The air felt cold and heavy as I trudged through the snow in the memorial park where my husband’s ashes lay. It was January 10, 1997, two and a half years since his death, and I was coming not so much to talk to him, but to God. I needed to fulfill a decision I had made before Him in the previous week. It took some time to dig through the snow, uncover his marker, and carefully lay a dozen red carnations beside it. Through blurred eyes I saw the brilliant red against the pristine white: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Is. 1:18). I remembered the expression on Dan’s face when he died, and I knew with certainty that in his last hours he had come somehow to know and accept the grace of God for him…a grace greater than sin and its consequences. Now I was in need of that same certainty of grace. So as I lay the flowers down I began singing the song He had given me, “Blessed be the name of the Lord, who gives and takes away…blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I grew up as the daughter of a pastor in a home that overflowed in ministry. From very early on all I wanted in life was to serve God in the same way…to grow up, have a family, and have a home filled with the love of Jesus. When I met Dan at Houghton College those dreams began to come true. We dated for three years and married a month after we graduated. Together, our heart was to serve God where people had least experienced His love. And that is how we ended up as global workers in Japan. Dan was a teacher in a Christian school and I poured my heart into our marriage, our four sons, and into numerous foster children that passed through our home. God had granted my heart’s desire. My cup overflowed.
Then in 1990 a slow unraveling began. During the spring Dan had experienced some flu-like symptoms, but they didn’t seem serious enough to change our plan for me to attend our eldest son’s wedding in the U.S. in early June. So I was on the other side of the world when I received a call from a hospital in Tokyo saying that Dan was seriously ill with spinal meningitis. After the wedding I returned to Japan and went straight to the hospital from the airport. Dan looked like he was dying. In the next few weeks he slowly regained strength, but the doctors felt that things still weren’t quite right. They did further testing. On June 28 the doctor quietly told me Dan was HIV-positive.
The next twelve hours were like a nightmare. I was rushed off for blood tests. When the doctor said Dan had only two months to live, a blur of decision-making began…who to tell and how, when to leave, what to pack, where to go, finances, housing. I didn’t get a chance to face Dan and talk it through until the next day, our twenty-second wedding anniversary. He revealed secrets from his childhood he had never shared before. When Dan’s older brother David was ten or eleven years old, his piano teacher began molesting him. David, in turn, began sexually abusing Dan and warned him repeatedly that if he told anyone he would drop dead. Five years after the abuse started, David was giving a piano recital and suddenly died of a ruptured pancreas.
Thinking that his death was related to their dark secrets, Dan lived for years with an intense fear of death. Deep down he believed his life depended on never revealing what had happened. The secret he kept so vigilantly, and the feelings of fear, anger, and shame, gave Satan a foothold in his life and set him on a path of self-destructive behavior.
As the pain of the secret intensified over the years, Dan tried to erase it by being outgoing, the life of the party, and driving himself to be perfect in all he did. It didn’t work. At some point in our marriage he began seeking out anonymous sexual affairs with men. There were no emotions involved or faces remembered. It was simply a form of escape and relief from pain…a sexual addiction. That is why, despite this secret life, our marriage relationship was still close. I felt very loved by Dan. Later I often wondered why I had been so deceived, why I hadn’t picked up on any signals, why our marriage had seemed so solid and healthy. Now I realize that this can be true in cases of sexual addiction.
The first mark of God’s mercy during this sad time was that neither I nor my children tested positive for HIV. In a letter many years later one of my sons said, “When I really start to think back on things I realize how much of a miracle you are…you are not supposed to be living…with all the scientific evidence how (can this be explained) except to say that God had a different plan for you.”
He referred to me as a “walking miracle” but it took a long time for a sense of that to work its way through to my heart. The next two weeks after receiving Dan’s diagnosis were a blur of sorting through years of possessions, packing, closing down the ministry, saying good-byes. Our sons did not want to leave the home they loved and were not very cooperative. Loving friends helped as best they could.
We arrived in the States numb and devastated. Within a week Dan was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric care. I had never bought a car or house by myself, or made decisions about where to live, how to support ourselves, how to pay hospital bills. I felt very alone. At some point during those first few weeks we gathered our extended family and told them the truth about his illness. When we told our two oldest sons, they could scarcely comprehend the truth…and I had no way of making it any easier for them.
