Long before we walk down the aisle on our wedding day, most of us have mental images of what we think our marriage will look like. Rarely do these pictures include calamity or sorrow.
On their wedding day, Jay and Katherine Wolf could not have imagined what life would bring for them just a few years later. On April 21, 2008, Katherine had a massive brain stem stroke. She was just 26. When she woke from her coma, her right side was paralyzed, and she couldn’t swallow, speak or walk.
The Wolfs’ marriage in 2004 began almost idyllically. The couple lived in a Southern California beach town. Jay was studying at Pepperdine University School of Law. Katherine had quickly established a modeling career. After the birth of their son, James, Katherine found that the experience of motherhood fueled her passion for life and energized her. She even told her friends she wanted to have as many as six children.
But everything changed during lunchtime that fateful April day when Katherine’s senses suddenly became distorted. She was dizzy and nauseated. Walking to the living room to turn down the television, she collapsed. Those would be her last steps for more than 18 months.
Katherine was admitted to UCLA Medical Center and had surgery that mitigated the trauma of a “major neurovascular incident.” The surgeon removed 60 percent of her cerebellum during the 16-hour surgery. Katherine’s stroke had greatly affected her central nervous system.
Jay, waiting helplessly, was having his own crisis. The sudden deterioration of Katherine’s health would affect his belief system and challenge everything he had previously understood about hope in Christ.
The surgeon described the mass of blood vessels in Katherine’s brain as “the largest he had ever seen, in the worst possible location, and with the worst possible amount of bleeding.” But having seen her small son, the surgeon agreed to operate with the hope of saving this young mother.
Six weeks after surgery, Katherine learned that she shouldn’t have lived. The hospital staff, her family and her friends considered her a “slow-motion miracle girl.”
But the term miracle stung Katherine’s soul. What was miraculous about not being able to walk, eat, speak or see clearly? She couldn’t take care of herself — let alone care for her beloved child and husband. Would she be a burden to them her whole life?
At the same time, Jay was leaving the denial phase of grief and struggling to accept Katherine’s physical limitations. He had hoped God would speak to Katherine and say, “Rise up and walk.” But she couldn’t even sit up.
Jay hadn’t signed up for this kind of marriage, a marriage where his dreams were dashed and at age 26 he was caretaker for an infant and an invalid. What then had he signed up for?
Katherine strained to recover the most basic functions of her life, and months turned into two years of brain rehab at UCLA Medical Center and another long-term residential rehabilitation center. Jay remained by his wife’s bedside for the year she spent at UCLA Medical Center. He saw his marriage as a commitment to supporting Katherine. She was the one fighting the hard battle, but he was able to come alongside and lift her up. Deep in his soul, Jay knew it was that kind of commitment that he’d signed up for.
Jay says one key to maintaining commitment is to act in loving ways toward the person you promised to love. He admits he’s not always “feeling it.” But love shows up when he prepares Katherine’s food, helps her on the stairs or fixes her hair. He explains, “In the humbling process of serving, even when I didn’t feel like it … I found that acting in love inevitably provoked true feelings of love.”
As Katherine grew stronger, they committed to nurturing their fragile future. The day-to-day struggle for Katherine’s health consumed them at first, but then it gave them an eternal perspective, which Jay describes as “a newfound freedom, knowing that God would give us life in ways we could never have asked for or imagined.”
Even though Katherine’s body would never heal completely, her spirit mended. She began seeing the miracles she had missed before: that Jay unexpectedly came home and was able to call 911 on the day she had the stroke, that her surgeon decided to operate despite a poor prognosis, that Jay’s sister was able to care for their son, James.
The Wolfs use the symbol of an anchor to describe their renewed hope in God, a concept taken from Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for our lives, safe and secure” (HCSB). They have anchored their hope in eternal life, not in Katherine’s physical recovery, though she fights for improvement every day.
And defying the odds, Katherine became a mother again. On June 26, 2015, she gave birth to a second son, John Nestor Wolf.
Jay and Katherine’s picture of marriage has changed from the one they originally imagined. Katherine now walks to Jay with a limp, kisses him with changed lips and speaks love to him with a changed voice. But they also have a changed hope in life — one that heals.
Jay graduated from law school and eventually passed the California bar exam. Katherine delights in the irony that as a “normal” model she had limited success, but in her new role as spokesperson for the American Stroke Association, her face is on billboards across the nation.
The Wolfs have dedicated their lives to helping other couples with disabilities by sharing their story of hope through speaking engagements and writing. Their goal is to “hope it forward” to other couples in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Marianne Hering has almost three decades of editing and writing experience. Her most recent book is Trouble on the Orphan Train.
You can read Katherine and Jay’s entire story in their book Hope Heals.