It started with a tingling sensation in my hands, not unlike the feeling you get when your arm falls asleep – except it was in both hands, gripping the steering wheel of my 1985 Toyota Celica GT hatchback.
It was 3am and I was driving through the deserted streets of my hometown – Menasha, Wisconsin – listening to some music, smoking cigarettes, remembering what it felt like to be 16, driving this very car through these very same streets. Those days seemed so distant, but not because of the years that had passed, but because of the innocence lost. I was now 22 years old, a senior in college at UW Madison. I was hungover yet again from the previous night of drinking and drugs, and as usual, I couldn’t sleep. I came home from college for the weekend to see my girlfriend Wendy.
She was a Nurse and had just left for her 12 hour shift (3am -3pm) at Theda Clark Hospital. I decided to go for a drive since I couldn’t sleep and was sick of lying around with my racing thoughts. What followed was the weirdest, most physically intense experience of my life. What I experienced that night, on March 1, 2003, alone in my car, changed the course of my life forever.
So what happened on that night?
Well, that is ultimately for you to decide. My goal here is to try to convey this experience in a way that includes detailed information and actual evidence of authenticity. Was it God? I hope you will at least be open to that possibility. I realize much of the information here will require you to believe I am a truthful and credible person. Most of you don’t know me personally, so that obviously presents some difficulty. If you do conclude that I’m simply making this up, I understand. This world is full of bullshit and fakers, so maybe I’m just another one to add to your list. But at least consider what my motives would be for doing so. I’m not trying to sell you anything (in fact, I would love to send you a free gift). And telling a story like this does not exactly paint me in a flattering light, as you’ll see later on when I recount how I impaled myself on a fence while drunk. Anyway, I better get to it, I know attention spans are short these days. First, just a little background on myself.
I was born on June 7, 1980 and I grew up in Menasha, Wisconsin (USA). I come from a family of 6 children, and have some pretty awesome parents (that’s me in the back rocking the sweet mullet). We didn’t have a lot of money, but they gave me a loving home, and were strong believers in God. I guess I would have considered myself a believer growing up, but by the time I hit high school, I was done with God. Maybe God existed or maybe it was all fake – but I don’t think I cared either way. I wasn’t much of an athlete, but I got good grades in school. I started drinking around age 15, and that lifestyle soon became central to my identity. It seemed innocent enough at first, but as the years passed, the hangovers worsened and the consequences became more severe. I was arrested for DWI at age 17, and had several other alcohol-related legal issues before I turned 21.
I was never what I would consider an alcoholic, because I didn’t drink every day. I was a binge-drinker, which meant that I would get hammered Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night and then swear I would never drink again by Sunday. Many of you can relate, I’m sure. If you’ve ever been hungover, you know how much it sucks. When you first start drinking – especially if you’re young – the hangovers aren’t bad at all. But they steadily get worse with age and experience. By the time I was 20, the hangovers started to not only get worse physically – but also mentally. There was a “darkness” to them that I could feel, and sleeplessness usually accompanied that. It’s hard to describe exactly what I mean, but it was almost as if I felt like a machine, like I had no soul, very aware of the mechanics of my breathing – if that makes any sense. My friends and I were also experimenting with drugs, some of which offer their own dark experiences that are inescapable when you are under the influence of them.
A series of physical injuries would ultimately provide the motivation to take a step back from this lifestyle and start asking questions. I want to detail each of them, as they are both critical for reasons you will understand just a bit later. I’m sure it all sounds a bit confusing, but bear with me. Here’s the first injury.
It was May 15, 2001. Somehow, the Milwaukee Bucks were in the playoffs and were tied in a best-of-seven series with the Charlotte Hornets, 2 games each. As I mentioned, I am from Wisconsin, and the Bucks are the professional basketball team from our state. For most of my life, they have been terrible, but that year they were in the playoffs, so we were pretty jacked up to watch them. It was a Thursday night, and I was getting drunk as usual. I shared a house with 4 other guys, and we were watching the game. The Bucks lost that night, and apparently I was quite upset about this. I went outside on our back deck and started throwing things (yes, I am an idiot).
I picked up a large broken shard of wood from a piece of furniture and tried to throw it like a Frisbee with both hands. The jagged end came around as I let it go and slashed open my right hand. The cut was deep and my friends took me to the hospital where they stitched it up. I lied and told them I cut my hand washing dishes, which you can see on the hospital report. This event didn’t really slow me down at all in terms of drinking. I remember leaving the hospital that night with a bottle of Vicodin which we proceeded to take that night, as we continued drinking.
A year later, I would injure myself again, only this time it was much more serious. It was Friday night, April 5, 2002. I had been drinking since the previous day, stopping only to sleep. We were hanging out at a bar on State Street near the university campus in Madison, Wisconsin. One of my friends wanted to leave and I followed him. He hopped a fence that was across the street from the bar. I don’t have a clear memory of the exact series of events that followed, but I know I tried to climb the fence and got stuck, I believe from my belt. There were two individuals who pushed me up over the fence, but I don’t remember if they were trying to help me off the fence or hurt me. My full weight came down on one of the fence spikes, driving it deep into my body in the very upper part of my left leg, essentially…my ass. I don’t know how I got off the fence, or really how I got home. I remember getting punched at some point, but I’m not sure if it was the same guys by the fence or someone else. When I arrived at my house, located at 322 West Wilson St, I immediately fell asleep in my bed. I woke up the next morning and hurt everywhere. When I looked down at the sheets, there was quite a bit of blood, and that jolted me awake as my mind raced to remember the events from the previous night. Everything kind of felt numb and swollen around the wound area, and I was still bleeding. I showered and hid my bloody clothes. I didn’t know how bad it was, and I didn’t even tell my roommates because I was embarrassed about the whole thing. I had a swollen face and black eye as well from being punched. As the day went on, and the bleeding continued, I finally conceded to myself that I needed medical attention. I made up a story about my sister coming to town, and told my roommates that I was going to meet up with her and would be staying with her for a few days. I packed a change of clothes and walked to Meriter Hospital, alone.
At the hospital I was admitted to the ER and examined. They asked a lot of questions, and were very skeptical of my story. I said I hurt myself trying to climb a fence, but they kept asking if someone had attacked me or stabbed me. They were also concerned since it had been nearly 24 hours since the injury, and the risk of infection was high. They said I would require surgery immediately to close the wound and they called in Dr Jacquelynn Thompson (now Jacquelynn Arbuckle) to perform the surgery. I had to call my dad for insurance purposes, and I also called my girlfriend Wendy. I was ashamed and scared, but did my best to hide it.
When I awoke from surgery, Dr Thompson came in and informed me of the severity of my injury. She said she could fit her entire hand inside the wound. She was also very concerned about potential infection. If infection set in, because of the area of the injury, there was potential for permanent damage, impacting my future ability to have children. I had to sit in a warm bath every few hours to help the wound heal, and I remember sitting there, alone and naked. This was the lowest point of my life. I hated myself, I hated who I had become, and I hated the life I was living. I was released a couple days later after a heavy dose of IV antibiotics, with no signs of infection. The healing process was slow, and required multiple follow-up visits.
I left Madison after that school year and spent the summer in my hometown with Wendy, working at Neenah Foundry as an intern. Wendy and I spent a lot of time together that summer, and really solidified our relationship. When I returned to school for my senior year of college, I could tell things were different. I was more withdrawn from my friends, and would sometimes just stay in our apartment at 620 N Carroll St to drink and get high by myself. I had become disillusioned with the whole lifestyle I was living. It was empty. It had taken so much away from me, damaged relationships, and caused so much harm to my life – and for what? Was it fun? Sure, at times. But in the end it was a waste. I started searching for answers, searching for truths about life because I knew the life I was living was getting darker as I continued down this path. I had watched the movie Fellowship of the Ring over the summer and I was intrigued by the contrast between good and evil, and the effect that the ring had on whoever was in possession of it. It could corrupt anyone, no one was immune. I wasn’t much of a reader at all really, but I thought I might try reading the book since I liked the movie so much. I was hooked. Reading became a way for me to withdraw and escape from a life I was quickly becoming disillusioned with. I could relate to the characters, and I loved the depth and wisdom of Tolkien’s writing. Reading helped me cope with the long sleepless nights – especially when I was hungover. I ended up reading all three books in the series, and I was thirsty for more. I wanted to read something deep, something heavy that I could relate to real life.
My mind kept going to the Bible that my parents had given me 4 years ago as a high school graduation present, days before I went off to college. I remember reading the note my mom wrote in the front cover, and trying not to roll my eyes when they gave it to me. I didn’t want to throw it away or anything – that was bad right? – but I never considered reading it. It just sat in my dresser drawer year after year. Yet now, it seemed to be calling me – okay, that’s an exaggeration, maybe a little too much Lord of the Rings reference right there – but I seriously couldn’t get it off my mind. So I gave it a shot. I started reading in my room with the door locked. This was top secret! I went through Proverbs, then started reading about Jesus in the New Testament. Over and over again I would read something, and my mind would instantly flash to moments from my past or people in my life. The Jesus depicted here in the Bible was nothing like my notions of him that I had gathered through my childhood. He was so real, so human, yet he was obviously much more since he performed miracles and came back to life after execution. He wasn’t “religious” at all – and he actually seemed to have some serious issues with religious hypocrites he encountered. My heart would pound when I would read certain parts, there had to be something to this ancient book. If all this was true, then I had no excuse. If all this was true…I was lost.
I finished reading the New Testament and I had more questions than answers. Was all this God stuff real? I wasn’t sure about that, but I did believe in good and evil. I had seen too much over the last few years. Things like the Columbine school shooting, the September 11 attacks, and even some of the people I had encountered in the world of drinking and drugs, it was clear that something had gone very wrong with this world. I had felt it inside myself too. The darkness in my soul that I experienced seemed to be occurring more frequently. The thoughts in my head. The self-hatred. It felt like a war in my mind…a war that I was losing.
And that’s where I found myself on March 1, 2003 at the age of 22. Driving my car in the middle of the night. My mind restless. Searching for answers, searching for peace.
Then I felt it.
It started in my hands, just a light tingling sensation. It was like they had fallen asleep, or maybe I was just cold? But it intensified, and I could feel it in my neck, my head, spreading through my body. Now please understand. I’ve done drugs, I’ve experienced all kinds of unnatural highs and things like that. This was nothing like that. The only way to describe the physical intensity I was feeling was like some sort of electricity – but it wasn’t painful.
I blurted out the words ‘It’s God, it’s God’, and the moment I did, the intensity increased to a point that I didn’t think I could physically handle it. I seriously thought I might die. It wasn’t painful, but I was scared out of my mind, and started hyperventilating. I pulled my car into Butte des Morts Park, shut it off, and turned off the stereo because the song that was playing was not helping matters as I was trying to hold it together. I remember saying out loud ‘call dad’ and struggling with my cell phone because my hands were somewhat contorted. My dad was sleeping and would soon be getting up for work at Miller Electric. When he answered, I must have sounded like a crazy person I’m sure. I was scared, and I wanted him to come get me, since I didn’t think I could drive home in this state. I described my location the best I could, and he said he was coming. I think he believed I was suicidal.
There I sat. Alone, but not alone. Sitting in a car, unable to fully comprehend what was happening to me. I knew it was God. God was real. Not only real, but powerful. I had felt just a tiny fraction of His power, and it was more than I could take. The physical intensity started to subside, and I wept. I felt very aware of myself and my brokenness in that moment. I felt so unworthy that God would do something so personal and reach out to me. Why me? I was not a good person – at all. I was full of pride, self-hatred, and all kinds of things that I knew were not good. But I was faced with a decision, one that would determine my life going forward. I was at a crossroads. I could continue to live for myself and ignore this God who reached out to me. Or, I could give my life to Him and embrace the free gift that I was being offered. The choice was mine to make. I surrendered.
