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Staying Together When Tragedy Strikes Your Marriage

Air Date 01/06/2017

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Jay and Katherine Wolf describe how God's grace has sustained their marriage and family since Katherine suffered a massive, debilitating brainstem stroke in 2008.

Episode Transcript

Opening:

Teaser:

Mrs. Katherine Wolf: I've been to hell and back. Can I say that on the radio? I have!

Jim Daly: I think you can.

Katherine: I can. I have been to hell and it's been awful and I had many moments of wondering if God made a mistake with my life, if I was just caught between life and death. My body didn't work, but I wasn't in heaven and what is that? What now? What could God possibly do to this severely broken messed-up body and life? And how could this be the goodness of God?

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Some tough questions from a woman who knows pain and suffering and grief intimately. And yet, she believes in the healing and restoration that only God can bring. You'll hear a lot more of her dramatic story on today's "Focus on the Family" with your host, Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.

Jim: John, we hear from so many families who have experienced unexpected tragedy and pain in their lives, things like divorce or infidelity or the loss of family members, maybe a prodigal child. These issues can really challenge your faith and that's where we're challenged, not when life is easy, but when it gets bumpy, because somehow you may be thinkin', if I love God and serve Him, then everything's gonna go okay. He'll take care of me.

Well, we know from the story of Job in the Bible and he felt the same way and as we'll hear from our guests today, no one is immune from trouble or trauma in this life. And it's not the measure of God's love for us. In fact, Jesus told us to expect hardship and trials and persecution. We don't understand it and oftentimes, although we try, we really can't explain it. Only God knows why these things happen and that's a tough place to own and answer for somebody. But today we're gonna talk with a couple who has really gone through a lot and I know they're gonna encourage you.

John: Yeah, God was there and is there in the midst of their pain and challenges and our guests are Jay and Katherine Wolf and this is their first time in the studio with us.

Body:

Jim: Welcome to Focus on the Family.

Katherine Wolf: Thank you!

Jay Wolf: Thanks for having us.

Jim: Now I want to get right into your story, because I think it will be very instructive to all of us about trusting God in the middle of difficult life challenges, what it means to suffer well and stay faithful to your promises, especially when things don't turn out the way you expected them to and that's really your story. That was your experience. You were both young, starting out in life as a young married couple. You were thinkin' about your careers and dreams for the future and you just had your first child. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction for you and then tragedy struck one day without warning. What happened?

Katherine: Yeah, it was just a normal day. And to clarify, we got married at 22, moved to California right then, had the baby at 25, and then as a newly 26-year-old, I just felt funny one morning, April 21, 2008, and we didn't know really what was going on. I had these funky feelings I couldn't shake, and basically things got worse as the day progressed and not better. And I ended up putting my son down for a nap and was going to prepare a meal in the kitchen and just shake off those weird feelings. And miraculously, Jay came home from a law school class to work on a paper and was in the back room.

And basically I fell to my hands and knees, they go numb. I started throwing up. No clue what's happening. I'm able to call to Jay to dial 911. He calls 911. The paramedics quickly come and assess the situation, determine it's something very serious, pack me up on a stretcher. And side note, my baby is asleep in the next room through the whole thing. He did not wake up shockingly.

Pack me up on the stretcher, and as I'm leaving the apartment we're living in, married housing at Pepperdine, I remember thinking like, Oh, I should grab a toothbrush because we might have to stay overnight. And gosh, this is so embarrassing? Like what will the neighbors think of me? I'm such a drama queen. (Laughter) And this is so stupid. And then from that moment I lost consciousness and would not wake up for two months.

Jim: Oh my goodness.

Katherine: So, I'd been out for two months and had no idea more than a night had passed. So I definitely needed that toothbrush much more than I thought, and yet not at all. (Laughter)

Jim: I'm pretty sure Jay would have brought you one! (Laughter)

Katherine: Yeah, that's true. That's true. He had to pack up our house alone. It was very sad.

Jim: That is, I mean, that is heavy duty, and we went through that in a fairly light-hearted fashion.

Katherine: Right, yeah.

Jim: I mean, that changed your life, this stroke. What was the diagnosis? What had happened to you? As I was reading your book to my wife Jean this morning, she couldn't believe it. She has a background in biochemistry and she just couldn't believe at age 26 that you would have a stroke. So what did the doctors tell you? Or Jay, what did they tell you while she was struggling?

Jay: Yeah, so we were perfectly healthy. Katherine had no symptoms. There was no sense that there would be anything like this in our life. And again, that's sort of how life is; you know, one second it can just upend, and that's the world we live in. And yeah, the doctor on call that day, this incredible neurosurgeon, Dr. Nestor Gonzalez at UCLA Medical Center, which by the way we didn't even know had a hospital. We knew it was a college.

