(The following story was written in 2004 in response to a request for a book that was to be published. It has been included in Help for Hurting Families by Russ Fox and Widow’s Might by Keith Blake)
In 1978, I entered Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, for my freshman year. I knew that God wanted me in the ministry, and I was very serious about getting into the ministry as soon as I could. I had dated a number of girls through high school, but things were different when I got to Bible college. Preparing for ministry gave me a whole new perspective on dating.
One night during devotions in our dorm, a speaker made a statement that I have never forgotten, though I don’t remember who he was or the topic he was sharing. “When looking for a wife,” he said, “look for the young lady that is already preparing herself to be the best she can be for Christ. That’s the kind of girl that will make the best wife for a life together in ministry.”
That statement brought to my mind a girl I had met on the first day of classes. Melanie Evans was from Texas, and though it seemed that all the freshmen were a little anxious about the whole college thing, I noticed that she was different. She was meeting people, putting them at ease with her smile and pleasant Texas accent. Then I saw her at the church I was visiting, again doing the same thing, making people welcome, even though she was new to the church as well.
Twenty-one months later, we were married, and on our way to what was intended to be a summer job at my home church in Titusville, Florida. The summer job turned into a full time position, and we loved it! A year and half later, in February of 1982, our son, Benjamin, was born. Mel had some back pain during the pregnancy, and after delivery we began taking her to a chiropractor, but the pain didn’t subside. On our vacation that summer, we went back to her hometown, where she visited her family doctor and then a specialist, who gave us the dreaded news – cancer -a rare form, a tumor inside of her spinal cord.
Surgery was quickly arranged, followed by chemo and radiation. Melanie and the baby stayed in Texas for those follow up treatments while I returned to Florida. When she came home, she was walking with a cane, the result of a loss of feeling in her leg and foot from the surgery, which did irreparable damage to the spinal cord.
Two years later, we had moved to her hometown where I was serving as youth pastor in Mel’s home church. Melanie gave birth to our second son, Shadrach, who was born with a heart defect known as a VSD. Six weeks after Shad was born, Melanie’s neurosurgeon gave us the news that the tumor was back in her spinal cord. He made arrangements for her to go to New York City, where Melanie stayed for four and a half months. The surgery had caused her to lose the use of both her legs, and Melanie was to face life in a wheelchair.
It was during this time that Melanie sat me down for the first time to tell me about a specific meeting she had had with the Lord. She was not asking what I thought, or asking me to pray about something, but telling me what she and her Friend had come to an agreement about. “I have asked the Lord to let me live long enough to see Ben and Shad be able to take care of themselves. They need to be able to dress and feed themselves, and even take care of some of things to help you around the house. The Lord has let me know that He will let me live long enough to see that happen.”
I did not want to hear about that conversation. Nothing like that had even entered my mind, and I scolded her for letting it enter hers. Boy was that the wrong thing to do!
I must stop the narrative here to say that during that time, Melanie’s outlook was amazing through both surgeries. Her confidence was completely in the Lord. We didn’t cry about her condition. Where I should have been comforting her, her walk with the Lord and her simple trust in the One who gives us our very breath gave me comfort. Looking back on it now, that was probably the first time in my life that I experienced the “peace that passes all understanding” because of the supernatural grace of God. It was all new ground in our walk with the Lord. As twenty-four year olds, we didn’t have much experience with the kinds of realities we had been facing. But our God was experienced in helping His children, and His love and care for us never diminished.
One incident of God’s care for us stands out in my mind from the Christmas after Melanie came home from the NY hospital in September. Obviously things had been tight financially that year. New baby with a heart problem, trips to New York City for Melanie and a couple of times for me, all the things Melanie needed now for a life in a wheelchair – all had taken their toll our youth pastor’s salary. We had agreed that Christmas presents would be very modest, and mostly things for Ben and Shad. Late one Wednesday evening after church, a bearded man knocked on our door and introduced himself as the pastor of a small, rural church from a town nearby that I had never even heard of. He then handed me a check and told me that someone in his church had heard about us, and that the Lord impressed upon his church that evening to bring us an offering. I understand that God’s care for us is far greater than our finances, but God couldn’t have proven in any greater way His care for us that night if he had sent an angel with a bucketful of gold!