I said I wanted to keep this as short as possible, and I want to get into the evidence I have for this experience as quickly as possible. So I will get right into it with the first piece of evidence I have.
My life changed on that night. I proposed to my girlfriend Wendy two weeks later. We stopped having sex (until we were married, then we had a lot of sex, resulting in a lot of children). I stopped getting drunk, stopped getting high, and did my best to live a life that reflected what I knew from the Bible. I started reading books about God, spirituality, religion – anything I could get my hands on. I wasn’t perfect. At all. I still made tons of mistakes, and I struggled with sin. But life change, real life change, is hard to fake and there is no denying that my life changed on that night. Those around me saw it and were witnesses to it. So I want to offer that as a piece of evidence in regards to the authenticity of this experience. No matter what it was that actually happened on that night, there is no denying that it changed my life.
Now let’s get weird. All right, this story is already weird, but this is where you might start to think I’m insane. Hopefully I can present this in a somewhat rational way, but I will understand if you write me off after this. Remember that song that I said was playing during my experience in the car? I remembered it only because it was freaking me out at the time, and that caused me to shut if off. It was by a band named TOOL, and the name of the song was Parabola. TOOL is a rock band that has a pretty large following. They aren’t exactly mainstream, but they definitely aren’t obscure. A Rolling Stone readers poll put them in the top 10 metal bands of all time. At that time in my life, I was into heavy rock (Deftones, Disturbed, Mudvayne, KORN, Alice in Chains, Linkin Park, Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, etc.) and TOOL was just another band that I really enjoyed. Their lyrics are usually pretty weird, I would even say nonsensical at times, and it’s often hard to understand what lead singer Maynard James Keenan is saying. But his voice is phenomenal, and their sound is amazing. Anyway, the only reason I know the song Parabola was playing is because at the end of the song there is a very heavy guitar riff with no vocals. It stands apart from the rest of the song and has an almost ominous sound to it. That is the particular part of the song that was playing during my experience, and actually caused me to shut it off – because it was freaking me out! So when I got home early that morning, just hours after my experience, I had this song Parabola stuck in my head and I felt compelled to look up the lyrics. Here are a few lines from the song:
Hold on, stay inside this holy reality, this holy experience
I am not alone in this body, this body holding me
Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing
Now clearly, these lyrics could apply directly to my experience, and remember this is not a “Christian” band. Check out some other lyrics and songs from this band TOOL, and you won’t see content like this. Maynard’s lyrics are usually very confusing, and fans are left wondering what exactly he is talking about. But here, the phrase ‘recognize this as a holy gift‘ can even be taken as a direct explanation for what I experienced. I have come to view my experience as exactly that.
A holy gift.
There have been many times over the years where even just remembering this experience has given me strength during times of doubt. To be clear though, my faith is not based solely on this event. Rather, my faith has grown steadily from that moment as God has continually proven Himself faithful in my life and in the lives of those around me who know Him. So I offer these lyrics from the song that was playing during my experience as further evidence that what occurred was more than just some sort of natural phenomenon. Now of course you can say that I just searched for some lyrics that sounded spiritual by a popular rock band, and invented this whole story about a song playing during my experience. Well, let’s look a little deeper into the song at something that would be much more difficult to fake…
This next piece of evidence from the song Parabola will connect with some of my previous experiences. First, just a quick reminder of the two injuries I sustained. My hand in 2001, and the fence incident in 2002. Now, let’s look at the music video for Parabola. Yes, I am an adult, and I’m actually going to present a music video as evidence for God’s interaction in my life. Really.
I don’t remember seeing the music video until a week or two after my experience, when I was back at college. We didn’t have Youtube back in 2003, so I had to download music videos off the internet. During that time in my life, I loved to sit around in my apartment, smoke weed, drink and watch music videos – my roommates from that time could confirm this. So I finally got around to viewing this music video for the song Parabola, and again, I am presented with something that is extremely relevant to my experience. Now most of the video is pure nonsense, the entire beginning is just random weirdness – typical of most TOOL videos. But fast forward to the end of the song around 8:26 (click here) and watch the video sequence during the heavy guitar riff I referred to earlier.
Freaky? Yes. But the parallel to what I experienced is undeniable. Let’s look even closer at what’s going on here.
At 8:53 (click here) you have the subject looking at his right hand. Now recall back to my hand injury in 2001
Hand Injury – May 15, 2001
Coincidence? Maybe. But while we’re at it, here’s another one. This song, Parabola, was from a TOOL album called Lateralus…released on May 15, 2001, the same day I lacerated my hand.
Hosptial Report – Hand Injury – May 15, 2001
TOOL Lateralus Album – Release Date May 15, 2001
Let’s keep going with the video…The flaming eyes in the video enter the subject’s body from the feet and make their way up. At 9:09 (click here), you see one of the eyes (with a red trail) pierce through the subject’s body at the same location as my fence impalement from April 2002.
Actual Fence from this event, located on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin (2002). This fence was removed when a new building was constructed on this site.
Continuing with the video sequence to 9:18 (click here), you can distinctly see a cross form in the subject’s heart. Again, I think the symbolism speaks for itself. If my experience on March 1, 2003 was an interaction with God, and I gave my life to Him on that night, then the Spirit of God took up residence in my heart on that night. I know that probably sounds pretty religious to some of you, but I really don’t know how else to describe it based on what I know.
Okay, enough of the music video, I probably lost a lot of you on that one. I have shared that with a few of my family and friends and I usually just end up with blank stares. Anyway, final piece of evidence for you. March 1, 2003 instantly became a very special date to me. Every year my family would acknowledge this day as my spiritual birthday. So two weeks after my experience, I got engaged to my girlfriend Wendy. We were married in 2004 and welcomed our first child (Liam) into the world on March 1, 2006 – exactly 3 years to the day after my experience. Another coincidence? Well, I suppose you can find a way to explain this entire story away if you want to. There really is no way for me to prove that my experience on March 1, 2003 was from God. Let me summarize the evidence I have presented here again briefly
My life changed dramatically on that night. While this certainly isn’t evidence for God, it does help my credibility a bit – especially if you are inclined to think I made this whole thing up. Life change is hard to fake, especially for 15+ years (I am currently 38 years old)
The lyrics from the song Parabola by the band TOOL. This is the song that was playing in my car during my experience. Of all the songs that could have been playing in my car at that time, why this one? Lyrics that speak of ‘holy reality‘, ‘holy experience‘, and even a line that says ‘recognize this as a holy gift‘
The music video to this song Parabola shows visual correlation to the two injuries I sustained in the years prior to my experience (hand laceration, fence impalement). The sequence at the end of the video in general depicts an individual being filled with some sort of presence – which is remarkably similar to what I experienced. Please note that I have read some of the commentary and background on this video as well. It was meant to depict a mystical Hindu experience called the Kundalini awakening. So you might ask why I interpreted my own experience as an interaction with God – particularly the God of Christianity. Well, that would be an entirely different discussion, and one that I would love to engage with anyone who is interested (contact me here). My primary objective here is to present evidence that would lead you to conclude that my experience was supernatural in origin.
The TOOL album which contains the song Parabola was released on May 15, 2001, the same day I lacerated my hand. This by itself is certainly not overwhelming evidence, but I wanted to include it because it does seem relevant to this discussion.
My son Liam was born on March 1, 2006. This was exactly three years after my spiritual experience on March 1, 2003.
So there you have it. If you made it through this whole story, I commend you. I’m sure it was one of the weirder things you’ve read in a while. I realize that a personal experience is actually quite limited in the effect it can have on others, and it is difficult to relate to. People make up stuff all the time. People imagine things all the time. I might be a certified whack-job, right? Maybe I just had a panic attack, or maybe some sort of seizure or mini-stroke. I’ve heard all kinds of naturalistic explanations for this experience – but the only thing they attempt to explain is the physical sensation I felt that night. They do nothing to explain the five pieces of evidence presented above. Like I said, I’ve done drugs and have experienced those types of highs and this was nothing like that. I’ve had panic attacks (unfortunately), and again, they are nothing like this experience. I’ve never had a stroke or seizure. I’ve never physically experienced anything like this before or since. I simply do not have a category for what I felt that night.
I would love to hear your feedback. Seriously, even if you just want to tell me I’m insane, I honestly want to know what you think of my experience. You can contact me here.
I would also like to send you a free gift that I hope will help you on your own spiritual journey. If you don’t believe that God is real, or perhaps you just have questions about God, let me send you this book (click here), The Reason for God by Tim Keller. This book is one that I have read more than once, and is written by a man who I greatly respect. Tim Keller is not some slick religious guy trying to sell you something or a political activist for the GOP posing as a preacher. He is a very humble, intelligent, authentic individual who makes some excellent points in this book. See what he has to say about God, what do you have to lose? (click here)
My decision to read the Bible changed my life. I mean that. If you’ve never read the Bible for yourself, I want to encourage you to do that. No matter what you think of it, the Bible is the number one best seller in the history of humanity. It has changed the lives of millions, including myself. It can also be a bit intimidating to just pick up and read. But if God is real, then it makes sense that He would leave some way for us to know Him. I would encourage you to start in the New Testament, with any of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are simple accounts of the life of Jesus. Another thing I have found extremely helpful is to get a study Bible. A study Bible contains lots of helpful notes on the bottom of every page that will help you understand what you are reading. Let me send you one free! Click here
So now that I am a follower of Jesus, life is perfect right? God just wants me to be happy and hang out here on earth while I wait to go to heaven, right? God would never allow anything really bad to happen, right?? If you’ve been told that line of bullshit, I’m sorry. My faith in God would be tested beyond anything I could ever have imagined on the night of March 16, 2017. On that night, I would wake up to hear my wife Wendy taking her last breaths. She was the love of my life. A healthy, vibrant 36 year old, and we had no idea anything was wrong with her. Suddenly, I found myself alone, raising 4 children. You can read Wendy’s story here.
I don’t know why I woke up that night. I looked over at her, sleeping, hair spread out across her pillow. Peaceful. Beautiful. My wife.
Wendy and I met in high school. We did the whole long-distance thing all through college. I’m still not sure how our relationship survived those days. She loved me despite myself. Despite the pain I caused her. She taught me what unconditional love meant. Her selfless nature would come to define her among those whose lives she intersected. She stuck with me while I nearly destroyed my life with alcohol and drugs. But grace invaded my world when I wasn’t expecting it. God got my attention at the age of 22, and I gave my life to Him. Everything changed. I asked Wendy to be my wife two weeks later, and we were married the following year.
Here I was, nearly 13 years later. Life was good, life was…comfortable. Our marriage was strong, far from perfect, but never better. We’d been blessed with four amazing kids – all boys. Wendy was a healthy, vibrant 36-year-old in the prime of her life. We had just moved to a new house and it felt like we were starting a new chapter in life, a chapter I was eager to see unfold.
Then I heard her take a breath.
It didn’t sound right, more like a gasp than a breath. I decided to wake her, gently nudging her and whispering her name ‘Wen, wake up. Wen, wake up babe.’
Nothing. I shook her, started screaming her name, pleading with her to wake up. But there was no response. My mind struggled with the reality of it all. I called 9-1-1. No pulse. Her breathing had stopped. I performed CPR until help arrived. Sheriffs, EMTs, a whole team of strangers in my bedroom doing everything they could to save her. Nothing was working. I saw the looks on their faces. I could feel her slipping away, and I was struggling to hold it together. They took her to the hospital where they were somehow able to restart her heart, but only for matter of hours, she never regained consciousness. On the morning of March 17, 2017, her heart gave out for the last time. She was gone.
