Maria’s Story: How a Blended Family, Illness, and Loss Transformed my Heart

“I was 41 working in CO in mental health, believing marriage was not meant to be and if by some chance there was a man out there for me, he’d be single and waiting like me! So, when I got this letter in the mail from Scott, an old high school friend from church, now a widower with four kids, asking if I’d be open to just getting to know one another, I freaked out!” Maria’s voice punctuates the air with intensity, which makes me smile— a little bit of her feisty Greek heritage poking through her generally soft-spoken nature. She laughs, brushing dark waves behind her ear. 

“This was not what I had in mind! Whatever happened to Disney Romance—Prince Charming, the man on the white horse riding in and carrying me off? But then I calmed down enough to ask, ‘Lord, is this really you? Did you keep me single for such a time as this? If so, help me be open.’ So, I prayed for a month before I sent the first snail mail letter which evolved to phone calls until Scott finally flew out for a visit. I was such a romantic—I thought there would be fireworks and starry nights but when my mom asked how the visit with Scott went, I said, ‘Well, no fireworks, but I felt completely myself and like I was with my very best friend.’ I’ll never forget mom’s reply: ‘Now that’s fireworks!’

“It wasn’t long before Scott made his intentions of marriage known. He spoke often of God’s sovereignty, that he believed God was working out His plan for our lives, that his wife’s death from cancer, although heartbreaking and painful, was part of that plan. There was no hint of anger or bitterness in him, and I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with a man like this, who wasn’t just focused on here-and-now but eternity with Jesus.

“So, I longed to meet the kids—they were 9, 11, 13, and 16, and the two youngest had cystic fibrosis. Before I ever met them, God placed a love for them in my heart. Yet, even after meeting and getting to know them a little bit and appreciate their personalities, I knew they were four kids who were grieving the loss of their mother. Four! I was so scared and kept trying to think of reasons to back out. I wrestled, wept, and prayed.

“One early morning, after wrestling with my concerns and fears, God brought this picture to my mind: There’s this white box with a bow on it sitting on a top shelf and inside the box are Scott and the kids—I felt God saying ‘This is my gift to you, but you don’t have to accept it. All my gifts, I give freely—I don’t force any gift on anyone. If you don’t accept it, I won’t love you any less.’ In my heart I knew I wanted to accept this gift of Scott and his kids and trust God with all the uncertainties. Scott and I married and the ‘Colorado girl’ left her job, home, and family for Kansas.

“After three weeks of just connecting with the kids through fun outings, I began stepping into the role of parent and worked together with Scott to establish new-to-us routines and ways of being a family. At the time our oldest daughter was grieving the loss of her mom, and often took her anger out on me and her dad. In those painful moments, all my social work background in grief and anger management went right out the window—sometimes I’d respond in anger and other times I’d be so hurt and upset I’d turn silent. It was so hard for me to take a step back to get perspective.

“I’ll never forget the day that our younger daughter, Jenny, burst into the kitchen one morning saying, ‘Mom, I know what’s wrong with my sister—she needs to trust that God has given us enough love for our mom in heaven and you!’ I responded in tears, ‘Jenny, either you’re an angel or a prophet!’”

“Slowly, God did a redemptive work in my relationship with our oldest daughter. There was one day I was so hurt, angry, and exhausted from arguing with her all day. That evening I was standing in the hall outside her bedroom, emotionally drained. She’d just turned out the light. I felt God nudge me: ‘Go in there and give her a hug’ and I was like ‘No way! I can’t do that!’ But then again, ‘Go in there and give her a hug!’ I said, ‘Lord, I can’t do this without you.’ So, I cracked open the bedroom door. She was lying there stiff as a board, sheets pulled up to her chin, eyes squeezed shut like glue. I arched my arm around her shoulder and said, “I just came in tonight to give you a hug and tell you, I love you!” She never opened her eyes, pretending to be asleep, but then as I walked back outside the door, I heard her sweet voice whisper: ‘Thank you.’ I burst into tears, flooded with this love for her, a love poured into my heart by Jesus.”

Maria pauses, bottled tears choking her breath as she remembers God’s grace breaking down walls, opening doors for healing.

“I’m so thankful that today my oldest daughter and I share a close, loving relationship, and she continues to bring us joy through our first grandchild, Arlo. Over the years I experienced similar redemptive moments with our other kids—our oldest son wrote a beautiful essay processing his mother’s death, conveying his love for her, and he concluded the essay saying Scott marrying me was ‘What my mother would have wanted for us and is best for our family.’ Our younger son brought a light-hearted joy into difficult family dynamics by doing things like jumping on the hood of the car to greet me when I came home from shopping.  

“Mother’s Day was a day of mixed emotions as I tried to find ways to acknowledge the kids’ mother yet longed to be recognized too. My mom, sensitive to my struggle, would say to me, ‘Maria, God sees you!’ So, I’ll never forget my first Mother’s Day gift—Jenny came running into the kitchen from school, holding this green clay pot she’d made and dropped on the way home, cracking and chipping it. It became significant to me because I believe we are all broken and full of cracks, yet those cracks—weaknesses, past hurts and sins—invite us to grow in depending on God and trusting his good plan for our lives. As we learn to depend on him in our weakness and struggle, he grows us more like Him.