Shad had open heart surgery in June of 1985, when he was sixteen months old. Melanie and I knew that he was in the Lord’s hands, and His grace sustained us. Shad’s surgery was a success, and that little baby is now 19, played basketball and football in high school, and is healthy as a horse!
We moved to Winter Haven, Florida, and life was great! Our ministry was flourishing. Melanie was so comfortable with her life in the chair that, while she didn’t drive, she could roll down the sidewalks in our neighborhood, and send her little preschool boys to knock on the doors to welcome folks to the neighborhood, delivering homemade cookies and inviting folks to church. A number of families were touched by her efforts, and came to our church, and eventually trusted Christ as their Savior.
We were experiencing the grace of God every day. Melanie had lost control of her bladder early on, and while we were in Winter Haven, we changed a lot of adult diapers and bed sheets as well. She was so independent, that she cried from time to time when I had to help her with those things. God taught me some lessons through those days. One of the biggest was that it was a privilege for me to do those things for her. I never thought of it as “me taking care of her.” It was “we are taking care of each other.”
In August of 1990, we discovered a lump in Melanie’s side. We went to the doctor, who cut it out in his office, pronounced that it was nothing, but he would send it out for pathology reports anyway. It came back as another tumor, and we were sent to the Tampa for further examination. During this time I was called as pastor of a small church, Park Street Baptist, in Saint Petersburg, FL. After the church called us to come, but before we moved to St. Pete, we got devastating news: Melanie had numerous tumors in both lungs, and the tumor in her spinal cord was back, but growing upwards toward the brain stem rather than downward, as it had the two times before. Melanie was going to die. The doctor’s gave her a year.
I will never forget the hour’s drive back from Tampa. I couldn’t talk. Tears flowed all the way home.
I called the men of Park Street and gave them the news, and told them that we would understand if they wanted to call another pastor. They still wanted us to come. As we prayed about what to do, Melanie said, “God knew about this when He led us to the church.” That was it. We moved to Saint Pete.
Melanie only got to attend one service at the church after we moved there during the last week of December, 1990. She was either in the Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa, or at home in a hospital bed for the next five months. She quickly lost the use of her hands and began to lose other functions as well. The seizures were the most difficult for all of us to endure. Her mom and mine alternated staying with us for a month at a time. God was preparing us all.
Melanie and I began our own grief process during this time. She talked about dying and I didn’t want to hear it. God was still able to heal her. She knew that wasn’t His plan, and I guess deep down, while I didn’t admit it, I knew it, too. She talked about us, the boys, and her dreams for them. She even made a video for Ben and Shad, telling them about when they were born, and how much she loved them, and that she wanted their lives to count for the Lord. Those last few weeks, Melanie began to tell me I would need to get married again, that Ben and Shad would need a mom. I resisted this talk completely, but she kept telling me anyway. Looking back, it was an amazing act of grace for her to release me in that way.
The Saturday before Mother’s Day, 1991, Melanie’s mom and dad took the boys, who were now 9 and 7 years old, to see their mom in the hospital. They took her things that that had made for her for Mother’s Day. It was a sweet time for them, and they came back home with Melanie’s mom, while her dad stayed the night with her.
Mother’s Day started for me with a phone call just before 7 a.m. Melanie had gone home to be with the Lord. I cried when I got then news. I didn’t know how I would tell Ben and Shad, so I said a little prayer, then woke them up to sit with me on my bed. All I can say is that God’s grace once again was sufficient. “Today is Mother’s Day,” I told them. “Mom has gotten the best Mother’s Day present ever. She got to go to heaven.” I can still see their faces, at first puzzled, then understanding. We cried a little together, and I answered their questions the best I could. They seemed satisfied with my answers.
I preached Melanie’s funeral two days later. Again, the grace of God was manifested in both my private times with him and through the love of family and friends. An evangelist who had also lost his wife took me aside one day and gave me some worthwhile advice. It was a divine appointment. He told me some things to do to help with my grief and with the boy’s grief as well.
