In the dark, early hours of a June morning, I woke to my husband’s odd breathing. With my eyes closed and still half asleep, I reached over to nudge him.
“It’s just a nightmare, Hon. It’s okay.”
This wasn’t the first time his breathing had awakened me. He was a notorious snorer. Typically, a nudge from me would wake him enough to turn over and start breathing quietly again, and then we’d both fall back asleep.
But that morning, he didn’t turn over. Did seconds tick by? A minute? I’m not sure, but as I became fully awake, I realized this was not like anything I’d heard before. I jumped out of bed, flipped on the overhead light, and knew immediately something was very wrong.
“Dan! Can you hear me?” I cried out, now hovering over him in the bed. Our four-year-old had come downstairs and crawled between us somewhere during the night, per usual, but I couldn’t stop to move her now. I swabbed my finger in Dan’s mouth to see if he was choking. I asked him questions, and when he didn’t respond, I went into crisis mode.
As God would have it, our upstairs air conditioner had broken the day before, and all but two of my children were asleep outside my door in the family room. They’d heard me cry out to Dan and were now in the room with me.
“Nick, call 911.” I began to give instructions. “Seth, go get Mr. Gillmore (our fireman neighbor). Rachel, take Annalise and Matt upstairs.”
When the 911 operator answered, I quickly relayed the situation and gave our address. She said to start resuscitation. “You’re going to have to walk me through this,” I said, kicking myself for not getting updated CPR training. We moved Dan off the bed and onto the carpet. Nick held the phone on speaker while the emergency operator gave instructions. I placed my hands on Dan’s chest and began counting. Then I stopped, covered Dan’s mouth with mine, and gave two quick breaths.
As I counted chest compressions, my mind reeled, trying to make sense of what was taking place. There is no way I am giving CPR to my husband, the rock of our family, the man I just kissed goodnight a couple of hours ago! But I was.
Dan and I had met at youth group in seventh grade. He was Danny then, a tall, lanky surfer with a thick mop of khaki-colored hair. By high school, we were good friends, part of a group of guys and girls that hung out at lockers between classes, met for lunch, and spent Saturdays together at the beach.
One night, Dan brought a guest to youth group. She had white-blond hair down to her waist, and that’s when I decided I’d had enough of this friend stuff. I put out the word that if Danny Appelo asked me out, I wouldn’t say no. It worked. Within a week, we had our first date.
We dated through high school and into college. We got married our junior year of college and went on to grad school. We started our careers, bought our first house, and began our family. Dan wanted two kids; I wanted three. When it was all said and done, we had seven and were forever grateful that God had overruled both of us.
Life in a busy household of nine was full and certainly not problem free. We had marriage issues and parenting struggles, difficult financial tests, and hard seasons with his work and mine. Our life wasn’t extravagant or fancy, but its sweet and ordinary goodness was everything either of us could have wanted.
So on that dark morning in June when I found myself counting out chest compressions on the only man I’d ever dated, I told Dan we loved him. If it was the last thing he heard, if he could still hear, I wanted him to know.
Within minutes, the paramedics arrived and took over. They put Dan in the ambulance, still unconscious, and I went upstairs to see our children before following. I’ll never forget walking into the boys’ room and seeing my children huddled together, crying. Everything in me wanted to reassure them that Daddy would be okay, but as the words formed on my tongue, I realized I couldn’t promise that. And so I did the only thing I could: I prayed with them. Then I hugged them and told them I would come home.
I arrived at the ER, and knew immediately it wasn’t good. They took me back to the room where you never want to go. There, a kind ER doctor gently told me they had tried everything but had been unable to revive Dan.
I went back to see him one last time. To kiss him and memorize every feature of the face I had loved for 26 years. I slipped off his wedding band and headed home in a mix of fogged shock and gut-wrenching pain, to tell seven children their dad would never come home again.