Riding home from the hospital with my dad on that dreary morning, watching the sleet hit the windshield, I looked down at my phone and saw a message from my 11-year-old son.
‘Is Mom okay?’
I broke. They had no idea how bad it was. I knew I was about to shatter their hearts, all four of my sons. They would never be the same, nothing would ever be the same. Everything was changing.
The days and weeks that followed blur together in a sleepless, nightmarish haze. The outpouring of support for my family was unlike anything I had ever seen. So much love directed towards me and my boys, it was overwhelming. Yet there is a loneliness that comes from a loss like this. How many have walked down this road? How many can relate? Three months later, as the dust settled and life seemed to go on around me, the permanency of death was a sobering reality. She wasn’t coming back. So many reached out to me, so many cards, letters, text messages…I lost count.
But this one stopped me cold. It was a simple message of encouragement, from a person I had never met. It wasn’t the message itself that got my attention, it was the name attached to it. Erin Stoffel. That name had become known by almost everyone around this area in 2015. It was a name that brought a story so heavy, so dark, it was hard to believe she actually lived it…
Erin met her husband Jon when they were in high school, both of them deeply committed to their faith. They did the long distance thing while Jon went off to Bible College in California. A year younger than Jon, Erin would follow him there after she graduated. She was only 19 when they were married.
Nearly 13 years later, they were a close-knit family of five. Erin and Jon’s faith permeated every aspect of their life, perhaps best reflected in their marriage. Jon was a 33-year-old carpenter, providing for his family with hard, honest work. Their eldest, Olivia was quiet and genuine, mature beyond her 11 years. She was a miniature version of her mother, following Erin around like a shadow.
May 3, 2015, was one of those beautiful spring days that begs to be enjoyed outside, after the long, bleak winter. Jon, Erin and their three children went for a walk along the newly-constructed Trestle Trail Bridge, a 1600-foot pedestrian bridge located in Menasha, Wisconsin. As they approached the red pavilion at the midpoint of the bridge, there was a man standing next to another man who was slumped over on a bench. Jon approached the man, trying to assess the situation.
Death was upon them.
Without warning, the man pulled out a 9mm pistol and shot Jon point blank in the chest. He then turned the gun on Erin and 11-year-old Olivia, shooting each of them once. All three went to the ground. Erin’s 5-year-old daughter Selah stood frozen next to her.
Shot through the leg, Erin scrambled to her feet, grabbing the hand of her daughter Selah. More shots fired. A bullet went through Erin’s abdomen, then another pierced her left hand as she approached her 7-year-old son Ezra, who was further ahead. Erin ushered her two children off the bridge, finally collapsing when she reached the shore. Then the pain set in. Sirens in the distance. Her mind coming to grips with what had just transpired. Lying on the ground, bleeding out from 3 gunshot wounds. Unbearable pain in her stomach. The gunman somewhere nearby. Her family scattered. So much chaos, so much confusion, there was only one thing she could be certain of. Everything was changing.
Erin’s husband Jon, their daughter Olivia, and another innocent man were killed that day on the Trestle Trail Bridge. The gunman did not know any of the victims. His apparent intentions were to take lives indiscriminately, the last one being his own. When Erin awoke from multiple surgeries in the hospital the next day, she was unable to speak because of a breathing tube, but she was determined to say something. She furiously scribbled on a blank sheet of paper that was given to her. Erin was trying to tell everyone the last words of her husband Jon as he faced his killer:
Those words brought healing and hope to those touched by this tragedy, and inspired many to forgive. This event made national news, and I remember how surreal it was to hear my hometown, Menasha, being mentioned in a story like this. This wasn’t supposed to happen here. This wasn’t supposed to happen to a family like this. I remember praying for Erin and her family, along with thousands – maybe millions – of others.
Two years later, here she was, Erin Stoffel, reaching out to a stranger with a message of encouragement. People had been sharing my story with her, and she felt compelled to try and help. I read her text, and I could feel it.
The feeling was immediate, tangible, real. Hope because I knew what Erin had been through, and I knew that we both followed Jesus. If He could carry her through the horror that she had faced, and take her to a place where she was reaching out to help others…I knew I could make it.
She would send me encouraging texts, songs, Bible verses, and continued to pray for me every day. She was a light to me in a very dark place, a lifeline as I struggled to hang on. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone. I could relate to her, I felt like I could ask her anything. I asked a lot of questions. So many questions. These were raw, often heavy topics. The connection was effortless, natural, and deep, because of what we had faced.
We met for the first time in person a month later at Lifest, a Christian music festival here in Wisconsin. We walked and talked for hours, and I could feel this unique friendship materializing between us. Knowing her story, and the darkness that she endured, you almost expect her to be this sad, fearful person. It didn’t take me long to realize that she was anything but that. There is a spark to her, an underlying joy you can’t miss. Grief had changed her, but not in the way you would expect. It was grief that brought us together, but a relationship based on that alone won’t survive. I remember the day she told me, ‘You help me too Steve.’ I began to understand that God was using us to help heal each other.
But this was about more than just two people. Both of us were haunted by the thought of our kids growing up without a mom, without a dad. As a parent, the pain you experience through your children can be the worst, the most gut-wrenching. To see them trying to live their lives, trying to navigate this new reality, it crushed me over and over again. They were alone. For them, there just weren’t any peers in their life who had experienced this type of loss…until suddenly…all of that changed. Seeing all of our kids together, seeing them relate, laugh, connect and talk openly about their grief, well, it’s hard to put into words how that made us feel. They were able to find healing through each other, a kind of healing that we simply could not offer as parents. The same connection that came so naturally between us was occurring between our children as well.
This was yet another confirmation about our relationship as it progressed beyond friendship. Erin had become so special to me. A beautiful girl, with beautiful scars. A beautiful heart, marked by unimaginable loss. A bond so deep, a love so strong, the path forward was clear…
Erin and I were married on June 28, 2018, one year after she reached out to me with a simple text. Every day we embrace the chaos that comes with a blended family of 8. It’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s amazing, it’s hard. It’s life. Grief will always be a part of our story, but it doesn’t define us. It can drive you in 1,000 different directions, down 1,000 different roads – most of them toxic. The temptation to give in to bitterness, regret, and isolation is strong because so often, it’s the easier choice. Instead, Erin has taught me how to be open and honest with grief. She taught me to embrace the moments of joy when they come, to embrace the tears when they come, and they do still come. We have chosen to live with gratitude for the loved ones we lost, for the years we were gifted with them, and towards a God who made a way for us to see them again.
We are not okay because we found each other. We are okay because we know Him. There are things we just won’t understand in this life, but we have to continue to trust that God is good – even when our world is falling apart. If there is no God, then all of this is meaningless, and life is merely a cruel joke for those who are faced with tragedy. But if there is a God, then the pain we’ve endured is not wasted, there is purpose in it. There is hope. There is healing. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.
Wendy’s autopsy ultimately revealed that Cardiac Sarcoidosis was the cause of her death. This caused her heart to go into a deadly rhythm known as V-Fib on the night she died. To read her story, click here
March 16, 2017 11:40 pm – I had fallen asleep about an hour earlier. I was sleeping next to my wife in bed, seemingly just like any of the thousands of nights we have spent together over the years. On that night, I woke up. I don’t know why I came out of sleep, but I did. I looked over at my wife and she was lying peacefully with her head on the pillow and her hair was spread out across it. Her breathing didn’t sound right though, and I decided to try and wake her up. I was not panicked or alarmed at all, but just wanted to try and wake her, so I gently nudged her arm and whispered;
“Wen, wake up. Wen, wake up babe.”
There was no response. The pauses between her breaths grew unnaturally long, and sounded more and more like a gasp. I started to shake her, screaming her name, but she would not wake up. My heart pounded out of my chest, my mind raced, I was gripped with fear. I grabbed my phone and dialed 911 for the first time in my life.
My wife Wendy was a healthy 36 year old mother of 4 who died suddenly and unexpectedly from heart failure in March of 2017. Since then, I have had many moments when I screamed at God;
“Why her? How could this happen? It wasn’t supposed to be this way!”
Losing her has been the hardest thing I have ever faced in my life, and I have been consumed by a darkness that is overwhelming at times. Many of us have come to a place like that, where all we can do is cry out to God. Going through this has helped me to better understand how Wendy felt at her darkest time, on May 23, 2012. On this day, she had surgery to remove our baby from her Fallopian tube – a baby we both believed was an answer to prayer. This was a low point in her faith journey. She didn’t turn away or abandon her faith in God, but I know every fiber of her being was asking – “Why would a God who says He loves me, allow me to go through something this horrible?”
I can’t really speak to Wendy’s life before I met her, and many of you knew her before I did. I met Wendy in September of 1997 in Youth Service Class at Menasha High School in Wisconsin, she was 16 at the time. Here’s a picture that was taken just a few weeks before we would meet for the first time.
We became friends first, and started dating a few months later in February of 1998. I can’t even say that I knew Wendy was a Christian back then, and it would not have mattered to me anyway. The first thing I noticed about her? She was hot. At that time in my life, I didn’t care about God and wanted nothing to do with Him. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe He existed, but I had no need for Him. What did I need God for? I was doing fine without Him (at least I thought I was). My priorities at that time were friends, girls, and having fun – fun that usually involved alcohol. When I first met Wendy’s parents, I started to get the feeling that this was another “religious” family – like mine. Her parents would have people from their church over for Bible studies and to sing worship songs – which totally weirded me out. We were mainly focused on each other and our social life in high school. We were pretty typical teenagers…
I went off to college at UW Madison, which was about 2 hours away, and Wendy stayed home to finish high school since she was a year younger than me. She studied to be a Nurse while living at home after high school. We fought our way through 5 years of a messy long-distance relationship. Her patience with me through that time is something I am still stunned by. God must have wanted us to be together, because a lot of the time, our relationship with each other was very difficult – to say the least. Sometimes when I was home in Menasha for the weekend, Wendy would ask me to come to church with her. The worship time was really awkward for me, but the sermons were at least something I could think about. Every time I would go with her, Pastor Bill Lenz would say something that felt like he was speaking directly to me. Sometimes I walked away feeling guilty, because I knew I wasn’t living a very honorable life. I was extremely self-centered and focused on satisfying my desires. I put my own desires first, instead of honoring Wendy the way she deserved to be honored – the way every girl deserves to be honored.
March 1, 2003 – At around 4 am on this morning, I got saved in a very intense way. It still blows my mind when I think about it, even to this day. I had an experience with God in the middle of the night, alone in my car, that changed me. I won’t go into that here, but if you would like to hear my story, just click on this audio link and you can listen for yourself. When I gave my life to God, I think it took Wendy by surprise and kind of flipped our relationship upside down. Up until that point, she was always the one with faith, and she would gently push me towards it as best she could. Now I had found God in a very real way (or He found me I guess you could say!), and I started pushing her a bit. I honestly think she thought I was going crazy those first few days after this experience, maybe she thought I was turning into one of those religious whack-jobs you see on TV! I stopped getting drunk, stopped doing drugs, and Wendy and I stopped having sex. I started reading every book about God that I could find and I studied the Bible like a textbook, trying to get to know this God who had reached down into my life and saved me that night.
