It was one of those trips that brings couples together — a long-planned-for getaway to celebrate 15 years of marriage and to forget, if only for a few days, all the weight of the last few years. A chance for Erik and Kelley Shamblin to put behind them the bad loans, the failed real estate investments and the bankruptcy proceedings. Things were finally looking up, and this was a chance to escape across the country, just the two of them, and to stop stressing about Luke.
But Kelley couldn't stop. She tried — she really did — but their 8-year-old son had been behaving strangely. Luke experienced emotional outbursts at odd times — in the middle of baseball games, during recess — and mentioned sporadic headaches. Their doctor couldn't find anything wrong, and the tension was straining their marriage.
They made some great memories on that vacation, but Kelley was distracted with worry about their son back home.
"We had a huge fight in San Francisco," she recalls. "I felt like we should go home, and Erik was mad that the trip had turned out this way."
When they finally landed back in South Carolina, Luke had red spots all over his legs. Erik and Kelley took him to the ER, where hours passed without an update. Late that night doctors delivered the news: cancer. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, to be exact.
They met in high school, attended college together and married in 1996, at the same church where both their families attended. Jacob was their firstborn, followed by Gracey, Luke and Benjamin. Kelley taught school, and Erik joined their church's staff, first as a student pastor and later as the worship minister.
Along the way, the Shamblins purchased several investment properties. Life was good, but it didn't last. The housing market collapsed in 2007. Their rental homes had no renters. Declaring bankruptcy, Erik says, crushed his self-esteem as a provider.
By 2011, the bankruptcy was finally complete, and that's when they noticed something wrong with Luke.
Difficult days ahead
Luke spent the next 35 days in the hospital, Kelley at his bedside, while Erik was responsible for their other children: two middle schoolers and a toddler.
"The nights were lonely," Erik says, "and I kept most of my frustration and even anger to myself."
Luke endured chemo, radiation and finally a bone marrow transplant. Months of IV lines and feeding tubes. Daily life was tense, fearful, uncertain.
"We did not know how to communicate our emotions," Kelley says. "We would react in anger or crying, but we did not know how to help each other."
The transplant was successful, the recovery long and hard. And on Easter Sunday 2012, the family celebrated Luke's 100-day marker. Once again life was looking up. Once again it wouldn't last.
The voice on the other end was hysterical. Erik's father had been cleaning his shotgun, and his mother found him in the garage … dead from an accidental blast.
"It was devastating," Erik says. "When my dad left, I had a hole in my heart to fill."
Erik tried to look strong, to be strong, but the unseen wounds were deep. He was looking for an outlet, and he found one in a relationship with a co-worker.
Two days after Christmas, Kelley discovered the damning emails. Erik confessed — to his wife, his family and his boss. "Leave him," said Kelley's friends.
"After all we had been through," she says, "that Erik would choose for this to be the story of how it ends. I could not believe it, and I wouldn't."
Erik resigned from the church, but he was not abandoned. Their pastor made an offer: If the couple agreed to attend a counseling session at Georgia's WinShape Retreat Center — one of two locations that host Focus on the Family's Hope Restored marriage intensives — then the church would pay for it.
Hope for the future
It was a quiet drive to Georgia. Kelley was hurt and angry and hopeful. Erik was hesitant. For four days they sat with counselors and other couples. They listened and were listened to. They read the testimonies of couples who'd come before them.
"I wept at the stories of God's redemption and stories of hope," Kelley says. "There was no judgment. There was love."
The Shamblins learned to communicate with each other, in some ways for the first time. It was a skill they took with them back home — to a new city, new jobs and a fresh start.
They no longer try to ignore pain or disappointment. Luke remains cancer-free, but the fear lingers. Today, they face their hurts together. Sure, they still have conflict, but now they work through it. The transformation, Erik says, began at a Georgia retreat center.
"We believe it saved our relationship."
Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.