Against the doctor’s predictions, Dan’s condition stabilized and he was able to get a part-time job as a substitute teacher. At that time there was still a great deal of stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. We felt we were carrying the heaviest of secrets. I got a part-time job and, realizing I needed to prepare for the future, returned to school to get a Master’s degree. There were times when the only way I sensed that God was still with us was through His provision for our needs. He provided people who cared and helped. We were able to pay our insurance bill of $750 a month, and the house payment. I still don’t know how all the financial expenses were met. Somehow God provided. I had never been in a place of such utter helplessness and dependence on Him. His Word became very precious. I held very tightly to Psalm 112:7, “He will have no fear of bad news. His heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.”
Over those four years I experienced the extremes of almost every emotion possible. I felt betrayed. I grieved the loss of our life in Japan, our friends there, our ministry. I was filled with terror of the future and shame for the secrets of the past and present. I had nightmares. Each day seemed an exercise in survival. Dan, in the depths of his shame and illness, cut our ties with the agency we had served for sixteen years. He was hospitalized many times and with each illness grew weaker.
In June 1994, the day after our second son’s wedding, Dan gathered our family together to say goodbye. He knew he would be leaving soon. He told us he was finally able to accept forgiveness from us and from God, but would never be able to forgive himself. Two weeks later his temperature escalated and his mind began to go. As I sat next to him and swabbed his lips with wet cotton, I asked him to forgive himself. On July 10, at 2:15 in the morning he took his final breath. He had a beautiful smile on his face. I knew he had seen Jesus and had heard Him say, “You’re forgiven.” God’s amazing grace.
I thought that when Dan died, life would slowly return to normal. But deep depression and suicidal thoughts increased. A year later, when I was overwhelmed with debilitating fears and barely eating enough to keep going, my sons, my pastor, and my counselor intervened. They wanted my consent to be hospitalized. I said, “No way. I’m fine.” My sons replied, “We watched our dad die before our eyes and now we are watching you die.” I agreed to go to intensive outpatient care.
I didn’t realize how deeply my foundations had been shaken. I had always had an optimistic personality, but now I became haunted by fear. Each day I expected that another tragedy might strike. Every time I had a routine check-up I feared the HIV test would be positive. I dreaded rejection because of the stigma of AIDS. I was fearful of the future and of not being able to make it. There was also an intense, unacknowledged anger. It was as though it was not only Dan who had betrayed me, but God. I had trusted Him in our relationship, and He had abandoned me. I had loved and served Him faithfully and with real joy, and He had turned His back on me.
It took time, and work, and the prayers of family and friends to eventually get me to Dan’s graveside that cold January day in 1997. I sang, “Blessed be the name of the Lord”…but it wasn’t, and still isn’t, a song I sing daily. Recovery was not a linear process. I would inch forward, and then a small stress, a misspoken word, a flash of memory would fling me back into a pit. But the healing did continue. At times God pierced my heart through a Sunday School lesson, the words of a friend, the chapter of a book. At other times He allowed me, surprisingly, to be His instrument in the healing of others. He demonstrated the truth that nothing He allowed to happen in my life needed to be wasted.
It is amazing that I never contracted AIDS. But there are miracles in this story so much greater than that. There was the miraculous light on Dan’s face when he saw Jesus and experienced the truth that there is no evil that God can’t forgive and transform. He does, in truth, change darkness to light. There were miracles of God’s faithfulness and provision for our family. And the greatest miracle of all: not one of us ended up sickened by bitterness or with hearts hardened against God. Each one of my four sons chose to continue in their faith. Each one married a believing wife and my grandchildren are being raised in Christian homes. Satan’s intent was to work havoc in our family. He wanted to “steal, kill and destroy” (Jn. 10:10). But “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). I have learned grace by being graced.
It is now the tenth anniversary of Dan’s death. In recent months I’ve begun to be able to look back and give God full permission for all He allowed. It seems impossible, but it is true that God has made His splendor shine through all that has happened. Isaiah 61 describes a sinful and broken people in the process of restoration. God promises that they will grow to be “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, for the display of His splendor…All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.” I want my life to display His splendor. I want people to look at me and see someone God has blessed.
For an updated version of this article “Heart Lessons Revisited”
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Additional Resources the writer recommends:
1. Heart to Heart Counseling Center
5080 Mark Dabling Blvd.
Colorado Springs, CO 80978
2. Character that Counts. This web-site offers an excellent article on pornography. www.characterthatcounts.org
An Affair of the Mind, Laurie Hall. One woman’s courageous battle to salvage her family from the devastation of pornography.
Every Heart Restored, Stephen Arterburn, Fred and Brenda Stoeker. A wife’s guide to healing in the wake of a husband’s sexual sin.
Living with Your Husband’s Secret Wars, Marsha Means.
Don’t Call It Love, Patrick Carnes, PH.D. Recovery from sexual addiction.