words by: Ferree Hardy
My phone blinked, reminding me that someone had left a message on a sunny Sunday afternoon, April 2016. My heart sank when I listened. “This is Jane,” my friend stated. “Call me when you get this.” Normally gracious and happy, she sounded flat and strained. I immediately knew what had happened. Only two weeks earlier, I’d spent the weekend with Jane and her husband, Tom. I presented a seminar on widowhood at their church in North Carolina where Tom served on the pastoral staff. This wasn’t supposed to happen! Not to Jane; not now.
I braced myself, called, and wept with her over the phone. They’d gone out for their usual exercise run at 6 o’clock that morning before church started. During the run, Tom collapsed. He died before Jane could call 911, start CPR, or say goodbye.
Ironically, when Tom had seen his cardiologist weeks earlier, the doctor had told him, “You’re easily ten years physically younger than your biological age. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” But the autopsy showed 100% blockage in the major artery—some call it “the widow-maker.”
With over four decades in ministry, Tom and Jane Zempel had walked through many crises with other families. They’d seen their own, too: Tom had major heart surgery in 2000, and Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. In 1974, their son Ben was born with Down syndrome. October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month, so I asked Jane about her experience with widowhood and Down syndrome together.
Fifty years ago, childbirth was quite different. Parents did not know their baby’s gender or possible health concerns beforehand. Ultrasounds and prenatal tests were not routine. A father attending the birth was a new thing. So, Tom felt privileged to hold their first son, Jonathan, immediately at birth and to share the joyous moment with Jane. The same happened when daughter Amy, their youngest, was born. But when Ben was born, Tom was whisked out of the delivery room. Two nurses attended to Ben with concerned looks, whispers, and nods between them. The doctor quickly exited. And Jane, herself a medical technician who’d seen many newborns, read what was going on. Frightened, she sat up and asked, “What’s wrong?” The nurses hesitated and then rolled Benjamin’s Isolette® closer to her. She recognized that Ben’s features, especially his eyes, indicated Down syndrome. They’d have to wait several excruciating hours for the official diagnosis.
“I’ve got to talk to Tom,” she blurted out. She was cautioned not to upset him. At the news, Tom’s face registered shock and heartbreak. “We took turns handling it really well—or crashing. We cried together, prayed, and reminded each other of Romans 8:28.” …All things work together for good to those who love God…
Although they took turns supporting each other through the initial adjustments, Jane credits Tom with the steadier understanding that God would help them. He often reassured her with his faith that God was in control. But Jane felt herself pull back. “Dreams died and questions crashed in,” she told me. An admitted perfectionist and impatient person, she wondered if God had made a mistake. “God, I thought You knew me better than this!” was her honest cry. “You know I don’t have any patience. Why would you give me this child?”
But now, she can say with deep gratitude, “I needed Ben in my life.”
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Ferree Hardy has helped thousands of widows through her book, “Postcards from the Widows’ Path,” small groups, speaking, and personal coaching, but touching one life at a time is what matters most to her. She holds a BA from Moody Bible Institute, and was a pastor’s wife in Ohio for over twenty years before her first husband died. She’s happily remarried now, and her readers know that moving seems to have become a hobby for her. But she also enjoys backyard chickens, aims to read fifty books a year, and loves to bake. Learn more by visiting her blog.