Jim: Right.

Jay: But that's how sort of out of touch we were.

Jim: Twenty-somethings don't go to hospitals.

Jay: Yeah, we didn't have a doctor, you know, she was perfectly healthy, had just had a baby six months before. And he said, "I need you to know your wife may not make it through the day. We may not even be able to attempt surgery on her because she's having a massive brain-stem stroke. It's caused by a congenital, a very rare defect. So most strokes are blockages. This was a bleed. About 12 percent of strokes are bleeds. Of 12 percent, 2 percent are from this particular malformation called an AVM, and it's sort of a tangle of capillaries and blood vessels that the kind of a thing that eventually wears out and ruptures. But there's usually, unless you've had a full body scan, you would never know.

And so that day was the day hers ruptured out of the blue, but unfortunately, as this surgeon said, it was the largest he had ever seen in his career, and the worst location by the brain stem. So the pressure of the bleeding was literally squeezing her brain down into her spinal column, which is not survivable. So that was the prognosis that day.

Jim: So you go through that day, Jay. Let's concentrate on you for a minute. I mean you're at home doing a paper for your law degree; your wife, who is only 26, has just dropped to the kitchen floor. What's going through your mind? And then when you get to the hospital and the doctor is saying these things to you, what are you thinking?

Jay: Yeah, so this was also three weeks before I was going to graduate, so I was actually going to my first finals for law school, which is why I had just a small window of about 45 minutes, and I had kind of procrastinated on the paper, so I came home. And again, you know, there were many moments like that, these little miraculous moments that you look back on and just see God's hand at work. And of course, it was one of those moments that many people maybe listening to this program have had a day where everything changes with the phone call--

Jim: Right.

Jay:--with the diagnosis or whatever in a split second and that was that day for us. And so, I raced to, you know, down after the ambulance with my son and there's a sense of shock. I mean I did grow up in the church, so of course dad would get a phone call and would have to go to the hospital during dinner sometimes and you know, you just never think that you're gonna be on the receiving end of that.

And so, you know, that day we went to the ER, it was the middle of the day on a Monday, and it was a beautiful, confusing site for a second because I recognized a bunch of faces in the waiting room, and it was my church community who had already come before me.

And you know, growing up in the Bible Belt, we have all these experiences of church and I certainly had grown up in that culture, but I think I had never experienced real church until that waiting room that night as about 100 folks gathered. When we needed it, the church showed up. You know, when we need our invisible God to be made visible, that's what the body of Christ does.

Jim: That's so good to hear.

Jay: Yeah, so that was our, just you know, when the bottom was just falling out, just my people were there to just hold me. And so, we really had church that night. You know, we broke bread and pizza and prayed and cried and laughed, and it was really this microcosm of life unfolding, and yet not knowing if she would survive and petitioning and praying to God together and reading. Romans 8 was one of her favorite chapters, so I read that I and I remembered thinking, Gosh, this feels like a lie in the moment.

Jim: In that moment, I'm sure it did.

Jay: To say that God is working all things for good right now, and you know, my 6-month-old may wake up without a mom tomorrow, and how is this good? And where is the love of God that's supposed to be so close right now?

Jim: And how does this work for good?

Jay: Yeah.

Jim: Jay, I'm sure even now that can be difficult at times to think, okay, how does Romans 8:28 work and certainly it wasn't the next day or the next week or maybe for months or maybe even years that that may have become more evident.

Katherine, let me ask you: you go into a coma, I would imagine, you mention, for two months. You come out of surgery; you're not even expected to make it through surgery.

Katherine: Right.

Jim: And you survived. Tell us, physically, where you're at today. How has this impacted you?

Katherine: Oh yeah. Well, from that initial two months and then on and on in acute rehab and the brain rehab, I was in medical facilities for about two years total, to recover to the point that I have largely remained today. I've made small gains in many areas. But I'm fully disabled now. I can't even drive a car. I can't walk on my own. I have a hand that doesn't work; I have no fine motor control in it. I'm deaf in one ear. I have severe double vision and can't see. My face is paralyzed on one side.

And that's just a few of the outer issues. I've got loads of different complicated problems. I've had 11 surgeries post-stroke. I severely broke my right leg several years ago and have osteoporosis, actually, post-stroke, because my bones are very brittle, and I have really just a lot of really tough stuff medically post-stroke.But that's not unusual, tragically. Stroke [is the] leading in the world cause of disability right now.