March 15, 2003 – I proposed to Wendy a few weeks after I got saved. Before I asked her to marry me, while I was down on one knee, I asked for her forgiveness. I needed her to forgive me for everything I had put her through, for all the ways I had hurt her, for all the times I had treated her poorly, for all the times I had not been faithful. I had not loved her the way she deserved to be loved. God had forgiven me already, but I needed Wendy to forgive me. I was overjoyed when she said “yes” to forgiveness and “yes” to marriage on that day! Throughout our relationship, Wendy loved me in a way that I did not deserve. She loved me no matter what I did, and I simply could not make sense of that.
Here’s how my parents (Dave and Shirley Ullmer) put it, in a letter they wrote to our pre-marital counselors on January 11, 2004:
“Steve and Wendy have been together since high school, and we know Steve has gone through some rough times along the way. One thing we have always watched and admired is how Wendy has stuck by him through it all. Her love for him, along with the awesome grace of God, has helped him through some difficult times. We know she loves him, and we know Steve loves her. She is just what he needs.”
I got saved in March 2003 and graduated college in May 2003. Wendy and I were now able to really walk our faith journey together, since we were finally living in the same city for the first time since high school. When you are a new Christian, the best thing you can do is just read the Bible and learn who Jesus is. The best place to start is any of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John). These 4 books in the Bible each contain the story of the life of Jesus. Each of them is written from a different perspective, and they have been historically verified by thousands of ancient manuscripts, scattered throughout the Ancient World. These books are not fairy tales, they are not about religion, and they are not part of some grand conspiracy by the church. The Gospels are simple historical accounts written by simple people, describing what happened in the life of this man, Jesus. Many people don’t realize that Jesus was an actual, historical person, who walked around in the Middle East 2000 years ago. He’s not some myth or legend that developed over time. If you have any notions like that, you haven’t done your homework, or you may be motivated by a desire NOT to believe. Even secular historians agree that there was a Jewish man named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago in Israel and was executed by the Romans. But most of these historians stop there. What you need to determine is whether He was God or not, because Jesus claimed to be God. Seriously. He claimed to be God. So either He was completely bonkers…or…He was God in human form, God the Son, walking among us. The Bible foretells the coming of Jesus, 100s of years before his birth. The Bible is the only book in all of human history that can claim to have actual predictions about the future that have come true (also known as prophecies), and there are a lot of them. Here’s a quick 3 min video I made that shows a few prophecies concerning the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.
One of the most helpful things for Wendy and I when we first started to really look at the Bible was to use a Life Application Study Bible. My sister bought me one of these when I first got saved, and it really helped me to understand the Bible because it explains each verse in a way that is helpful and applicable to daily life. I still read that study Bible today. If you would like one of these study Bibles, just click here to request one and I will have one to you in 2 days (thank you Amazon Prime!). Seriously, give one a try, what do you have to lose? I bought Wendy one of these study Bibles on June 13, 2003 and we started to try and learn more about Jesus and what it means to be saved. We went to church every Sunday, not because we felt we had to, but because we wanted to, we actually looked forward to it.
We were married on July 17, 2004 at Christ the Rock Church. (check out this audio message about marriage, it’s raw, real, and relevant I remember on rehearsal night, Pastor Bill asking us something like:
“So you guys must have found each other in high school because you were both Christians, right?”
Wendy and I just kind of looked at each other and laughed awkwardly, since that was probably the furthest thing from our minds back then. Click here to view a slideshow with some audio clips from our wedding.
There is something you need to understand about Wendy, and I really respected her for this, even if it frustrated me at times. Wendy would not be pushed with her faith. Wendy would not fake her faith. It had to be the right time, and it had to be authentic, or she wanted nothing to do with it. Her faith was more of a private thing, which is understandable since she was a private person. It wasn’t something she was embarrassed about, or ashamed of, it was just something she probably wouldn’t talk about freely with you unless she felt safe with you. Even myself, as her husband, if I pushed too hard or made her uncomfortable, she would push back or shut down. It’s probably hard to understand exactly what I am talking about. Let me give you an example, let’s talk about baptism.
Baptism is not what saves you. You can know Jesus as your Lord and Savior and not be baptized. Let me give you an analogy that helps me. To be saved means that you’ve given your life to Jesus. You love Him, and you are in a relationship with Him. If being saved is like being in a loving relationship, then baptism is more like a wedding ceremony. Wendy and I loved each other before we got married, no one can deny that. Wendy and I could have continued to love each other, and even have kids together without getting married. But at some point, we made the decision to stand up before our family, friends, and before God and commit our lives to each other. Baptism is similar to marriage. It is a time when you stand before your family, friends, and God and commit your life to Jesus. You are taking a stand and saying that you want to live for Jesus. It takes humility, especially as an adult. I was baptized on March 28, 2004, about a year after I got saved.
At the time, I hoped Wendy would get baptized with me, but she said she wasn’t ready. I didn’t understand, but I was okay with that, since I knew she believed in Jesus and understood what it meant to be saved. We both understood that getting dunked in water is not what gets you to heaven when you die. Over the years, when I would sometimes bring up baptism, she would always just tell me that she didn’t feel it was her time yet. Like I said, she would not be forced into things like that. I’m thankful that God made her this way, and it really shows how genuine of a person she was.
Okay, I feel like I’m rambling on and on, and I haven’t even gotten to what I feel are some of the most crucial and pivotal moments in Wendy’s faith journey. Let’s fast forward through some things:
My sister Amy and her husband Jason asked Wendy and I if we would help them start a church in Oshkosh in 2007. That was an odd question for us, since we didn’t really understand what “starting a church” looked like. But we both felt that this was something that we wanted to do – at least it would be interesting, right? We left Christ the Rock Church to help Amy and Jason start Water City Church in Oshkosh. Wendy was in charge of the Children’s Ministry and spent many, many hours helping kids learn about Jesus through curriculum, projects, Christmas plays, and teaching class. I don’t want to make it sound like she did all of this on her own, and she would be the first to tell you that she had plenty of help. One of the things that Wendy would do specifically was to schedule volunteers to teach the kids or watch the young ones in the nursery. She would always be hunting people down, especially anyone new to the church, since it seemed like we were always in need of more volunteers. Wendy would take on more shifts in kid’s church than anyone, and fill gaps as needed, because it was so important to her that these kids develop a relationship with God. Most people who become Christians do so before the age of 14, so you can understand how critical it is that kids learn about Jesus at a young age.
We had three kids during this time (Liam-2006, Jack-2007, and Silas-2009), and we never really had any problems getting pregnant. Apparently, I am pretty potent. Now I want to take you to the year 2011.
Wendy and I had been talking about having a 4th child, and we had even entertained the idea of adoption. We also considered just hanging up the cleats, and stopping at 3 kids, which meant I would have to get snipped! I was really hoping our 4th child would be a girl. I don’t think the idea of having a baby girl was as important to Wendy as it was to me. Wendy just wanted another baby. If she wanted a girl, it was probably because she could see how badly I wanted a girl. Don’t get me wrong, I love my boys, and I thank God everyday for the chance to be their dad. I just always wanted to have a little girl, like my beautiful wife, and to watch her grow up. I wanted to experience the beauty and uniqueness of a father-daughter relationship. Some of it may have been related to the guilt I carry from how I treated Wendy when we were dating, before I knew Jesus. Maybe I thought if we could have a little girl, it would be like having another chance at “doing it right,” since I had failed with my wife.
Anyway, in 2011, Wendy and I got the chance to go to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for her sister Sally’s wedding. I have such great memories from that trip. We had no kids to deal with and it was the longest time we had spent together alone since we had Liam in 2006 – almost like a second honeymoon. It was in Mexico, that we made the choice to literally start trying for baby #4 (if you know what I mean). I’m going to stop myself right there, because I don’t want this to get awkward – too late! – but let’s just say it didn’t suck. Wendy wanted a baby and I was just the man for the job!
I remember specifically, standing in the Pacific Ocean, alone with my wife. I was holding her in my arms and we were up to our chest in water. The waves were coming in and you just get this feeling when you’re in the ocean of how powerful it is compared to you, as the waves move you, over and over again.
I felt very close to her and to God in that moment and I told her I wanted to pray for something very specific. I asked God, in that moment, if He would give us a baby girl. I know that’s kind of a shallow and even selfish prayer – especially when some people struggle to get pregnant, or have babies with serious health issues, or can’t have kids at all. In the book of James 4:2, the Bible says “You do not have because you do not ask God.” Well, I’m pretty simple with this stuff, so I guess that means it’s okay to ask God for things. Yes, He knows what we want already – but He wants us to ask Him, He wants us to verbalize it through prayer. I never asked God specifically for a girl before that moment, so why not give it a shot? Will we get everything we ask God for? No. It’s stupid and childish to believe that. If that were the case, we would use God for our own purposes, and it would cease to be a real relationship with Him. To help you understand how God feels about us, just think of how you feel about your own child. Many times, you already know what they want, but you still want them to ask you because you love them and you have a relationship with them. You don’t give them everything they want, or they would end up drinking soda and playing video games all day instead of going to school. It’s the same way with God, and He truly knows what’s best for us.
It had been 2 years since our 3rd child, Silas, was born. Wendy and I felt like now was the time for us to have our 4th and last baby. Here’s what Wendy had to say:
“I took my fertility for granted and got a little cocky, thinking we’d come home from Mexico knocked-up” (letter from Wendy to Sally, unknown date)
For the first time in our life as a married couple, we struggled to get pregnant. Every month we would time everything out, and when the time came to take the test, we would always think “this is it, here we go” – but the tests continued to come back negative. For Wendy, this quickly began to frustrate her. Wendy had issues with control (we all do I guess), and I think for the first time, she felt out of control in this area. For me, at least at first, a negative test was another month of “trying” to have a baby, and that wasn’t a bad thing. When you’re married, trying to have a baby can be some of the best times, especially for the guy, since kids can be so disruptive to the bedroom stuff – Whoa! TMI Steve! – I know. But it’s true, so let’s be real. Eventually, month after month, the negative tests started to weigh on me as well. I hated seeing her cry every month, and eventually I just said something like:
“Maybe we’re not meant to have this baby Wen, and that’s okay. We have an awesome family, with three boys who mean the world to us. God has blessed us already, so maybe we should just rest in that.”
Here is a picture of Wendy with her 3 boys and her Grandma Joyce from right around this time in our life
Now, I’m going to try and piece together some timeline stuff as best I can. I can prove most of this with Gmail time-stamps, Facebook time-stamps, medical records, and even witnesses for all you skeptics out there! And let me say this about being a skeptic. Being a skeptic is a good thing, as long as you are seeking after truth. I am a skeptic. You should question things, and seek out the truth from whatever sources are available to you. The problem comes when you don’t want to believe. Maybe we just want to be in control of our life – even though that is not really possible. Deep down we think “If I believe in all this God stuff, then I might have to change how I am living my life.” Change is scary to us. We want to be the ruler of our life, submitting to no one, like the famous words of Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” We like comfort and routine. The truth is, if you seek comfort in this world apart from God, you won’t find it, because it doesn’t exist. I don’t mean comfort like being rich and having whatever you want, I mean peace. Real peace. Peace in your soul.
Jesus says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
If you have come to a roadblock on your journey towards belief in God, let me send you this book called ‘Letters From a Skeptic.’ Unlike many books that try and answer difficult questions about God, this one contains actual letters between the author, Greg Boyd and his father, who was not a believer. Greg addresses many of the concerns and questions about God that can make belief difficult to embrace. I have read this book more than once, and it is one that I regularly consult. Click here to request a free copy of this book.
Anyway, here’s the timeline:
May 7, 2012 9:44 pm – Wendy sends an email to herself with the following Bible verse:
‘Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.’ – Matthew 18:19
May 8, 2012 1:45 pm – Wendy forwards the above email to me, with no explanation whatsoever. This is a bit strange for Wendy to do. Wendy was not the type of person to randomly forward Bible verses to people. Has she ever forwarded one to you with no explanation? Probably not.