“Parenting four kids through their grief and struggles has been slowly transforming my own cracks and brokenness, re-shaping my desire to be seen into a desire for Jesus to be seen in my life.

“Another means God used to transform the desires of my heart is walking with son, Stephan, and our daughter, Jenny, through cystic fibrosis. As our other children grew up and gradually moved out on their own, Jenny’s cystic fibrosis progressed.

“Cystic fibrosis attacks mainly the lungs and digestive system, and it’s not unusual for those with CF to need a lung transplant in their twenties or thirties. So, taking care of Jenny as she grew sicker and sicker became a main priority in my life. Making protein shakes, encouraging her to eat to keep on weight and exercise so she could clear her lungs, keeping track of doctor appointments and oxygen levels was everyday life for me. But even in the midst of it all, Jenny was able to go to a college close by us and make genuine friends who appreciated her quirky humor and unique personality. Over time, in spite of all our efforts, she grew sicker and sicker, was hospitalized for a collapsed lung four different times, and had to be on oxygen 24/7—it was so hard for her—carrying that oxygen can with the cords going everywhere, threatening to trip her and anyone around her. There were times when, weary and depressed from living like that, she was tempted to just pull the cords and end it all. Finally, she qualified for a double lung transplant at age 22.

“But she had to wait for a year and a half! As she waited and struggled, we’d read a psalm together each morning and talk and pray, and one morning we read a psalm about waiting on the Lord and Jenny said, ‘Mom, I am not a very patient person! Please pray for me.’ During that year and a half of waiting I saw her patience blossom and grow.

“The day Jenny got the news her lung transplant was ready, we set our carefully laid plans into motion to get her to the hospital and into surgery as quickly as possible. Eight hours of surgery and 35 staples later, her new lungs were in, and within a few weeks she was out and walking—it was a miracle, so exciting to see her humorous, happy self, but after a few days, she began to struggle again, and for the next four months everything that could possibly go wrong, did. We were back and forth to hospital, and Jenny was so patient throughout all the trauma. I was so convinced she would pull through. I thought ‘After all she’s been through, God would not take her now!’”

Maria pauses, gathering strength to keep speaking the sorrow of her life as tears spill.

“I watched Jenny drop down to sixty-five pounds—headaches, vomiting, and back on oxygen!—it was maddening!

“Then came the day the specialist examined her. After the examination Jenny asked the doctor a question she’d been asking her medical care team for weeks, ‘Am I dying?’ The doctor said gently, ‘Yes.’ The social worker in the room asked her, ‘Jenny, what do you want, to go to your grandparents’ home (who lived in Colorado where the transplant and recovery were taking place) or to your KC home?’ Jenny replied, ‘I want to go to my home in heaven.’” Maria’s voice cracks, the tears flood fast.

“The night she died, I held her hand while Scott sang a song he’d been singing to Jenny since she was little:

‘Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior
.’

“Scott and I held her hand and sang to her as her breaths became less and less, and I said to her, ‘Jenny, we love you. It’s ok to meet your savior.’ After her last breath, we knew her life was gone, that her soul had left her body. Scott and I wept hard.”

The deep weeping of breaking hearts.

“After Jenny died, I went into a depression, a time of grieving and wrestling with God. During the time Jenny was so sick, I tried to figure out God and his ways. I’d think things like, ‘God wouldn’t allow her to go through excruciating pain, severe headaches, vomiting, various complications, and bodily trauma only to take her now!’ In my season of wrestling, I was reminded again—Don’t try to figure God out! Don’t lean on your own understanding!

“I was never angry at God, but I grieved the loss of Jenny deeply. When Jenny was on oxygen and living at home, Scott, Jenny and I were like the Three Stooges, always together through the laughing and the pain. I see God’s grace in Jenny’s death is that he gave her a perfect life—wholeness and health. I’ve come to accept that God’s ways are not our ways. God has a good plan for all our lives and the question during seasons of suffering is this: Are we going to trust him even when there’s death and loss and struggle? Will I trust that he knows what he is doing even when I can’t see his plan?

“Lamentations 3:21-23 says: ‘This I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.’ We have hope that because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed by the suffering of this life. In spite of the painful loss of their mother, Stephan’s ongoing battle with cystic fibrosis, Jenny’s death, and Scott’s seventeen-year diagnosis with Parkinson’s, God has kept our family together.

Because of God’s great love, we are not consumed.

“Sometimes I look up at the starry night sky, whispering, ‘Jenny, what’s it like up there, with Jesus, your mom, and your favorite author, C.S. Lewis?’ And I think about the day we will all be reunited.

“In the meantime, Scott, who has been one of God’s greatest manifestations of love in my life, encourages me with one of his favorite verses, Hosea 6:3. I cling to this verse because it reminds me of the hope we have in Jesus and his power to transform the cracks and broken bits of our lives, giving us new life:

So, let us know; let us press on to know the Lord.

His going forth is as certain as the dawn,

And he will come to us like the rain,

Like the spring rain watering the earth.”

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