Jim: Right.

Katherine: So it's not uncommon to have your body really wrecked by a stroke. And mine for sure is, and yet, as you can see, that hasn't really affected the soul too much! (Laughter)

Jim: Well, you must have been just a whippersnapper even before the stroke, huh?

Katherine: Oh, I think so.

Jay: Oh, yeah.

Katherine: I think, yeah, God wired me this way for sure. I think that, you know, that in all of our struggles and pain in life, no matter what it is or this severe or not, God is asking us, you know, okay, become more who you really are.

Jim: You're listening to "Focus on the Family." I'm Jim Daly, along with John Fuller. Our guests today are Katherine and Jay Wolf. We're covering really the life story that they have together in a book they've written called Hope Heals. We have some in the audience that may follow you on Facebook and Twitter, I'm sure all the other things and people can go see that, as well.

Can I ask you, Katherine, you're buoyant. You have, I can tell at your spirit, that resiliency. There are people are gonna say with similar or maybe even lesser issues in their lives, that it buries them.

Katherine: Right.

Jim: They can't wake up with joy in the morning.

Katherine: Right, absolutely.

Jim: Did you have those moments when you were saying, "God, why me?"

Katherine: Absolutely. Anyone would be just denying emotion and really suppressing the laments that they have about their lives if they just brushed over everything, and you know just slapped a Jesus sticker on it. That's not real.I've been to hell and back. Can I say that on the radio? I have!

Jim: I think you can.

Katherine: I can. I have been through hell, and it's been awful, and I had many moments of wondering if God made a mistake with my life,if I was just caught between life and death. My body didn't work, but I wasn't in heaven, and what is that? What now? What could God possibly do through this severely broken, messed-up body and life? And how could this be the goodness of God? How could God be real? How could God care what's going on? In my darkest moments, I wondered if it wouldn't be easier if I were gone, if that way Jay could remarry a healthy woman, James could have a healthy mommy and everybody could eventually stop being so sad and burdened by me.

Jim: Wow.

Katherine: And God really spoke into that in a really powerful way through the Scripture that I've known since I was a little girl. And He really encouraged me that Psalm 139 is true, that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. And that birth defect in my brain that would explode when I was 26-years-old was there in utero, and it didn't surprise God. I was fearfully and wonderfully made from then, in utero. I think that's very important to note.

I think that the deep truth that God called me to this, that now I was chosen to suffer well, to really own this and say Ephesians 4:1 is true, that I am called to now live a life worthy of this special calling that I have received that may look nothing like I thought it would look, but really, whose does, gang? Nobody. Everybody's life looks different than they thought. But God works in that and moves and changes our hearts, I think.

Jim: Well, I just, I so appreciate that perspective, because I think we can go through this life, especially as materialistic and convoluted and busy as it is, that we don't actually end up concentrating on the core stuff.

Katherine: Yeah.

Jim: And God got your attention. That's one of the benefits, hopefully. I doubt it was the reason, but He got your attention in a way to understand this life in such a deeper and more meaningful way.

Jay: And I'm gonna add to that. As we talked, you know, as a church, much less as a society, about suffering, I mean that's about the last thing on the list anybody wants to talk about, right?

Jim: Oh man, who wants it?

Jay: And so the idea, too, of suffering young when you have this life ahead of you, it looks like the biggest tragedy, particularly from a worldly perspective. But I think the strange gift in suffering, in looking at the ministry and the life of Christ and this communion with Christ and suffering is sort of this gift of darkness and the way that we can engage and open. And when we do it when we're young, it can inform the way we live the rest of our lives.

We're not on our deathbeds saying, "Gosh, I wish I had known this. I wish I knew how fleeting and how valuable it was that I lived differently, you know, all those years previously." And for us, God willing, we'll get to say, you know, we know what matters. All these distractions in so many ways have fallen away, and so we get to lean into that and try to suffer well and know who Christ is in and through that; not in spite of it, but actually through it.

Jim: Yeah and Jay, you don't get away from this microscope either because it's meaningful to see you in this situation, continuing to love Katherine as you did all through that time. Divorce rates in this situation are quite high, and people give up because they get tired, discouraged, whatever it might be. But tell us about why you've done that, what motivated you to hang in there, what gets you up every day?

Jay: Yeah. I think, you know, it's evolved. I think the first stages after the stroke happened and life changed forever, there was a sense of, you know, this happened to me, too. And yet I have all my capabilities and I can advocate for Katherine in ways that she can't advocate for herself, and I want her to know more than anything that she's not alone right now. And I think it wasn't intentional, but it was, I think, this sort of incarnational way that Christ meets us, you know, embodies the love and support.