“Go to all the places that were special to you both, and tell the boys all about it.” We did exactly that and it was so bittersweet. We laughed on that trip and we cried a little, too.
The other thing he warned me was that there would come a time when the Lord would take the hurt away and loneliness would set in like a cloud. He said that when it did, I should wait through the next set of holidays (Thanksgiving through New Year’s) before I did anything about it, because that is prime time to find out if there are any “ghosts” left to deal with.
My friend was right, and God took the hurt away. And loneliness did take a powerful grip on me. But, once again the Lord proved in my life the truth of His word:
2 Cor. 12:9-10 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
The holidays came and went and it was obvious that Ben and Shad were adjusting amazingly well. God’s grace had been wonderfully realized in their lives as we as mine. I waited for the right time, and we sat down, my 8 and 10 year old boys and I, and had a conversation that went something like this. Holding my breath, I asked, “Boys, what would you think if started looking for you guys a new mom?”
“Of course, Dad, we knew you were going to do that.” “How’d you know that?”
“Mom told us you would.” This was unbelievable to me, and it took me totally by surprise. Ben said it as if I should have known that this was what I was expected to do, just as they expected me to take them to school each morning, or prepare dinner each evening. So I asked them to explain.
“Remember the times when mom was at home in the hospital bed and you’d go to work, and it would just be the three of us? As soon as you left she would call us to climb up onto her bed, and she would tell us that God had chosen her to be our first mom, to give birth to us and to teach us some very important things. And she told us that, after she went to heaven, that you would find our second mom, that God had made her special for us, too, and that she would be just as much God’ s choice to be our mom as mom was, and we are supposed to love her and take care of her just the way we had taken care of mom.”
I had no idea these conversations had ever taken place. What wonderful grace the Lord had extended to Melanie during those last days! What might be an even greater miracle is that my young boys understood what she had taught them and took it to heart, so much so that living it was as natural as breathing to them.
Here’s what I mean. A friend told me about a single young lady school teacher who was serving the Lord faithfully in her dad’s church. Being a pastor, I thought that a pastor’s daughter might understand the ministry and be able to adapt to life as a mother and a pastor’s wife. Being a teacher, I reasoned, she probably is good with kids as well.
I called Jana Adams on the 25th of March, and the Lord knit our hearts in such an awesome way that when we met face to face (she was living 1200 miles from where I was) just a few weeks later, we had talked so much on the phone that it was like meeting an old friend. Oh, she was nervous, and so was I, but it was obvious that the Lord was doing a great thing in our hearts. We talked and walked and prayed together. I spent the next couple of days telling her about all the bad things I had ever done so she wouldn’t ever have any surprises. After Jana had met my boys and my folks, I asked her to marry me on the porch swing. Even though we had only been in each other’s physical presence for just a couple of days, we knew what the Lord was doing. After getting the approval of both of our parents and the blessing of Melanie’s mom and dad (without any of their approval, we would have waited), Jana and I were married on May 22nd.
Immediately, the boys began calling Jana “Mom.” We never told them to do so. It just seemed that the Lord had answered Melanie’s prayer. Jana is amazing! She took those boys and has loved them so. As of this writing, Ben and Shad are 21 and 19 respectively, and they have never called her their “step mom.” We had our times of difficulty, just as any family does, but there was never a time when “You’re not my mother” or “Dennis, do something with your boys” or any variation of that theme was ever spoken in our home.
Jana’s godly influence is evident in all three of our lives. She has taught us to pray about everything, things like lost keys and broken hearts. She continued to teach the boys to fall in love with Christ, to read His word, and to serve Him faithfully. And both boys still would rather talk to mom rather than dad about matters of the heart.
When I think back to where God has led me and what he has done in my life, I am amazed. Jana is an exciting, beautiful, wonderful mate! We didn’t see God’s plan unfolding all at once in our lives, but God has been faithful to make His will the best place for us to live.
God has given me a down payment on a truth that will be fully realized when I join Him in eternity:
Romans 8:18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
Over the years, Jana and I have come to realize what the Lord meant when He said:
Psalm 37:4-5 Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.  Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.