May 11, 2012 12:36 pm – I finally respond to the email 3 days later, which tells me I didn’t even ask her about it. Yes, I am an idiot. Here’s my response:
“Forgot to ask u about this. When did you come across this verse?”
The sad part is, I don’t remember how she came across this verse. I just know it was a verse that struck her, and something she felt strongly about. I really don’t know where or how she came across it, and I wish I did. I’m sure she told me, and I forgot. I am not a great listener.
May 14, 2012 (the day after Mother’s Day) – Wendy has a positive pregnancy test for the first time since we started trying to get pregnant. I remember her taking this test, and I remember the excitement and joy of that morning. It was a special moment for us as a couple.
May 14, 2012 12:28 pm (later the same day) – Wendy sends me this picture from her phone in an email with the subject line “this was my devotion for today, may 14”
The picture of the pregnancy test was taken by Wendy at 6:56 am on that morning – but was not included in the email.
For anyone that can’t see the images, the one she emailed is from her devotional book. A devotional is a book you read every day (theoretically!) with a short scripture from the Bible and a teaching. They are helpful for getting to know God better, a little at a time. In the picture, you can see the date ‘May 14’ in the upper right corner. The Bible verse for that day is Matthew 18:19, the same verse she emailed me 6 days before.
May 14, 2012 12:47 pm (only 19 minutes for me to respond this time, instead of 3 days!) – I respond back with the following
“Whoa…..is this what u were reading this AM when u took the test? I was thinking too, that it could be like a mother’s day gift from God – you know?” (Email from me to Wendy)
May 14, 2012 12:58 pm – Wendy responds back to me with the following:
“No, just read it when I sent it to you. Crazy.”
Again, Wendy is not someone to fake something like this. For her to say “Crazy.” is for her to acknowledge that this was kind of blowing her mind. I hope you are at least seeing the significance of the verse, let me lay it out for you in case this is not making sense to you.
Here’s the verse again:
‘Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.’ – Matthew 18:19
Wendy and I stood together at a specific time (November 2011 in Mexico) and we agreed that we wanted to have a baby. We agreed that we would like to have a little girl. We asked our Father in Heaven to give us this baby girl. This Bible verse (Matthew 18:19) became significant to Wendy on May 7, 2012 for some reason that I do not know. I never heard her talk about this verse or reference it before then. On May 14, 2012 she has a positive pregnancy test in the morning. Later that morning she reads her devotional book for that day, and the exact same verse is listed (Matthew 18:19). Coincidence? Maybe. I guess you can always explain things away if you want to. I believe God was speaking to her. I believe God was giving her a sign that our prayer had been answered. You can’t prove it was coincidence and I can’t prove it was from God. It is a matter of faith.
May 22, 2012 – Wendy has her first ultrasound at Women’s Care of Wisconsin in the Neenah office. Wendy’s good friend and OB/GYN doctor, Kristin Clark, was working that day. I was not with Wendy at the time of the ultrasound. Kristin interprets the ultrasound and sees that the baby has implanted in the Fallopian tube instead of the uterus. This is called an Ectopic (or Tubal) Pregnancy, and it is not good. If the baby is allowed to develop, the tube will rupture, and the mother’s life will be put at risk. Dr Clark’s nurse that day is one of Wendy’s best friends, Candi Teske.
“I’m not sure if you know, but I was working with her the day she found out about the baby and Kristin Clark came out after the ultrasound and said I needed to go in. I held Wendy while she cried. It became a joke between us later on.. about how we were the type of friends that could cry while naked…but I really love the thought of her in heaven with your baby. I know how hard that was.” (Text from Candi to me, April 14, 2017 at 9:38 pm)
I just want to say how grateful I am for Wendy to have a close friend like Candi in a moment like that. Sometimes, during a time of intense sorrow, there really are no words to express that can bring comfort. Candi was simply there for her. That’s what good friends do.
The Bible makes reference to this in Romans 12:15 “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn”
Candi and Amy Sokel (another of Wendy’s best friends) each got a tattoo on April 10, 2017 after Wendy died, in honor of her.
I wasn’t with Wendy for the ultrasound, so she drove herself to my work to let me know about the pregnancy. I guess I had a hard time understanding at the time, I just knew she was heart-broken and crying. I soon understood that we would have to make a decision to end this pregnancy. I remember looking up this term on the internet, Ectopic Pregnancy, trying to figure out if there was anything we could do to save the baby. Some websites, especially “Christian” ones, emphasized that we should just have faith and see what happens. “Maybe God would miraculously move the baby to the uterus! Maybe the baby would survive somehow, and Wendy would die. Maybe both would die. Maybe both would live. Just have faith!” Wendy and I discussed and prayed about this at length, and at no point did we ever feel like God was telling us to just let this situation unfold without surgical intervention.
May 22, 2012 2:06 pm – Here’s an email from my sister Amy to the leadership team at Water City Church
“We’d like to ask you to join us in praying for Wendy. Very recently, she discovered that she was expecting a baby. Today, however, it was determined that the pregnancy is ectopic. She will be having laparoscopic surgery tomorrow morning to remove the baby.
Please pray that the procedure would go smoothly, and that Wendy and Steve would feel God’s presence and peace as they go through this difficult time.”
Thanks, everyone. Jason and Amy
May 23, 2012 – Wendy undergoes surgery to terminate the pregnancy. Wendy’s friend Dr Clark performed the surgery and tried to repair Wendy’s Fallopian Tube, but she was forced to remove it. Wendy’s chances of getting pregnant were now further decreased.
After this procedure, both of us kind of gave up on having another child of our own. I didn’t want to start the cycle over again. It was so hard for me to watch her read those negative tests every month. We started to very seriously consider adoption, and were even getting excited about that prospect. However, after a few months, we started to feel like we should keep going with this. We started trying again, this time with decreased odds, since Wendy only had one Fallopian Tube.
August 24, 2012 – Our 8 year old Yellow Lab, Finley, was suddenly and completely paralyzed on this day, from the middle of her back down, due to a Fibrocartilagenous Embolism (FCE). We tried to carry and cart her around for a couple days, but she was so miserable, we had to put her down. This was a very hard time for my family. It hit me much harder than I ever thought it would. Here’s a picture from August 25, 2012, when we were carting her around, saying our goodbyes and taking some pictures to remember her.
In retrospect, I wonder how this event impacted Wendy’s faith in God – especially at this time in her life. I have to believe it was just one more thing that made her wonder “Why would God allow something like this to happen?”
November 26, 2012 9:15 am – Wendy had been having severe gastrointestinal issues and underwent a colonoscopy on this morning. The GI doctor saw significant inflammation, and diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is a chronic, lifelong disease that requires constant treatment and has no cure. If you knew Wendy for the last 5 years, you know how difficult her battle with Crohn’s was.
Throughout that time, we continued to struggle to get pregnant, and I sensed a growing anger in my wife. In the past I could see the sadness in her when she would test negative, but that was being replaced by anger, and I didn’t blame her. This is a quote from Wendy:
“I feel bad about wanting this so bad when we already have 3 beautiful, healthy children. I know God has a plan for us, I don’t doubt that. I am just so impatient waiting and so hurt with how everything has played out. I don’t understand it. I feel like I am becoming this angry, resentful person.” (Facebook message from Wendy to Andrea, March 13, 2013 4:58 am)
Now you might be asking, who is Andrea? We met Andrea and her husband, Tod, back in 2007 when we were just starting Water City Church. They were on our team to help get the church started, but they were missionaries, and we knew that at some point they would be leaving to begin their work. They always had a heart to reach the lost in Scotland, and still do, which is where they are right now. Scotland, and much of Europe, is turning away from God in large numbers. You could categorize this part of the world as “post-Christian”, and with each generation, the situation worsens. The old churches and cathedrals in Europe are beautiful, but they have become museums and tourist destinations, no longer places of worship.
Here is Andrea’s response to Wendy:
“I know it’s counter intuitive to run to the One who you feel hurt by, the One who could so easily solve every part of your hurt. But run to Him even if you don’t understand. Choose Him. He grieves with you. And then surrender. This does not mean giving up hope, just your idea of expectation. Hold your hope with an open, rather than a tightly closed hand so that He can fill it. I stand in prayer and belief with you, both for what He will do in your life at this very moment, and for the hope of another baby.” (Facebook message from Andrea to Wendy, March 14, 2013, 2:01am)
I think this response from Andrea was not what Wendy was expecting. Basically she was saying that if Wendy felt mad at God, that she should draw closer to Him. I think Wendy felt that God was toying with her, and that misconception caused her to resent Him. I too was confused by how it seemed that God had given us a sign on May 14, 2012 and fulfilled a promise, but then that ended so horribly with an abortion. Let me quote Wendy:
“When I was in the middle of it, it didn’t make sense at all. I was angry, angry at Steve, my kids, my friends, my family, and most of all, God. I always believed in God, but it felt like I was just going through the motions. I never experienced Him the way others did. I went to church, even helped plant one, ran the children’s ministry, did all the things I’m supposed to do, right? Trying to get pregnant was one of the darkest times in my life. I felt alone and abandoned by God. I prayed and prayed for a baby, and I got nothing but loss and heartache.” (letter from Wendy to Sally)
“I have gotten pretty good at slapping a smile on my face and telling everyone, including myself, that I am fine. I even tell Steve “I am fine.” It seems easier than dealing with the reality of it all. My relationship with God has been strained for a long time. I have become, and maybe always have been, a “lukewarm” Christian. I just read the book “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan. It was an eye-opener and man did I feel convicted. Maybe this is my “horrible and wonderful journey.” Maybe this is my way of coming to know Jesus better. I can’t believe all of what we have been going through is for nothing. It can’t be. Right?” (Facebook message from Wendy to Andrea March 15, 2013, 6:50pm)
If you’ve never heard of Francis Chan, I would highly recommend checking out some of his stuff on Youtube. The book Wendy is talking about here – ‘Crazy Love’ – is one that will challenge your view of what it means to be a Christian. Whether you are exploring Jesus for the first time, a new believer, or a life-long follower – this is a great read. There’s a free audio version on Youtube here, otherwise click here to request a copy of this book and I will send you one free of charge.
April 5, 2013 – Wendy meets with Andrea at Panera Bread in Appleton. I know this meeting was very significant to Wendy, since she made reference to it more than once and to multiple people. Andrea was able to pray for Wendy in person, and I know how meaningful prayer was to Wendy. Every time I would pray for Wendy, she would cry. Every. time.
April 8, 2013 1:47 pm – Wendy emails herself the following Bible verse:
‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.’ Proverbs 13:12
I believe this meeting with Andrea had given Wendy hope for the first time in a while.
May 17, 2013 6:25 AM – (I was in Canada for work) Wendy sent me an email with the same picture of the devotional page from May 14, 2012 (are these dates confusing enough for you?).“Forgot to tell you that on this past Tuesday, it was a year since I found out I was pregnant the first time. Remember me showing you this on the day I had a positive pregnancy test?”
May 17, 2013 6:42 AM – I replied back to Wendy:
“Yes, I remember babe. That was such a difficult time for us, and I know it didn’t go as we hoped. But I’m thankful that we will still get to meet that baby some day (maybe all grown up?). I know we are closer now because of all we went through last year. Good times or bad, I am blessed to have you as my wife”
May 17, 2013 9:17 AM – reply from Wendy to me: “I am even more blessed to have you as my husband…”
Now this next event is very random, and you’re going to have to just trust me on this one. If you’ve read this far, you’re already pretty invested, so what do you have to lose? I have no idea what the date was, but I know it was during this time frame, after the ectopic pregnancy. I have to believe this was after Wendy’s meeting with Andrea. I was talking with her one day, probably about babies or something, and she just blurted out the following sentence:
“We’re going to have a little boy and we’re going to name him Judah.”