It's one thing to sort of think about it in theory; it's another thing to show up in person and say, 'I'm here," and that was sort of the beginning, my motivation was just I want her to know she doesn't have to climb up out of this pit alone, and that's what I could give her. Even though it's hard for me, I'm gonna have to enter into a marriage and a life that I didn't sign up for, but one day at a time, that was sort of the focus.

Jim: Was there a moment, and maybe it was many moments where, because I think of most marriages and most difficulties in marriages usually surround selfishness. You know when you get right down to it, she or he doesn't do these things for me or the way I want it done, and it creates anger and bitterness and strife, and you argue and it's all this stuff that God is really dishonored by.

Jay: Yeah.

Jim: Did you have a moment where you knew your selfishness was coming to an end?

Jay: Yeah, I think more than one moment there was this recognition that in caregiving especially, which is this really unique, challenging role, that it's often, you know, as many times as those who are sick or dying or disabled are invisible, their caregivers are even more so. People often still say, "Oh, Katherine's story, Katherine's story," which is great, but it's our story, you know?

Jim: Describe that for those of us who don't get it, with, you know, the appropriate caveats. But what does the caregiving look like in this situation?

Jay: Yeah, I mean, and again, I can speak just to my experience and story, but it has given me such an empathy for this huge population of those who the world is not made for in a physical way and who need other people to come alongside and help them. And that's what Christ does to us. But it's the most, one of the most challenging things we can do is to say, "Even though I feel pain, I'm gonna take on yours too."

Jim: Yeah.

Katherine: Right.

Jay: And the beautiful thing is in that process is that we both feel the pain less because we're shouldering it together, and that's what we've gotten to do.

Jim: Can I [ask]; I mean, some of this may be too personal, but being two first-borns, and, you know, given your environment, your circumstances, do you still argue a bit from time to time?

Katherine: Oh yeah. Listen, that's not remotely something that we don't talk about. (Laughter)

Jay: Usually on the way to church or, you know, before a radio program!

Jim: Church, okay, so that's all normal. Good, okay!

Katherine: Oh yeah, totally. I mean the reality is anyone's totally pretending if they're not real about the fact that they have rockin' fights. Everybody does. Fighting isn't the issue. The solution, how you come to a solution is more of the issue.

Jay: That's right, how you resolve it, yeah.

Katherine: Yeah, how you resolve it. We fight it out all the time (Laughter), and I don't mean like doors slamming, screaming, hysteria, but like conflict, oh yeah. We have strong opinions. We're people who want to like show up for our lives, and that brings conflict because we see the world differently. But we're one.

Jim: So that's kind of the normal setting for you guys. It's okay.

Jay: Totally, it is.

Katherine: Absolutely.

Jim: You know, a great thing happened. The Lord really blessed you with a miracle and Katherine, this was something that was in your heart that you wanted to have another baby, but you had no idea.

Katherine: I did. Yes, can you believe it? It's crazy! I'm on Medicare. I've had crazy surgeries, difficulties. I have a very disabled body obviously and so you would think no one would think it's a good idea to have a baby, to become pregnant and have a baby, I should say or--

Jim: A second child.

Katherine: --second child, yes. And last summer, after being cleared medically, I was able to have a baby, John Nestor, named for our neurosurgeon, Nestor Gonzalez, who saved my life twice actually.

And I have had a really hard time, to be honest, with that baby. He's now 18-months-old and still rockin' our world. (Laughter) It's very difficult to be fully disabled and care for a super active little spunky rug rat bein' a nut job. (Laughter) He's the cutest little squirrel in the world, and I'm loving it, and it's truly in a way, it's the years the locusts have eaten, and I'm getting to see that restored, and that's beautiful, but it's intense.

And there are moments of deep sadness of, oh, this is what it would have been like with James, when James was9- months-old and did that cool thing for the first time. And I wasn't there for James, but it's really incredible that I am there for John and mommy does get to see that. It's very special.

Jim: And you have turned this pain into a passion, a ministry that you call Hope Heals. In fact, we were talking about your necklace before coming on air.

Katherine: Right.

Jim: And it's an anchor, the shape of an anchor. Describe that and tell us why you wear that.

Katherine: Absolutely, the anchor is everything to us. It's the symbol of our ministry, and as Hebrews 6:19 says, "The anchor is firm and secure." And if you've seen the graphic of our ministry anywhere, the anchor is above the water, which is really unusual, because anchors are supposed to be under water. But oh no, our anchoring is above the rocky waves of this world. We are secure forever because the anchor is not underneath the water but above it. We can't really be touched.

