On his birthday a number of years ago Jeff felt a yearning to see his dad again. He drove to the address in South St. Louis and spotted his father working on a car. Jeff approached, anticipating a warm embrace. Looking at him blankly, his father said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”
Jeff's mother had died when he was an infant and his father abandoned Jeff and his step mom when the boy was a youth.
As a young man Jeff was determined not to be that kind of a dad. He and his wife, Debbie, would do anything for their kids, Eric and Emily. Over the years, however, things in their marriage had gotten increasingly out of control. There had been multiple job layoffs and increasing conflict between them.
In 2001 Jeff was driving for a roofing company and began drinking more and more with his work buddies. Some of the guys on the job were users of crystal meth. Jeff, working 60 hours a week, would hear about the sensational feeling and unbounded energy meth provided. He tried it just once. Then again.
Debbie herself was worn down by their marital and financial stress and long work hours. Jeff induced Debbie to also try meth. “It makes you feel like Superman, like you can do anything,” he explained as they told me their story recently in their humble frame home in High Ridge. “You have a never ending energy supply and confidence. Everything seems good.”
Over the next two years Jeff and Debbie each maintained a $50 a day habit. They increasingly neglected their kids and their financial situation deteriorated further.
At that time the family was living in Ballwin, two blocks from a small church. Their son Eric, nine at the time, befriended the pastor’s son while out playing. Eric and his four-year-old sister, Emily, eventually began to walk to Sunday school each week. Often Eric and Emily would see Debbie crying after she and Jeff had a big fight. Once Emily told her, “You wouldn’t fight and be so sad if you would come to church.”
Still using meth, Jeff or Debbie would occasionally attend separately to placate their kids. They both felt the pastor’s messages about overcoming life’s obstacles spoke directly to them. “We were desperate, in a really bad place,” Debbie said. “We had inexplicable feelings of hope and peace when we were there.”
Then the bottom fell out. That summer Jeff failed a series of drug tests and lost his job. Already in debt and unable to keep up with their mortgage, their house was slated to be foreclosed a few days before Christmas. Debbie was terrified, not knowing who would take their kids if they became homeless.
Jeff said, “I was always critical of anybody who didn’t provide for their family. It was devastating. I was at the lowest point of my life.”
Crushed emotionally and financially, they shut off their cell phones, took the kids on a primitive campout in the Huzzah area and tried to get a grip on themselves. Over the next ten days of isolation they began to detox. I asked what that was like.
“Sleeping off most days,” Debbie explained. “We’d been running on one or two hours of sleep for two years. And depression. And the guilt. Suddenly you realize what you’ve done, how you’ve damaged your family.”
With moist eyes and her voice quivering, Debbie said she engaged in agonizing apologies to God for what they had done and pleaded not to lose their children. “I don’t care if you put us in a shack in the woods as long as we’re together,” she prayed. Meanwhile Jeff engaged in his own process of soul cleansing.
Though they were not completely on the same page Jeff said, “We came back from Huzzah in a different frame of mind.” Debbie insisted they go to church but Jeff was reluctant. “I was not going to become one of those happy, happy church people,” he told me.
Still beset by addictive cravings, upon Debbie’s insistence she and Jeff visited one of the church’s weekly small groups which was studying the Bible-based, best selling book, Purpose Driven Life. At the first meeting Jeff divulged, “I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I don’t know if I believe this stuff. But I’m interested. You still want me to stay?”
After some time, Jeff and Debbie both did what neither would have previously anticipated—they each embraced, by faith, grace in Jesus Christ. That began a long process of overcoming the shame for what they had done.
Debbie said, “Sometimes living with guilt will drive you right back to where you were. But if God can forgive me, I can forgive myself.” She described Jeff’s consequent, gradual changes. “He became more loving and patient with the kids, much calmer temperament, not so angry as in past years. He had been generally an angry person,” she said.
Through a series of events they now see as a strangely specific answer to Debbie’s desperate prayer, they were able to sell their house less than a week before it was to be foreclosed. With the meager proceeds, the only place they could afford to rent was a long vacant, rundown shack on wooded acreage complete with vegetation which had grown between cracks in the floor.
They moved in just in time to spend Christmas there, still together with their children.
Over the next few years Jeff and Debbie grew in their new faith, successfully battled the addictive draw of meth and experienced relational healing. Recovering financially, they eventually bought the home in which we were now talking. They were deeply grateful to God.
Then, in May of 2008, the bottom fell out--again.