I remember being surprised by her boldness when she said that to me. It was very unlike Wendy to say something like that. I don’t remember if I asked her how she knew this, or why she said it, I just know that she was very confident about this. In my mind, I was thinking
“But…I thought we asked God for a girl…who’s this Judah kid she’s talking about?”
May 27, 2013 (Memorial Day) – We always have a cookout at my parent’s house for Memorial Day. We call it Wingfest, and I grill up a mess-load of chicken wings with various sauces from Buffalo Wild Wings (Asian Zing is the best by the way!). I remember that this year we had slept in tents the night before in the backyard. By we, I mean I had froze my ass off in a tent with the boys while Wendy slept in the house 🙂 That day, my sister Amy told us all that she was pregnant with their 4th child. Wendy tried hard to be happy for Amy and Jason, but she was falling apart on the inside. I was cleaning up the tent, getting ready to take it down, and Wendy came inside the tent by me. It was just Wendy and I, and she was crying. She had just taken another negative pregnancy test. I saw her break like I’d never seen before. She was sobbing, and mad, and confused, and frustrated, and just DONE with this whole pregnancy thing. I had no words for her, I just held her and thought to myself
“We have to stop trying to have a baby, she literally can’t take this anymore.”
For the last few months leading up to this moment, Wendy had been taking fertility medication and giving herself injections to increase her chances of conceiving. This last time when she was supposed to take the medication, she felt that God was trying to tell her not to take them. She felt that God was telling her to trust in Him instead. Let me quote her:
“Up until that point, I had tried to control the situation. I was writing my own fertility plan, telling my doctor what I was planning on doing each month like I had it all figured out or something. Not once seeking guidance from God, only praying that what I was doing would work. Steve and I were planning on doing another round of meds the month I got pregnant with Judah. The night before I was to start taking the meds, I was reading something a missionary friend of mine had posted.”(letter from Wendy to Sally)
Wendy was referring to Tod Chapin, and this is what he wrote:
“This morning I was watching Grayson (5) dance and play with little particles he could see moving in the direct sunlight. I thought to myself – what gives him such abandon, I can see those same tiny particles and that hasn’t been my reaction in decades. Then God reminded me that somewhere between 5 and 36 I’ve taken up my own problems, and I actually carry them around like I’ve got any say in their outcome whatsoever. And it’s not that simple, somehow these problems become the important things and our lives turn into an intricate series of man-made safety nets. We forget to dance in the majesty of God because it’s not about who He is anymore, it’s all about me now. Heaven forbid we ever come across problems we can’t buy or work our way out of. Except Heaven doesn’t forbid it, He longs for it. Childlike faith, that’s what the Bible calls it. Today I am reminded to let God be God, and let me be me…His kid, lost in the wonder of it all.”
“I knew right then and there that I couldn’t take those meds no matter what that meant for the future and another baby. It was really hard to give up that control and just trust.” (email from Wendy to her sister-in-law Brittany, October 13, 2015, 9:14 am)
Wendy didn’t take the fertility meds. Wendy stepped out in faith, and trusted God. A few weeks later, Wendy still got a negative pregnancy test. Wendy was not happy with God…
She reached out again to her friend Andrea
“Say, I was wondering if Steve and I could take you and Tod up on your offer to pray with us. Another month down and another negative test. A relative whom I am very close with found out she was pregnant the same day I found out I wasn’t. I burst into tears and lost it. Seriously, what is wrong with me?! I hope you aren’t becoming annoyed with me and my infertility woes because I am becoming annoyed with myself.” (Facebook message from Wendy to Andrea, May 28, 2013 7:05 pm)
May 30, 2013 – 3 days after Wendy took a negative pregnancy test, she decided to take another one. This one was positive. I honestly did not believe her when she told me. I told her to go to the doctor and get a better test, I didn’t trust these stupid Walgreens pregnancy tests anymore! Her due date was 5 days after my sister. Let’s go back to Wendy:
“But He is faithful and that very month, we got pregnant with Judah. There is so much more I could say about this story, so many more God details interlaced through it all but not enough time to write it all out. I look back at this journey and it was the most horrible and wonderful time in my life. The suffering was unreal, but the way I came to know Jesus in a new way was irreplaceable.” (letter from Wendy to Sally)
Now I wish I could tell you that the next 9 months were a blissful and beautiful time for Wendy, as she carried our child. It was not. Both of us were scared to death of losing this baby, and I don’t remember having that feeling with any of our other kids. In my mind, if she lost this baby, she might turn away from God completely – and that scared me.
“I keep thinking that I am going to lose this baby. Every time I am crampy or every time my boobs don’t hurt or I don’t feel like hurling, I feel like it’s over. I seriously can’t handle this part of pregnancy. There is too much that I have no control over. It’s driving me insane! In the meantime, I am pushing Steve away and everyone else because I can only think of what I am or am not feeling. Ugh. I just want to be able to enjoy this and not analyse it.” (Facebook message from Wendy to Andrea, June 19, 2013 2:18 pm)
Here is picture of Wendy, 24 weeks into this pregnancy.
I knew Andrea was significant to Wendy’s story, but I didn’t understand how much she helped my wife until this week when Andrea sent me a history of their Facebook messages. Wendy had actually shut down her Facebook account in 2016, and this gave me the idea of re-opening it so I could post this story on her page. One of the most common ways that we can see God active in our everyday life is through people. I believe God used Andrea to give Wendy hope, encouragement, and to strengthen her faith. I am so thankful that God put this specific person, Andrea, in Wendy’s life for that specific time. Andrea herself was told that she would never have children early on in their marriage. She went through the pain and heartache of infertility for a long time. She and Tod stayed faithful to God through all of that, and He has blessed them with 4 children of their own.
As followers of Jesus, we are not immune to pain and difficulty in our lives. God will always stay faithful through those times, even if it doesn’t feel that way, or if things don’t turn out the way we hope. God then wants to use us and our experience to help others. For example, check out this 30 minute audio clip here. This woman, Erin Stoffel, was in the news a lot around here because she went through something horrific in May of 2015, an unbelievable tragedy. Yet she is trusting in God to get her through, and God is using her to help give others hope. She reached out to me after Wendy died, even though she didn’t know me, just to let me know she was praying for me. God works through people, I’ve witnessed it over and over again.
So, thank you Andrea, for walking with Wendy through this time. You were able to speak to her soul in a way that I could not. It is clear that Wendy was so grateful for Andrea, as you can see from these messages to her:
“Thanks for being there, Andrea. It’s such a lonely path to be on, it’s nice to have someone along for the ride. Steve is always there of course but he looks at it through a different lens than a woman. You get it and I appreciate that. Thanks, friend.” (Facebook message from Wendy to Andrea, May 13, 2013)
“Out of all of the people and friends I talked to about this, you were the only one to walk me through it and show me how God was using it to bring me closer to Him.”(Facebook message from Wendy to Andrea, August 15, 2013)
My sister Amy ended up having a little girl, Ruby, on January 26, 2014 and our baby was born 2 days later. I remember Wendy’s mom Chris hoping we could have the baby one day earlier, on her birthday, January 27. We didn’t find out if we were having a boy or girl, but I was so sure that this would be my little girl, the girl we had asked God for. Even though Wendy had told me we were going to have a boy named Judah before we even got pregnant, I just knew this baby was going to be a girl. I was so shocked when the baby came out and I heard those words for the 4th time in my life; “it’s a boy!” Judah Michael Ullmer was born that day, January 28, 2014.
July 12, 2015 – Wendy was baptized on this day, along with my son Jack, and niece Lucy (click to watch a video).
Wendy was previously baptized as a baby in the Catholic church, but she didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I don’t believe that act of sprinkling water on her head when she was a baby had any impact on her salvation whatsoever. Was it wrong for her parents to make that choice for her? No, they had good intentions, but it did not save her. Jesus saved Wendy. He did this by laying down his life and allowing Himself to be executed on a cross for her sins. Even when Wendy was baptized at the age of 34, it didn’t make her any more saved than she already was the moment she put her faith in Jesus.
There is something incredibly beautiful about baptism, and the symbolism it represents. It’s hard to understand until it is you making the choice to publicly identify yourself as a follower of Jesus. It takes humility to admit that you are not good enough, and that you need God’s grace to cover over your sins. It takes courage to stand up and declare your faith publicly. I remember back to all the times when I tried to gently bring up baptism to Wendy and push her towards it. But July 12, 2015 was the day she chose to declare her love for Jesus in front of friends, family, and her church. Her faith in Jesus was more real to her and had come alive in a way that she had never experienced before. God had brought her through a very dark time, showed Himself to be faithful, and her relationship with Jesus was stronger than ever. Here’s a card that I gave to her on the day she was baptized:
“Wendy, I want you to know how precious you are to me. I am so blessed to have a woman like you in my life, who encourages me and helps me lead our family. As we journey through life together, it is becoming more and more clear to me how special and unique God made you. I am proud and humbled to call you my wife. It is so beautiful to see you walk in your faith, and to pass that on to our children. You have no idea what type of impact you are making on the lives of your family by choosing to follow Jesus. Your character and commitment to others is so encouraging and inspiring to me. I have seen your faith grow stronger, and become more real through the last few years. Sometimes, through joy and laughter, and sometimes – maybe more so – through pain and tears. I am so proud of you today as you make this public declaration of your faith. We are in this together babe, no matter what the future holds, we will face it side-by-side with our eyes fixed on Jesus.”
I love you Wendy,
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 – Wendy has trouble sleeping due to heart palpitations. This is the first time in over 4 years she has had this issue. She hasn’t mentioned any palpitations or issues with her heart since she wore a holter monitor on October 3, 2012.
Thursday, March 16, 2017 – Wendy goes into work the next morning at Women’s Care (she worked every Wednesday and Thursday). Right away, she asked her friend (and her boss) Amy Sokel to order a holter monitor for her so she could monitor her palpitations. Wendy left work at 10 am to get a holter put on, and when she returned, she had Amy listen to her heart. Here’s Amy’s description of that day:
“She was sitting down at our desk and quietly said “hey grab a stethoscope.” I did right away and listened. It would skip a beat, then beat very quickly, then normal and then skip beats again, it was all over. I asked another nurse to listen as Wendy sat very quietly for us. That nurse told Wendy to go see her cardiologist. Wendy said that she would wait for the holter results, as they wouldn’t do anything different until it was back. She then got up to walk to the break room, as that improved the palpitations she was feeling.” (text from Amy to me, May 21, 2017, 8:00pm)
After work, I met Wendy at my mom’s house around 5pm, and we briefly discussed the palpitations she was having. I remembered that she had these before, so I wasn’t overly concerned. We ate dinner with my mom and dad, my brother Aaron and his wife Brittany, and my brother Jon. It felt like any other night at my mom’s, where we meet together every Thursday for piano lessons, a meal, and some time together – we call it “Grandma Night.”
Thursday, March 16, 2017, 9:20 pm – Wendy and I leave my parent’s house in separate cars. When we get home, I put the kids to bed while Wendy cleans up the house and gets lunches ready for the kids, since it was a school night. We went to bed at around 10 pm. On most nights, Wendy falls asleep before me. On this night, I fell asleep first. Our last talk was about a sleepover that my oldest son Liam was invited to that coming weekend. Wendy was unsure if we should let Liam sleep at his friend’s house, but she had a really sweet talk with him that night before he went to bed, and she said she trusted him. Wendy and I discussed the sleepover briefly in bed. That was the last conversation I had with my wife. The last time I looked over at her before I fell asleep, she was sitting up in bed against the headboard, holding her phone.