Jay: And that's, you know, those reminders, those Ebenezers are things we long for in our own life, because you'd think, oh, you've just experienced this huge, miraculous, dramatic scenario, and of course you're just there's no doubts anymore, there's no stress, there's no challenges. And quite the opposite, I think, is true, because we're all forgetful people, first off, and time just makes even the most dramatic thing sort of fade.

And yet then you have sort of these big mountaintop experiences, and I think there are a lot of opportunities for you to fall off that mountain basically, you know, for there to be footholds for negativity and doubt. And so, you know, we like to remind ourselves every way we can that it matters what we're anchored in, that every day we get a chance to found our little house and our life on something that is secure, which is the rock that is Christ. And so, it's just a reminder, you know, for all of us that we have to continue to tell ourselves the story of who God is and what he's doing in the world every day.

Jim: Well Jay and Katherine, this is an incredible story because of how you have reacted to what life has thrown you in such a wonderful way and how that inspires others to hopefully rise to the challenge, as well, to say, you know, where is your anchor? Is it in Jesus or in the trials and tribulations of this world? Your testimony tells others to look up, to look to God and that's what's so beautiful about your story.

Let me turn to you, the listener and ask you where you're at today. Are you facing some kind of difficulty where you're struggling with God or you don't know if there is a God because He seems silent toward your suffering? I encourage you to call us here at Focus. We have caring Christian counselors who can talk with you and put tools into your hands, resources like the Wolf's book, Hope Heals. And that way you can get more of the story and better understand their commitment to Christ and His commitment to them, and really, His commitment to you, which is what you need to hear right now. So if you're feeling you're in the dark place and there's no light at the end of your tunnel, today is the day to call us.

John: And that number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459.And Jim, we have so many folks call at times that we've got to get your name and number and have a counselor call you back at a time that works. The team works really, really hard.

Jim: They do.

John: They can't be here 24/7, but we want to take care of you just as quickly as we can, and I think the Lord might be speaking through that prompt you just said, Jim. Today is the day.

Jim: Today is the day. And for a gift of any amount to help the ministry, we want to give you Katherine and Jay's book, Hope Heals. I don't care if you can't afford it. Just call us; we'll get it to you. And we are grateful to the friends that take care of that through providing a gift here at Focus. So thank you both for calling and asking for it and for those who help fuel our ability to get it out.

Jim: Katherine and Jay, man, I'm going out of this room on Cloud 9 because of what you have demonstrated to all of us today, your love for God, your love for each other, your commitment to each other, your love for your kids, your desire, even though it could be dangerous, to have another child.

I'd say that's one of the most pro-life statements I've heard (Laughter) you know, and I admire it and all I can say is God bless you guys. I'm gonna start following you, too, on Facebook, so I hope many, many others do, because you are such an encouragement to us. Thanks for being with us.

Jay: Thanks for much for having us.

Katherine: Thank you for letting us be here. We will always focus on the family (Laughter) because of the wonderful resources that you provide. And gosh, we just love what y'all are doing in pointing people to Jesus and their families. How amazing.

Jim: Thank you so much.

Closing:

John: And what a privilege to have Jay and Katherine Wolf with us in the studio today and I hope their message of healing and hope has inspired you in your faith. Once again, our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or donate and request resources at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.

And when you get in touch, ask about a CD or download of today's program and we're going to include quite a bit more additional conversation with the Wolfs that we just couldn't fit into this radio program. We hope you have a great weekend with your family and on Monday, be sure to join us as we hear why money management is one of the most important life skills you can teach your children.

Excerpt:

Mrs. Mary Hunt: Money encompasses all of our lives. It encompasses our relationship with God. It encompasses how we feel about ourself. It encompasses our future. It's all encompassing.

End of Excerpt

John: Financial guru, Mary Hunt, the author of Raising Financially Confident Kids is our guest on the next "Focus on the Family." I'm John Fuller and on behalf of our president, Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening.

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Guest

Jay and Katherine Wolf

View Bio

Jay and Katherine Wolf's idyllic life as a young married couple with an infant son was tragically shattered in 2008 when Katherine suffered a massive brainstem stroke. She wasn't expected to survive, but through two years of recovery, she re-learned how to eat, speak and walk. Today, Katherine still suffers from double vision, deafness, facial paralysis and limited use of one hand. Through public speaking and their book, Hope Heals, Jay and Katherine share their compelling story of how their marriage and family have been sustained by God's grace and their faith in Him. Learn more about Jay and Katherine by visiting their website, www.hopeheals.com.