Every workday, Barry Abell was up at 5 a.m. and out the door of his New Jersey home by 6:15. He drove to the train station, then rode a commuter train across the Hudson River to lower Manhattan, center of the financial world. He walked to a prestigious firm on Wall Street, where he was a municipal bond trader.
For the next 9 hours, his world was a frenzy of noise and activity—telephones ringing, traders juggling two conversations at a time, constant pressure, millions of dollars riding on a single phone call.
He loved it. And he made a lot of money.
At night he would head home to his two-story colonial home on a two-acre lot in Mendham, N.J. He had a beautiful wife, two children, two cars, a swimming pool in the backyard, a dog, a cat, and a parakeet.
He was 32 years old.
He was on top of the world.
He was living the American dream.
Pam Abell woke up every morning with a sense of apprehension. All her life she had dreamed of being a mother, and now she had two precious children, Marc and Becky. But she just didn’t know how to control her son.
Marc was fun-loving and sensitive with an independent, strong-willed nature. The problem was that he was always busy, running, touching, climbing, moving from one activity to another every few minutes.
He was aggressive and angry when he didn’t get his way, and sometimes would strike out at others with no provocation. He was a bright and exceptional child. Yet he seemed driven by a compulsive energy stronger than he could control.
Her neighbors and friends—and even Barry—all blamed her. “Why can’t you control your son?” “Why aren’t you providing more discipline?” Couldn’t they understand that normal discipline wouldn’t work? If you spanked him for an offense, he might do the same thing within an hour.
By the end of each day Pam would be exhausted—emotionally and physically. She felt she was failing as a mother.
If life was a dream to Barry, it was a nightmare to Pam.
“God, where are You?”
Barry and Pam consulted therapists, doctors and teachers. They were told Marc’s hyperactivity might indicate he was emotionally disturbed or learning disabled. Or maybe he was eating too much sugar, or yeast. Not until he was 14 did they finally learn that he had attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity.
Pam remembers the day when Marc and a friend accidentally set the woods behind their home on fire. He was five at the time, and was so frightened when the fire blew out of control that he ran away. He was found by police and brought home, and Pam felt the accusing stares of her neighbors as Marc got out of the patrol car. She felt like she had a scarlet letter on her chest.
“As a parent, you automatically attach your own identity to the behavior of your children,” she says. “I felt like we were on a course for destruction, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it from happening. I loved him so much and yet, there was this overwhelming feeling of helplessness.”
As years went by and their marriage deteriorated amidst the pressure in their home, Barry and Pam began to realize life was not turning out the way they thought it should. Barry spent more and more time at work. But something seemed empty there as well. “I had grown up thinking my role was to provide for my family,” he recalls. “But all this money wasn’t providing happiness.”
Pam felt that same void, and tried to fill it with community volunteer activities. Then her world was rocked when one of her best friends developed terminal cancer. “I realized I was not only afraid of failing as a mother and a wife, but I was scared of dying. It was these fears and concerns that led me to my knees one day. ‘God, where are You in all of this? Is there any purpose to life? Is there meaning to life? Or is it just all this pain and all this failure, and finally death?'”
During a family vacation, Pam read a book titled, Born Again, by Charles Colson. In the book, Colson wrote of his work in the Nixon White House and his involvement in the Watergate scandal. As his world fell apart around him, he was drawn to Jesus Christ. To Pam, Colson’s words seemed directed to her—the story of his search for spiritual meaning and the joy he found in Christ echoed all the questions in her heart. “I asked Christ to come into my heart, to take over my life. The next day I woke up and I knew a difference. I had a peace in my heart I had never known. I knew Christ was in me.”
During the next few months, Pam began displaying a love and compassion that her family noticed right away. “God took this life that was heading one way, and put me on a whole new course. Being loved unconditionally, being forgiven by Jesus Christ and being set free from all this sense of failure, frustration and loneliness, was so exciting.”
Barry was impressed by how she sought to resolve conflict. “We’d have arguments and nine times out of ten it would be my fault, and she would come to me and ask, ‘Would you forgive me?'”
“I started thinking, ‘Who is this Jesus Christ who can change someone’s life like this?'”
Two different ships
He began reading the Bible. At one point he even said, “Show me, God, if You are really there.” He opened the Bible randomly and blindly put his finger on a page. It rested on 1 Corinthians 1:21 in the Living Bible, which said, “For God so made His plan that it couldn’t be found through human brilliance.”
Says Barry, “I thought my finger was going to burn off. I thought I’d just been rebuked.”
Pam suggested they go to a Marriage Seminar on Memorial Day weekend in 1977, and Barry agreed. A speaker presented the gospel during one of the sessions, and Barry finally understood what was missing in his life. He returned to his hotel room while Pam attended a women’s session.
“I began to think that I could never be the father that my kids needed so badly. I could never be the husband that she needed so badly. I could never be the person God wanted me to be without Jesus Christ in my life.” As he invited Christ into his life, tears began streaming down his face for the first time since he was a young boy.
He naturally told Pam right away, and over the following week of vacation they truly began to establish a new home. “We had been on two different ships heading to two different ports, with different goals and different dreams and different ideals,” Barry says. “And from that moment on, we truly became one flesh.”
“I love you, too, Mom”
The Abells have no doubt that they would have divorced if God had not intervened in their lives. And not just because of their parenting struggles. “We’re just so different,” says Pam, ” but we’re also two strongly opinionated people. Ego gets in the way. Without Jesus molding and shaping us daily, we would have alienated each other.”
Recently Pam caught another glimpse of how God is working in their family. Through the child-rearing years, she says, “Every day we would try to just reinforce our love to our children, even if at times they wanted to push away. Even during Marc’s really tough years, we’d ask, ‘Marc, do you know we love you?’ and he’d say, ‘I know you love me.'”
But for over 20 years, since Marc was five, they didn’t hear any expression of love from him in return. When his family came to visit for Christmas in 1998, at one point Pam put her arms around him and said, ” Marc, I love you. It’s so good to be with you.” To her joy, he replied, “I love you too, Mom.”
Through her tears, Pam knew it was one more confirmation of the transformation God had made in their lives.
Epilogue: Today Marc is a husband and father, and owns a landscaping company. In 1978, Barry helped begin a Bible study on Wall Street that continues to this day. Barry left Wall Street in 1990 so he and Pam could work full-time with the Executive Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. They also speak regularly at FamilyLife marriage getaways, telling couples about the hope they found in Christ. Pam tells moms at these conferences that “sometimes the greatest work you will do on behalf of your children is on your knees praying for them. And letting them know that you’re not giving up on them.”