10:25 pm – Wendy sends my sister Amy a text, asking if there’s anything she could do to help them, since they had just got back from a family vacation in Hawaii the day before. That was the last text she sent out that night.
11:05 pm – Wendy takes a video of herself, just 26 minutes before her heart would stop and ultimately kill her. I discovered this video a few days before I finished this story as I was looking through Wendy’s phone for pictures to use. When I initially found the video, I felt a sense of fear hit me. As I watched it for the first time, I thought to myself;
“If she actually says something in this video, I’m going to lose it.”
You can watch it for yourself here. I don’t know exactly what it means or why she took it. If she was scared or knew something was wrong, why didn’t she wake me up? I was sleeping right next to her as she took it. As soon as I discovered this video, I knew it was something I would struggle with. I had so many questions, and I knew it could take a long time for God to help me find peace with it. But God is good, and he gave an explanation to my sister Amy on the morning that she viewed the video for the first time. I met with Amy for lunch on that day at Wittmann Park in Menasha, and she was able to bring me to a place of peace. This type of peace can only come from God, and that is how I know it’s true. You can read Amy’s description of that word from God concerning this video here:
Here is a picture I took of her phone where you can see the time-stamp from the video – March 16, 11:05 pm. The time you see at the top of the screen (6:52 am) is the actual time on the phone when I took the screenshot. Below that you can clearly see March 16, 11:05 pm.
The following timeline was pieced together from holter monitor results, Calumet County 911 records, phone logs, and hospital records.
Thursday, March 16, 2017, 11:31 pm – Wendy’s heart goes into a type of cardiac arrhythmia called Ventricular Fibrillation (V-Fib). The heart quivers instead of pumping due to disorganized electrical activity in the ventricles. It was not a heart attack or a stroke, the blood in Wendy’s body stopped flowing and she had no pulse. She was almost certainly asleep when this happened, or I know she would have reached for me or tried to call out. I was laying asleep right next to her at the time. We know she lost consciousness very quickly after her heart went into V-Fib, according to what I’ve read about that condition.
11:40 pm (estimated based on placement of 911 call) – I come out of sleep and hear Wendy breathing in a way that didn’t sound normal. I looked over at her, and she looked peaceful, head resting on her pillow. I am not panicked or alarmed at all, but I want to try and wake her up since I know her breathing doesn’t sound like it normally does during sleep. I start to gently wake her up.
“Wen, wake up. Wen, wake up babe.”
There is no response.
I start to get louder, I start to shake her more forcefully, I start screaming her name. There is no response from my wife whatsoever, no pulse, and now no breathing. I can feel the fear and adrenaline flooding over me, my mind racing.
11:43 pm – I call 911 and tell them my wife is unresponsive and needs help immediately. I am advised to start CPR, so I lift her off the bed and set her down on the floor. I begin CPR with chest compressions and breathing for her. There is still no response from Wendy.
11:48 pm – I hear loud pounding and yelling at my front door, and I know it’s someone that can help. I don’t want to stop CPR, but I know I need to let them in. I run downstairs and say “Get up here! She’s up here!” Two Calumet County sheriffs race upstairs with me and immediately attach a defibrillator to Wendy. The device analyzes her heart rhythm, and I can still hear the automated female voice from the defibrillator saying “shock advised, stand clear”
11:51 pm – We step back as the defibrillator shocks her for the first time. There is still no response. The sheriffs take over CPR and continue to administer multiple shocks in an attempt to revive her. I am totally hysterical at this point, and start to call people.
11:53 pm – I call my dad, Wendy’s dad, my sister, my brother-in-law Jason.
Another sheriff arrives, then the ambulance. Now there is a whole team of people taking turns performing CPR and trying to revive Wendy with shocks, injections, and chest compressions. She is still unresponsive. They won’t allow me in the room, since there is nothing I can do, and I am losing it pretty bad. Wendy’s sister Sally arrives at the house, then my parents. Wendy’s other sister Sarah and her husband Joel arrive, then my brother Aaron and his wife Brittany. Wendy’s parents are in Arizona and are experiencing this nightmare over the phone.
Wendy is transported to St Elizabeth Hospital, where they are able to somehow restart her heart. Her heart is beating irregularly, but it is beating. Her blood pressure is dangerously low, and they have her on multiple I.V. meds to try and raise it. A machine is breathing for her. They start cooling her body down to preserve organs. Then suddenly they decide to start heating her body back up.
They don’t know what to do.
We receive update after update as they conduct testing and rule out a heart attack and a stroke, and finally they are able to scan the holter monitor that she was wearing that night. They determine that she went into Ventricular Fibrillation, and in the words of the cardiologist, Dr Kenneth Geller,
“she was probably gone by the time you woke up.”
At one point, the ICU doctor came in and informed us that if her heart stopped (he knew this was imminent), it was his professional opinion that we should not resuscitate. That statement hit me very hard, as I knew I would probably never see my wife on this earth again. Legally, they needed me to advise them on how to proceed. I stared into nothingness and did not respond. They kept asking me every 15 minutes or so, and finally I told them that we believed in a God that could bring her back from anything, and that they needed to resuscitate, while we prayed for a miracle.
I remember, near the end, praying for Wendy with with my dad. We prayed hard, pleading with God to save her. I thought to myself that God would revive her right there and all of the people in the ICU would see a miracle. People would see that God is real, and my family would not be shattered apart.
There was no miracle. God chose not to act.
Friday, March 17 approximately 9:40 am – Wendy flat-lines for the last time, her heart has stopped beating. I heard ‘Code Blue’ announced over the speakers in the ICU and every doctor and nurse in the area packed into her room as they tried everything they could to revive her. I stood in the room with them while they worked on her lifeless body, as a machine violently compressed her chest over and over. Doctors were starting to look at me, pleading with their eyes for me to give the word and let them stop. It was a scene that has been seared into my mind.
I didn’t know what to do.
My dad was standing by my side, as he always has throughout my whole life. I looked to him, and knew what needed to be done.
“it’s enough” was all I could say
The room went quiet. All intervention ceased. I knelt next to my wife’s body, grabbed her hand and prayed. It was the only thing I could do.
Friday, March 17, 9:50 am – Wendy Ullmer is declared legally dead. My dad drove me home. I remember sitting in the car as we drove back to my house. It was a dreary day. Nothing felt real, the world didn’t look the same. I wondered if I was dreaming. I looked down at my phone and saw a text from my 11 year old son Liam:
“is mom okay?”
This broke my spirit, I wept uncontrollably. I knew I was about to break their hearts, all of my boys, they would never be the same. It was a horrible moment for all of us. I remember seeing the news hit them, each reacting in their own way. The darkness I felt in my heart during that time was indescribable, and I don’t wish it upon anyone.
I won’t try to describe the pain that I went through, that I am still going through. I am writing this particular sentence on May 17, 2017 and the pain is still just as real as the day I told my kids their mom was not coming back from the hospital. I cry every day. I cried this morning, watching my 3 year old son Judah in the rear view mirror sing a song that his mom used to sing to him. There is no way to sugar-coat this with religious cliches. This is awful.
If I didn’t know with certainty that Wendy was with Jesus right now, and that I will get to see her again someday when my time comes, I honestly don’t know how I would make it. If there’s no God, and we’re all just a bunch of highly evolved animals, what is the point of all this? If there’s no God, then there’s no wrong or right, no love, no beauty, no heaven, no hell…there is ultimately nothing, this life is just a cosmic joke.
But…if there is a God…
Then we better make sure we make every effort to know who He is. God revealed Himself to us by becoming human. So if we want to know what God is like, if we want to know Him, we need to take a look at this Jesus, who walked around on the earth 2000 years ago, and breathed the same air we breathe. Jesus claimed to be God, because He was God. He is God. You don’t hear people making that claim very often, and if they do, they are insane. Tons of people have claimed to be God, and they are all delusional nut-jobs. Jesus made that claim. Was He insane? Or was He actually God in the flesh? You need to figure that out on your own, don’t just shrug your shoulders about this one. Do the work, look into it! (here’s a free book to help you) What you believe about Jesus determines what will happen to you when you die – it’s that important. Being a good person and crossing your fingers is not enough, you can’t earn God’s favor with good works. A price has to be paid for your sins.
So do I just wander around and cry all day? Do I just sit around my house in my underwear rocking back and forth in the corner? Of course not. I have moments of hope, moments of peace, even joy in the midst of this.
My God is with me. He sustains me every day.
I know exactly where my wife is and exactly how to get there. It’s just likely to be a very long time until I see her again, and that can be overwhelming to think about sometimes. Wendy’s time on this earth is over, but I have a lot of work to do. Every morning I look into the faces of my four kids and I know that we have to keep moving. We have to keep going. I can’t go into every detail here, and I probably have already lost some of you with this novel, but God has given me confirmation that my wife is with Him in heaven – even though that is not something I ever really questioned. I believe God speaks to us through music, books, people, the Bible, nature, dreams, thoughts, symbols, movies, television shows and in even more ways than we can realize. I have never heard the audible voice of God, but I know He has spoken to me many times in my life. How can I be sure of this? Well that’s where the faith element comes in. Faith isn’t always easy, but the more you walk with God, and get to know Him and His character, the more you learn to discern when He is trying to tell you something. Let me give you an example.
March 30, 2017 4:30 am – I have struggled with sleep ever since Wendy died, it’s probably my number one recurring issue that I wish I could resolve. I just can’t stay asleep for very long. My mind races, I sweat, I worry, I toss and turn. Well this night I was listening to Spotify (which is awesome by the way, you should get a subscription), and I came across a song called “The Garden”, by Kari Jobe. This was probably Wendy’s favorite Christian singer, or at least one of her favorites for the last few years (here’s her favorite Kari Jobe song), but I wasn’t really into her music. I haven’t really listened to music much at all since college. I was much more into podcasts, sermons, Audible, sports talk, etc. But since Wendy died, I listen to music all the time – mostly worship music. Listening to Kari Jobe now kind of calms me down, there’s something about the beauty of her voice that reminds me of my wife. Well I had never heard this song before in my life, and the album had just come out on February 3, 2017, so it was pretty new. It wasn’t on any of Wendy’s playlists either. The first time I heard this song (The Garden), I’m lying awake in bed and I get this picture in my head of Wendy closing her eyes for the last time on this earth, and opening them in heaven. She sees Jesus, and our daughter for the first time. I start to cry at the beauty of this image, and can’t stop for the rest of the song. The lyrics in this song are powerful as well, and spoke to me on a very deep level. At one point in the song, Kari sings;
God knew Wendy was going to die, and He had been planning ahead. God was preparing things around our family to get us ready for this. Ask me about that some time (email me: email@example.com). This image of my wife in heaven that I saw in my head, I’m sure you could explain this with some textbook psychological evaluation of my mental state. “Steve is trying to cope with his wife’s death, so he is thinking happy thoughts and imagining happy things in his head to try and make himself feel better.” Whatever. This image in my head of Wendy seeing Jesus and my daughter hit me so hard and so fast, I know it was from God. I didn’t have time to imagine all of this, it was just there – in my head. Not all the time, but sometimes tears can be confirmation that God is telling you something – especially if the tears are uncontrollable. And yes, sometimes we just cry because we’re emotional. Especially women. They cry all the time.
Now if you were paying attention, I said two things in the last paragraph that might have sounded a little weird. Let’s look at both of them.