Jeff was operating a fork lift for a roofing supplier. One day on a delivery site there was a severe accident in which Jeff suffered a broken neck. As a result he was on a ventilator and in a coma for nearly six weeks and in the hospital for months. From the beginning the doctors told Debbie that Jeff would be paralyzed from the neck down and would never get off the ventilator.
Jeff has indeed remained paralyzed. But when he was brought out of the coma and eventually removed from the ventilator contrary to expectations, it didn’t take long for Debbie to unload with him. “We were finally living right,” she complained. “Why did this happen to us? Why us?”
Jeff’s response shocked her. “Why not us?” he said. “Don’t you be angry, don’t be sad. I got you. We got great kids, a great church family. We’re gonna be ok. There’s a purpose. God has a plan for us.” With tears in her eyes, Debbie told me, “I was expecting him to be angry. He wasn’t. I experienced a tremendous release from fear.”
As we talked in their small living room five years after the accident, Jeff, 49, spoke from his electric wheel chair, alert and expressive. He is classified as a high functioning quadriplegic; “high functioning” because he has very slight use of his arms.
In spite of the daily hardships, he maintains there’s a purpose in it all. “Our purpose is we’re gonna help a lot of people. I don’t know how that’s all gonna come down,” he said.
Those who know Jeff and Debbie say their response to their circumstances has consistently inspired others. That seems to have begun while Jeff was still in rehab immediately after hospitalization. He interacted regularly with a female patient, an addict in her twenties who suffered extensive third degree burns while cooking meth. Jeff appeared to be instrumental in motivating her to get away from her addicted parents, enter rehab and try to start her life over.
Debbie tells of a nurse and technician they met during Jeff’s subsequent hospital stay due to complications in 2010. Surprised at the couple’s light hearted sense of humor, they asked Jeff and Debbie how they stay so happy in their situation.
As Jeff conveyed his faith in Christ and his sense of peace and purpose, the busy health care workers remained transfixed for 40 minutes, repeatedly silencing their beepers. The nurse, gazing at Jeff through tears said, “Thank you for sharing this with me. I needed to hear this today.” The technician, also in tears, said, “I’ve been away from God a long time. I’m going back. Can I tell my family your story?”
Then there was the return phone call from the hotel clerk in Branson. Debbie had left a message inquiring about the hotel’s handicap accessible rooms. The man on the phone became unusually inquisitive. “What bothers your husband most about his condition? How’s he cope with it? How old is he?” he asked. Debbie explained that they don’t feel alone in their struggles, that Christ gives them strength and courage to get through every day.
Before Debbie hung up, the clerk said quietly, “Mam, I’m really glad I called you today. Let’s just say I was feeling really down. I’m having a very hard time. You have no idea what you just did for me.”
Jeff has been invited to college classes to speak to therapists-in-training and has also been requested by therapists to mentor their patients who’ve suffered paralysis. Jeff and Debbie say they’ve met many paralyzed people who are depressed and consumed with bitterness. “The only way you cannot be bitter,” Debbie said, “is to accept the path God put you on.”
I gently asked Jeff if he thought God caused his accident and paralysis. He answered thoughtfully, “No, but he’s led all the way through it. He knew it was gonna happen. I don’t believe he caused it. He prepared us for it.”
Earlier in our conversation Jeff and Debbie’s daughter Emily, now 16, came home and plopped into a chair near us. We were interrupted a couple times by beeps from her digital game which her mom then told her to turn off.
I asked Emily about the impact on her and the family of her dad’s disability. “Close parking spots,” she said playfully.
On a serious note she confided, “I’m disappointed he can’t come in to meet my friends’ parents when my mom and dad drop me off at their house. My mom comes in but he can’t.” Emily says some of her friends have told her their mom would never have stood by their dad like her own mom has stood by hers.
To this Debbie replied, “We’re honored, setting an example for a generation who thinks marriage is just, ‘throw it away when you’re tired of it. Don’t try to make things better. Things are crappy, move on.’ That’s not marriage, you know. I think it’s a blessing, God using us to show these kids that love is love no matter what. And the greatest love I think comes from God. Everybody deserves a love like that.”
Jeff and Debbie don’t seem to think of themselves as too different from anybody else. “God takes situations in everybody’s life that can be used as a tool for him,” Debbie observed. “You just got to know how he wants you to use it. But if you don’t have a personal relationship with him, if you don’t sit back and listen to what he’s telling you, you’ll waste the opportunities.”
Before she left to see her friends Emily commented, “All my friends love my dad. They think he’s the coolest. They always want to come inside and say ‘hi’.” Then she went over to give him a warm, playful hug.
The scene reminded me of Jeff’s desire when he was a young man—a desire to be a different kind of dad than his father had been to him.