In those moments, I realized more about what marriage is than I ever had before. Genesis 2:24 says a husband and wife “become one flesh.” We were one, all right, and part of me had been ripped away. Our hopes, dreams, arguments, make-ups, children, struggles, hurts, and life together had stitched us into one. Now, tomorrow’s plans, next week’s list, the dreams we’d held for our family—they lay shattered in a thousand irreparable pieces.
What do you do when life as you know it falls apart?
I’ve never asked God why, but I sure have asked what now. What about my youngest daughter who was four years old, who cried every day for over a year that she missed her daddy and who would have no real memories of him? What about our six-year-old, who played like any other little boy during the day but cried himself to sleep each night? How was I going to raise three tween and teen boys who needed their six-foot-three dad to help them navigate to manhood? How in the world was God going to fix eight broken hearts?
I was utterly dependent on God in every possible way. Yet as much as I hated the circumstance that had brought me there, I realized that being utterly dependent on God was the best place to be. Because God can only ever be faithful.
Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In the months following Dan’s death, I clearly felt God’s presence around me. Prayer was no longer consigned to my morning quiet time; it was an all-day conversation.
God brought scripture I had memorized years before to my mind and applied it just when I needed it. He gave me new insights into old Bible stories that felt tailored just for me. He gave me just the right words to speak to my children. For the first time, I could feel the prayers of others for us.
A couple weeks after Dan’s memorial service, I went out for a run to work out some pent-up anxiety. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. I was navigating stacks of paperwork and estate work, managing the house and finances, making countless decisions, single parenting, dealing with grief, shepherding my children through theirs, and facing a scary, unknown future.
That afternoon, I stopped running and cried out to God, “I need You to lead me clearly. I need You like the Israelites needed the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. I know You can do this.” And in that moment, the Holy Spirit affirmed that if I stayed in the Word, He would lead me.
You’d better believe, I took Him up on it. God’s Word became my very food. Every morning, I’d get my kids started on the day and then get by myself for time in God’s Word. I’d open a new page in my journal and write at the top in all caps: This is too hard, Lord. I cannot do this.
And then I’d turn to that day’s reading. I didn’t hunt for certain verses. Dan had been reading through the Bible in a year, and I picked up that reading plan. Every day, without fail, whether I was reading in Leviticus or Habakkuk or Luke, God lifted my head. He reminded me of His character and His promises, His faithfulness to every person and in every generation.
Every morning, I took Him my grief, despair, fear, and weakness, and He gave me His comfort, strength, and enough hope to show up for my kids and that day’s tasks. It wasn’t enough for the whole week. Like the daily manna that God gave Israel in the desert, it was enough for that day. I had to go back the next day for more.
Eight years ago, I could only trust that God’s promises were true—circumstances were screaming something very different. I had to trust that God is the defender of the widow, the father to the fatherless, even though I couldn’t see it (Psalm 68:5).
Now, I can tell you story after story of God’s faithfulness. I could share how He’s provided for us practically and personally. I could relay how He’s loved us through people in our church, through neighbors and family. I could tell you how He’s guided me in decisions, given wisdom for single parenting, and sustained me in loneliness. I could tell you big things God’s done—things that have brought tears and made us stand in awe at how He works. And I could tell you details of how God’s ordained for things so personal only He and I knew them.
None of us wants the kind of hard situations that make us utterly dependent on God. But God has so much for us there. We see more of Him in hard seasons than we ever do on easy days. We realize what matters and what doesn’t, and we loosen our grip on this world and focus on the hope of heaven. We learn that, when hearts are broken open, they’re able to be reshaped by God to look more like Christ.
I’ll be honest—there are days when single parenting is overwhelming; I’m doing alone what used to be done by two. I see the gap my children have without a father and, though the pain is no longer raw, we will forever miss Dan. But I’ve also found that being utterly dependent on God is the best place to be.
I know God is faithful. It’s not whether He chooses to be faithful. No. Faithfulness is God’s very character. It’s who He is. He can be nothing else.