First, I said Wendy closed her eyes for the last time on this earth and then opened them in heaven. That doesn’t sound like the night of March 16, 2017 that I described earlier does it? Again, I am speaking out in faith, but I believe that Wendy’s spirit left her body at 11:40 pm on the night of March 16. Yes, they did restart her heart at the hospital, and she was finally declared legally dead at 9:50 am on March 17. But I believe her spirit left at 11:40 pm on March 16. Why else did I wake up that night? Wendy wasn’t struggling, yelling out, or grabbing me. I simply came out of sleep and noticed that she was breathing differently. I was not panicked or alarmed, which in itself is confirmation to me that I was woken up – either by God or by my wife’s spirit as she left her body and went to be with Jesus. This is getting a little weird right?
Well, let’s get even weirder then…
The second thing I said when I was talking about that song, was that I had a picture in my head of Wendy seeing Jesus AND our daughter for the first time. How do I know that the baby we lost was a girl? I guess I can’t prove that. Let me at least give you some reasons I have for believing that I have a daughter waiting for me in heaven.
1: Wendy and I asked specifically for a baby girl in a moment of honest prayer together. This happened in November 2011, when we were in Mexico for Sally’s wedding. I believe God gave Wendy confirmation of an answered prayer on May 14, 2012. If you are confused about these dates, you’re going to have to go back – it’s all there.
2: Judah was not a girl, although he gets mistaken for a girl sometimes. Seriously, look at this kid, he needs a haircut. He actually looks a lot like Wendy when she was little.
If God’s answer to our prayer from November 2011 in Mexico was to give us Judah, shouldn’t he have been a girl? Remember, I was fully expecting that Judah was a girl until I saw him on the day he was born.
3: Here is a quote from an email I received from one of our good friends at Water City Church, Beka Weiss:
“I’ll tell you that when we heard Wendy had passed the first image that arrived in my mind was Wendy in heaven and the joy she had in meeting a daughter. It was such a beautiful picture that was accompanied by such peace that I really never thought to question the detail.” (May 1, 2017 2:01 pm)
That’s another way that we can sometimes confirm a message from God – when the message is accompanied by peace. Now you may not know Beka, but for those of us who do, you know that she is just about the last person who would ever make up something like this. Beka is not one to draw attention to herself, or try to be dramatic in any way. She is a very genuine and intelligent person, who knew Wendy and loves Jesus. I believe God gave Beka a picture of what Wendy experienced in heaven.
4: Wendy’s sister Sally got pregnant with her little girl Hadley in March of 2012, so Wendy and Sally would have been pregnant at the same time if we hadn’t lost that baby. Wendy was so excited about being pregnant with Sally. Her hope was that her and Sally would bond over being pregnant together, like Wendy and my sister Amy had bonded over their first pregnancies in 2006 (Wendy with Liam and Amy with Sophi).
When we found out Wendy was pregnant on May 14, 2012, I had the same thought. I even remember thinking that if Wendy and Sally both had boys, or both had girls, that these two would be especially close for their whole life, like siblings. It makes me sad when I think that Hadley (Sally’s daughter) never got to meet our child on this earth, but I know they will meet some day! To summarize, since Hadley was a girl, I always thought our baby was a girl. Here’s Wendy with Hadley in 2013
5: Lastly, Wendy’s cousin Krista had a baby girl named Mercy on April 13, 2012 – right around the time we would have conceived the baby we lost on May 23, 2012. Well that’s kind of random, right? I don’t even really know Krista. I only met Krista once, at her wedding in Texas, but I know she and her husband are followers of Jesus.
I was talking to Becky on Thursday, April 27, 2017 around 5pm. Becky and her husband Tim were in town to visit Wendy’s parents and help comfort and grieve with them. I remember Becky talking about her grandchildren, and when she said the name Mercy – I can’t describe it, I just felt something. That name is beautiful. I have never heard of a child or even a person named Mercy, but something about that name just hit me. I emailed Krista on May 20, 2017 to find out more about how they decided to name their daughter Mercy. Here’s Krista’s email response:
“As far as Mercy’s name, well, we named our children with intention. I knew a girl once, her name was Mercedes and people called her Merci, but I liked the idea of making the spelling true. Her name is Mercy Dawn, with the scripture in mind, “His mercies are new every morning“. I guess in our mind we were thinking of the condition of our country and people’s hearts and named her that as a plea to the Lord, as a prophetic name to continue to have mercy on our nation.” (May 21, 2017 10:32 am)
This way of thinking is false. Faith in Jesus is the only way to have eternal life. Belief in anything or anyone else does not lead to heaven. Let’s see what Jesus says about this:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
So I have been listening to a song called Mercy by Amanda Cook for the last several weeks. This song basically has two themes. The first one is that God delights in showing His mercy to us, even though we deserve judgment. The ultimate example of this is God loving us so much that he sent his only son Jesus to pay the price for our sins (that’s John 3:16 people!). All of us deserve God’s judgment because we fail to live up to His perfect standard.
Well that’s not fair, you might say. Why would God set a standard that no one could possibly attain? I’m a good person, I haven’t killed anyone. Isn’t that enough?
If God were to judge you in a court of law, based on His ten commandments, would He find you guilty or innocent?
Have you ever told a lie? You are a liar
Ever stole anything, even something small? You are a thief
You stand condemned, you have been found guilty. Based on this, do you think you will go to heaven or hell?
Maybe you don’t believe in hell. Well, Jesus certainly did. In fact He spoke about hell three times more than He did about heaven. Here’s what He said:
“This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” Matthew 13:49-50
What’s hell going to be like? I have no idea, but it sounds horrible. No matter how many good things you have done, nothing can change the reality that you have broken God’s law. God is perfect, His standard is perfect. All of us fall short of this standard. You, me, Wendy, Mother Theresa, Hitler, the Pope, all of us have sinned and fall short of God’s perfect standard. Even Jesus’ own mother Mary was a sinner in need of a Savior. Uh oh. Now the Catholics are fired up…
The point is, we all fall short. We all need a Savior. We need someone who is perfect, someone who is sinless and blameless to be a sacrifice for us. The Bible tells us that we were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 7:23). That price was the life of God’s son Jesus. Your fine was paid with His blood, you are free. But you have to surrender to God, you have to repent – which means you show remorse to God for your sin.
The second part of this song called Mercy is about God making all things beautiful. This is a profound message, but hard to accept during a time of grieving like this. How could God possibly make beauty out of such tragedy? An aborted baby. A widowed husband. Four young children who will not see their mom again for the rest of their lives. These are tragic things, but they aren’t even close to some of the horrors and darkness that are occurring every day in this broken world. All throughout history, the presence of evil in this world has been plain to see. Wars, genocide, abuse, cancer, injustice, slavery, rape, terrorism – I could go on and on. Here’s the important part. In the end and I mean the end – when Jesus returns to this earth – God will put an end to evil. He will make all things beautiful. I don’t know how it’s all going to go down, the book of Revelation is super confusing, and anyone who thinks they have it all figured out is an idiot. What I do know is that the promises made for those who believe in Jesus are beyond what our brains can even comprehend. God will redeem all of this. Can God bring beauty out of Wendy’s death even now?
If you asked Wendy right now if she would have laid down her life on this earth for just a single person to find Jesus, I know what her answer would be. Let that mess with your head. If that upsets you, please ask me about it so I can help you understand what I am saying.
One of Wendy’s co-workers emailed me after reading this blog and made a reference to the previous paragraph. I was really touched by it and wanted to share that here:
“…maybe I was like Wendy saw herself before baptism. A Christian just going through the motions, always searching for answers. It makes me cry when you said Wendy would have died to save just one person. What if that one person was me? I honestly think she’s saving a lot of us.” – (email to me, June 20, 2017 12:26 pm)
I have to wrap this up, or I’m going to lose you people. If you are reading this and you got this far, wow. Let’s think of the lyrics to the song Mercy in a new way. “You delight in showing Mercy” Amanda Cook sings this over and over. Yes, God delights in showing His mercy. But I also understand this as a message from God to me. God delights in showing me Mercy, in revealing her, as a real person to me. God delights in showing me my daughter in heaven. Wendy and I asked for a daughter in 2011. God gave Wendy a sign that He fulfilled our prayer on May 14, 2012. God did give us a daughter, but she was not meant for this earth.
Now please don’t miss this, I need to state this as clearly as possible so there is no doubt about what I am saying:
I have a daughter in heaven. Her name is Mercy.
Here’s another reference to my daughter, Mercy. I emailed Andrea to thank her for what she did for my wife. She responded with the following:
“I want to say first how deeply sorry I am for the loss of your amazing wife. She really was one of a kind. Her tender heart and gift of mercy touched my heart on many occasions. And my heart broke when I learned of her passing. Although we hadn’t been in touch in a while because of living overseas, I was affected so much as she held a special place in my life.
Your message means more to me than you know. I wept as I read it. To think that I was able to be a good friend to her as she was to me is the greatest gift. To know that I could encourage her and minister to her as she encouraged and ministered to me is a treasure I will cherish for the rest of my life.” (email from Andrea to me, April 30, 2017 6:41 am)
Did you catch that? Andrea said that Wendy had a ‘gift of mercy.’ That is true, those of you who know Wendy would agree with that. Let’s think of that in another way now. Wendy was given a gift. A daughter named Mercy was that gift.
May 21, 2017 – As I was feeding the kids dinner, I was playing music in the background. My 3 year-old Judah thought it was the song Mercy. So he asked me “Is this Mercy?” (It wasn’t) Before I could answer followed with “Does Mercy say hallelujah?” It took me about 4 or 5 times to figure out that he was saying “hallelujah”, I even had the boys help try to figure it out. I felt like God was speaking through Judah in that moment, allowing my 3 year old son to talk about his sister, Mercy. God has spoken through Judah before, so this would not be the first time.
My daughter Mercy does say Hallelujah. Along with my wife. In heaven. Right now. To their Savior Jesus.
I will close with a prayer that Wendy wrote to her sister Sally in 2015:
“Where there is weariness, replace it with strength. Where there is hopelessness, let there be hope! Our hope is in you! In Jesus powerful name, amen!”
This picture was taken by my sister Amy. I cannot even put into words what my sister means to me. She has been by my side and with my boys throughout this very difficult time, and I just want to say thank you Amy, I love you. The post-it note is something that Wendy wrote out and kept in her car to remind her of God’s faithfulness. You can also see Wendy’s necklace that she wore every day. The pendants hanging from the necklace each have a letter, one for each of our kids. There is a 5th pendant that Wendy got, with a footprint instead of an initial. She got this to remember our baby that we lost on May 23, 2012. We didn’t know her name then, but we do now.
Our God is good. Our God is merciful. Our God desires to know each one of us, but we have to choose Him freely, it cannot be forced. Will you choose Him or reject Him? What you believe matters. Your eternity hangs in the balance…
(blog post originally written May 23, 2017, 2 months after Wendy died)
If you would like to try a study Bible, just like the one Wendy used to read, click here
*UPDATE* – (August 7, 2017) – Wendy’s autopsy revealed that she had Sarcoidosis in many of her organs, including her heart. This is what caused her heart to go into V-Fib, which stopped the flow of blood throughout her body. Read more on my Facebook post here
*UPDATE* – (June 28, 2018) – Remember the girl that reached out to me in the story, Erin Stoffel? Read what happened next here
On May 3, 2015, Erin and her husband Jon went for a walk across a pedestrian bridge with their 3 young children. Their lives would be forever changed on that day as a stranger senselessly opened fire on them, killing Jon and their daughter Olivia. Erin was shot 3 times herself, and managed to save her other two children. This is her story, in her own words…