever be charged with deciding, beyond triage, who lives and who dies in such tragic circumstances. How can these courageous heroes and heroines, whose mission it is to heal and to save, not forever bear the mark of witnessing a last word or a final faltering breath? How can they not find themselves haunted by the memory of all their eyes have seen, their ears have heard, their hearts have held? Where do they go, where can they go, with their pain?

It is their anguish I’m carrying this morning as I cross the pavement, stoop down, and save the ones I can.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
Listen to your body.
Name how you feel today: worried, content, happy, fearful, angry, weary, etc.
Share your emotions with the Holy One who is listening.
Ask for the grace you need for this day.
When you finish your reflection, share your feelings with a friend, neighbor, or family member, as you wish.


Please hold in your prayer a stay-at-home project I’m working on with others for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. It’s a series of recorded presentations to be offered as part of live Zoom sessions, “God’s Deepening Life in Me.” Thank you.  

On a personal note, I’m so grateful for all of the prayer offerings that have been created in this time of social distancing. May we all continue to be safe and well these days. 

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6 thoughts on “The Ones I Can”

  1. It reminded me of Anne Lamott’s great book Bird By Bird. It was advice from her father to her brother on how to get started on a school assignment about birds.

  2. Thank you Chris. I so appreciate your care for our earthworms! Twice this week I was working in a little flower garden we have, digging out grass and weeds and stones and rocks, and adding soil and compost to prepare to plant some Valerian and lemongrass. Every earthworm that was in the sod received my deep gratitude for the hard work that they do keeping the soil aerated. They are so important in keeping our world beautiful, and contributing to the fight against food scarcity. Thank you for taking care of the earthworms that you can put back into safety. I shared your last reflection several times in my conversations with others in recent days. We can’t do everything. Let us embrace what we can do!
    Paz y bien,

  3. Thank you for your words of hope in such a turbulent world. I am praying that the Blessed Mother andSt. Joseph will intercede for us and end this pandemic.
    Many blessings to you

  4. What a beautiful story. All those worms appreciated what you tried to do. So sad.

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