My husband, Jim, and I strolled down the boardwalk toward the roller coaster. We had promised our grandsons a ride. Soon, the boys were whipping above us in a sound mix of merry-go-round calliope and about a million squealing children. It’s a wonder I heard my phone.
“Maureen, where are you?”
“Ocean City, New Jersey. Who is this?”
“Jessica from the transplant clinic. Can you leave right now and drive straight to the hospital? We have a heart for you.”
“Yes! We are on our way!”
Ten years earlier, chemotherapy for breast cancer had damaged my heart, and medications had become less effective over time. First, I got by with a pacemaker, then an implanted defibrillator, and finally, I had been scheduled for a heart pump called a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD).
The thought of being plugged into a wall overnight, being unable to get the device wet, and dealing with flashing lights and batteries was a bit unnerving. I am a klutzy person—I was terrified I would kill myself by accidentally pulling the wires out of my body during my sleep.
The only other alternative was a heart transplant, but that seemed impossible. Very few people receive hearts. Besides, I was 69, I have blood type B (only 8 percent of the general population has B), and I was a woman with a small chest cavity. The size of the heart is critical; it can’t be too big or too small. My only viable option seemed to be the LVAD, so I had agreed to have the surgery after our Labor Day vacation.
And then came that call. It was as unexpected as a UFO landing! God showed me that nothing is impossible for Him.
All I could think about in the car on the way to Washington Hospital Center was that, somewhere, a devastated family was saying goodbye to their loved one. I imagined the donor’s family would not be happy to hear that a grandmother was getting their daughter’s heart. Surely, they’d prefer her heart to go to a younger, more deserving patient. I hoped that one day I’d be able to express my gratitude to them. Those thoughts, however, were quickly ushered to the back of my mind as the doctors wheeled me into the operating room.
On September 8, 2011, five days after my transplant, I awoke to unbearable pain. I tried to call for help but I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even get enough air to form words. From a place near the ceiling above the door, I looked down and saw myself dead.
Internal bleeding had caused my left lung to partially collapse. In an emergency surgery, the doctors reopened my chest and removed a large blood clot, along with two liters of fluid in my chest cavity. I survived, but only by the grace of God.
During my earlier bout with breast cancer, Jim had begun to seek God. He had prayed earnestly for my healing, and when God touched me in undeserved ways, Jim had become a believer.
The change God’s love made in the man I’d been married to for decades was undeniable, and it drew my attention to the Lord. Before long, I’d surrendered my life to Jesus too. Now, through this heart transplant, God was giving me a second chance at life, and I wasn’t going to waste it. I promised myself and Him that I would be a better person this go around and that I would be more thankful for life’s most basic gifts.
Grateful to God, Jim and I led Christ-centered lives. We went to church, volunteered, served, told others about God, and prayed. We did all the things Christians are “supposed to do.” And yet, the very worst thing I could imagine happened.
My true heart condition came to light when our son chose a lifestyle that I did not want him to have. He was an educated adult, living on his own, and employed most of the time. That’s all good, but he gambled. It was his career, and I disapproved. I was dead set against it; and I made sure he knew it.
I wanted Joe to be married and settled and raising my grandchildren. I had this vision of who my son should be, and I resented Joe for not meeting my standards. It wasn’t long before Joe cut his father and me entirely out of his life. He even stopped coming home on holidays. He called only when he needed money.
I wish I could say I handled the situation with a Christ-like manner, but I did not. I am more than ashamed by the lack of love and kindness I displayed. It became obvious that I needed a new spiritual heart, not just a physical one. I needed God’s love to soften my heart of stone that tended to complain, judge, and control others. I needed Him to transform it into a gentle, kind, and trusting heart (Ezekiel 36:26).
Pride and stubbornness fueled my anger. I was confident I was right. I was always right. The funny thing is, in our house, Jim always thought he was right too, and so did Joe. We each looked at life through dirty lenses that showed everything according to our own selfish desires.
As many families do, we had studiously avoided talking about some important things like addictions, anger, and repeated familial behaviors. They were our proverbial elephants in the room, but we kept walking around them until they trampled us.
Instead of honestly evaluating who we were and where we had come from, we kept perpetuating our bad behaviors. We made excuses for our decisions, self-medicated, and blamed others for our circumstances and weaknesses. Thank goodness for the grace of God that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
And then Joe called. He was living in Las Vegas and had multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. He needed help. We’d tried to help him previously, but he had distanced himself from Jim and me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through all that again.
