Editor’s note: On April 21, 2008, the world changed for Jay and Katherine Wolf. Just six months after giving birth to a son, Katherine suffered a massive brain stem stroke. She survived, but with a severely-disabled body. In this excerpt from their book, Hope Heals, Jay talks about the challenges of staying committed to a person who is much different than the one you married.
As I rolled over each morning, through the early light seeping in around the curtains I would stare in awe at the new woman who lay beside me. In many ways, Katherine was the same woman I had fallen in love with in the college cafeteria 10 years before, and yet in just as many ways, through the refinement of suffering, she was a different person.
I was different too, both inside and out. My newly graying hair belied my age. When people expressed surprise that I was not even 30 yet, I would tell them, “It’s all the years of hard livin’.”
Every marriage experiences the inevitable fading of the honeymoon period. Every married person is confronted with the reality that the one they married might be different from the one they committed to on their wedding day. This disenchantment, this space between expectations and changing realities, is often the beginning of the end of many marriages. But it doesn’t have to be.
On our wedding day, I had no idea that, literally underneath her bridal veil, Katherine bore a microscopic abnormality that would forever alter the course of her future and mine. And yet this is a picture of marriage in the way that God fashioned it. When we get married, we manage to look the most attractive we will ever look in our lives, yet each of us bears much underneath the surface that will change that appeal—some things we already know about and some we could never imagine.
This sounds hopeless in a way, like we’re all marrying strangers; yet the reality is that marriage can bind our hearts together in an unconditional love that our human emotions could never manufacture on their own. Marriage invites us into a promise we may never have had the courage to make, had we known all we would be agreeing to. But rather than creating a prison—a “ball and chain”—marriage can provide a place of freedom, a garden of abundant life unleashed. When marriage is viewed in this transcendent way, though pain and sacrifice and loss still inevitably come, they no longer pose the same threat because the marriage, not the emotion, is the thing holding it all together.
What was my commitment worth if my body was in but my heart was not?
There was no singular moment when I decided to stay in my marriage. It was more the accumulation of each day’s choice to stay, of each day’s intention to find awe and empathy and love for this woman who had been, quite literally, reborn.
And yet in the physical staying it became clear that I would also need to commit to stay internally as well. What was my commitment worth if my body was in but my heart was not? I was struck by the picture of God allowing people’s hearts to harden, like the pharaoh’s in the book of Exodus, or correspondingly to soften. I began to pray specifically, as in Ezekiel 11, for God to take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh, one that was soft and tender toward my wife.
If suffering is like going through fire, I wanted to choose what this inescapable process purified in me and what it melted away. I found my faith and my hope solidifying into something more constant than my emotions or circumstances, creating an altogether separate organism—and that was so freeing. Similarly, the commitment I had made to my marriage was growing deeper, more enduring, and less dependent on whether a given day was a good or bad one.
When you put two very different, firstborn, achiever types in a relationship where they are supposed to be one, sparks will fly in both good and bad ways. When you layer on top of that the stress of life and death, the fear of the unknown, and the realities of severe disability, those sparks can light a fire that will either take the whole house down or melt away many imperfections, leaving something that just might last a very long time.
Acting in love inevitably provoked true feelings of love
In our new home setting we felt safe, but in an unexpected way, the “honeymoon” phase after the stroke was fading, and we were both trying to embrace the new people who remained. Sometimes before bed, the stress and weariness of the day would induce an argument of one kind or another, but I knew Katherine still needed me, quite literally, more than I needed to be right. Still fuming, we would submit in that moment to care and to be cared for, not so much out of love for each other, but out of love for God and gratitude for the relationship He had given us—a relationship the whole of which was growing far greater than the sum of its individual parts.
I would help Katherine to the bathroom and hold her chin in my hand while I flossed her teeth. She would lie down on the bed and I would gently begin the required nightly routine for her impaired eye, moisturizing it, putting in the lubrication, and then patching it shut with paper tape. There was no running out and slamming the door, going on a drive or sleeping on the couch.
Yet in the humbling process of serving, even when I didn’t feel like it, my heart once again softened to her. I found that acting in love inevitably provoked true feelings of love, and the reverse was no less true. In the daily melting away of frustration and bitterness, we could embrace and celebrate the gift of this new life together, and in the midst of the mundane we could remember the miracle.