That Sunday morning began like so many others, with a little quiet time, some hazelnut cream in my coffee, and a discussion with my husband about a random location in Israel. That morning, November 29, 2020, the location was Beth Shemesh. John had read an article about the stone mentioned in 1 Samuel 6:14: “The cart came into the field of Joshua the Betshemite and stood there where there was a large stone; and they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.” I remember laughing a little bit, asking him, “You want to go look for that large stone, don’t you?”
Ninety minutes later, with absolutely no warning, his heart stopped beating. It just simply stopped.
By then, we were sitting separately in Bible class: I was next to my mother, and he was by himself on the back row. He made a comment in class, and seconds later I heard a commotion, then someone shouted his name. I looked back to where he was, and my world tilted on its axis.
It was surreal. My healthy, energetic, always-going-at-full-speed husband—the best man I know, my one love and my dearest friend— was slumped unconscious and not breathing. While I stood frozen, dear friends jumped into action, lifting him over the pew to lay him flat on the ground, beginning CPR, tearing his shirt open, shocking him with an external defibrillator, calling the paramedics, and holding on to me. The ambulance arrived and an EMT pushed a breathing tube into his throat. More shocks, continued CPR, and a weak heartbeat finally appeared. Though my own heart beat wildly, I remained calm to answer the paramedic’s questions, but I knew I was in shock. My thoughts were divided: “He’s going to be fine!” warred with the scene playing out in front of me. “Is this really happening? Will I have to live without him?”
I did not know until later that his heart stopped again in the ambulance, and then again in the Emergency Room. In the ER, I sat, stunned, with our youngest son Micah and his wife. A nurse handed me a bag holding the shredded suit that had been cut from John’s body, and though he was unconscious, we were allowed to see him briefly. Doctors and nurses lined the walls of his room, waiting to transfer him to ICU and watching as we spoke love to him and held his hands. Micah pulled John’s wedding ring from his finger and somberly put it in my hand. Our other children sped toward Austin to be with us, and when they arrived, the hospital staff mercifully allowed us to remain together in the waiting room despite strict Covid rules. In the ICU, doctors paralyzed John and then lowered his body temperature in order to allow his vital organs to rest for 24 hours. They explained that he would gradually be re-warmed over the following day, and they warned me that we would not know of any physical or neurological problem until he was awakened.
By the grace of God and because of the vigorous CPR given to him, he suffered no brain damage. He spent thirteen days in intensive care while his heart was monitored and various tests were run. Doctors could find no blockages and very little arterial disease. No cause could be determined for his cardiac arrest. As a preventive measure, an automated internal cardioverter defibrillator (AICD) was surgically implanted in his chest, with electrical leads into his heart that should immediately shock it into a normal rhythm if it ever stops again.
John was unconscious for the better part of four days and doesn’t remember any of what happened during that time. But I remember. Many times each day, I remember November 29 and the days that followed. Every day I wonder why it happened and I wonder if it will happen again. I wonder if he will have to suffer through another cardiac arrest, and I wonder if the AICD will do what it is designed to do—and then I wonder how much the shock might hurt him. I wonder if I will witness it again. I know others have suffered greater injuries with sadder endings. Yet we continue to wade through the trauma and strange sense of grief, and even the guilt that he survived while others did not. Grief, anxiety, guilt, worry and trauma are exhausting and debilitating. Those emotions battle for preeminence in my mind. But I choose to meditate on this: though I was terrified, I was immediately and profoundly aware of God’s comfort and providence. I knew the “peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension,” (Phil. 4:7) and it guarded my heart and mind, even in the earliest moments when I thought he would die. Even then I knew that John and I were together in the “shelter of the Most High” and “in the shadow of the Almighty,” (Ps. 91:1). I knew we were held tight in His embrace.
Though we woke up that day unaware of what would happen, I believe we were as prepared as we could have been, for two key reasons. First, we trusted the Lord’s promise that He would be with us. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you,” (Isa 43:1-2). We pray and we ask and we sing, “Be with us, Lord!” In the middle of a storm, those words are heartfelt supplication. None of us would ever choose to set sail into a dark, swirling, threatening maelstrom. It’s better that we don’t know they’re on the horizon, for we would steer around them and never discover the confidence and joy (yes, joy!) that results from endurance (James 1:2-3). Going through a storm while humbly submitting to the One who has complete dominion over the winds and sea is powerful, tangible evidence of His sovereignty and presence. 36 hours after John’s cardiac arrest, while he was still unconscious, I stood at the foot of his bed and spoke out loud to our God: “No matter what our future looks like, we will trust in You.” Though my heart broke to know that I might lose him, I was confident that for him to be with Christ was “very much better,” (Phil. 1:23). It was liberating to not fear either outcome for John, because I knew that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones,” (Ps. 116:15). That is true for any of God’s faithful children.
God also prepared me through His word. 2020 was a year that I spent writing scripture daily. Perhaps providentially, I had written through most of the beautiful, comforting psalms, and those psalms came bubbling up from my heart. “Your word I have treasured in my heart,” (Ps. 119:11). “My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to Your word,” (v. 25). I knew that God saw my tears. They mattered to Him! “You have taken account of my wanderings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56:8). On the day of John’s heart catheterization, my scripture writing plan had me pen Isaiah 26:3-4: “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for in God the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock.” The word of God is potent! It is true consolation. Simply soaking in the word of God in small ways every day throughout the year provided the powerful assurance and confidence that needed to weather the storm.
I’ve heard lessons all of my life about trusting in the promises of God and learning the power of His word. It sounds so simplistic: trust Him and be in His word—but in order to rest in those comforts, preparation and practice have to begin long before the crisis occurs. We have heard over and over: “…you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow,” (Jas. 4:14). Before this event, I may have skimmed over an article like this, thinking “that kind of thing won’t happen to us.” But it did happen to us, and now we are blessed to know very personally about the peace that our earthly minds just can’t comprehend. Jesus said, “My peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you…” (John 14:27). People outside of Christ believe they are at peace when troubles are scarce, but that worldly peace disappears when winds begin to blow. A Christian’s peace isn’t dependent on circumstances, or health, or the unknown, or the absence of trials—our peace is despite all of those things. Someday, you may have a morning that begins as quietly as ours did and turns very quickly. Before that happens, I pray that you have steeped your heart and mind in the powerful, redeeming word of God—the One we can wholeheartedly trust.