We learned later that Joe was being evicted from his apartment and that his car had been repossessed. I had sensed desperation when he asked to come home, but I’d had no idea of the depths of his hopelessness. So I chose not to respond to his pleas. I didn’t know how to fix his situation, so I did nothing.
Instead, I waited for God to change Joe. I went to counseling, where I soon discovered that God wanted to change me. He wanted me to trust Him and quit trying to control my son and every outcome in life.
One night, in desperation, I came to that moment of trust. “You have to help me, God,” I cried. “I have no idea how to help my son. God, You were there when he was created. You were there when he was born, and You have been there for every moment of his life. You love him more than I do, and he is as much Your son as he is mine. I don’t know what else to do, God. I’m giving Joe back to You.”
Suddenly, I remembered how God had tested Abraham’s loyalty and love by instructing him to bring his son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there (Genesis 22). Abraham didn’t know what would happen, but he trusted God with Isaac’s life. So I prayed and told God that I trusted Him with Joe’s life.
That night, I dreamed I was walking up a mountain. Everything around me was dusty; even the rocks were the color of desert sand. Then I heard a small voice, like a whisper, saying, “Unto death?”
The question stopped me cold. Who would be asking that? Surely not God. But that same small voice asked again, “Unto death?”
“Yes!” I answered. “Even unto death. I promise, God; I will never second-guess You again.” Proverbs 3:5 came to mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
Suddenly, everything went impenetrably dark, and then, an internal explosion jolted through my body. I was buffeted around like a flag in a hurricane. It was as if every cell of my body was on fire separately and simultaneously. I was sure I would die before I could wake up.
Fighting for my life, I struggled to yell, and I tried to push Jim, but I couldn’t. I woke up twisting and moaning. I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand or walk, but I had no trouble getting out of bed. I seemed to be okay. What in the world?
I told Jim we had to go to Urgent Care. Something was wrong. I wasn’t about to risk another night like the one I’d just survived! The doctor, however, couldn’t find any medical explanation for what had happened, and, hours later, sent us home.
On the way back, the display on my phone lit up. It said, “Unknown Caller.”
“It’s just a telemarketer,” I thought. “I won’t answer.” I fumbled to silence the phone but accidentally answered instead.
A voice asked, “Is this Maureen Hooker?”
“Are you the mother of Joseph Patrick Hooker?”
“Yes.” I put the phone on speaker, and Jim pulled off the road.
An officer identified himself and proceeded to tell me that my son had called 911 that morning at 10:55 to report a shooting in his apartment. By the time they got there, Joe had shot himself. He was gone. Jim and I sat there, stunned.
It’s hard to describe the pain of the next few months. Time was suspended in a daily fog of guilt and self-incrimination. Surely there was some way I could have prevented Joe’s death. What if Jim and I had told him about our family issues instead of avoiding them? What if we had talked about the generational gambling in Jim’s family and the fact that both his father and his grandfather had committed suicide? What if we’d explained to Joe why we were so against his choices. Would my son still be alive?
Months later, I discovered the paperwork from my urgent care visit. In the havoc that followed Joe’s death, I had forgotten about that. Then the words “unto death” came to mind, and I remembered Proverbs 3:5. I suddenly remembered the dream and that strange physical wrestling and pain. Had I experienced some of the turmoil my son had been going through that night? Maybe. I am not sure.
But what I do know is that God spoke those words and gave me that verse just hours before my son took his life. “Trust Me, Maureen,” He was saying, “even though life is headed in a direction you don’t want to go. Trust Me, even though you won’t have all the answers to your questions. Trust Me, even if this situation ends in death. Lean into Me, and I will carry you.”
It’s been three years since Joe’s death, and this momma’s heart still aches for her son. I continue to question myself, and I still wrestle with guilt at times. Survivors of suicide victims often encounter debilitating guilt for years. But I’ve also given my questions and guilt to God and, as I trust Him, He has given me peace and even joy. What a great exchange! He takes my burdens and gives my heart and mind rest. He truly is the Savior of my soul.
You can have rest and be free of guilt, too. “Come to Me,” Jesus says in Matthew 11:28–29, “And I will give you rest.”
And He will—but the key to God’s rest is found in Proverbs 3:5—trusting God, His love, His heart, and His plan for you and your loved ones—even “unto death.”
The faithful love of God will not fail you.