I don’t know how we made it to Knoxville. My husband Jim & I were driving down from Milwaukee to house-sit for family who live here. About the time we hit Lexington, I got a chilling phone call from a friend of our daughter Jill & her husband Dennis: ‘You need to call Dennis.’ It was clear there was very grave news we needed to know, so I called Dennis, who confirmed our worst fears: Jill was dead. Our first child. Mother of eight children; home schooled them all (her youngest was 12). Jill was only 56. A brain aneurysm had taken her. Jim & I cried all the way to Knoxville. Her death was such a shock. Jill had been in the hospital recently to have a knee issue treated, but it looked like she was in the clear. She had even battled sepsis successfully. What happened? She called Dennis from the rehab facility, saying she was in pain everywhere. He rushed to the facility, where they were finally able to sedate her. He slept in a chair by her side and when he awoke in the morning, she was gone. The aneurysm probably wasn’t connected to her previous medical issues. I’m 89 now, Jill’s death was more than 12 years ago, and it’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Jill was just an all-loving, devoted mom. And she was always gracious toward me. Many times I apologized to her: ‘I made a lot of mistakes with you because you were the first.’ Unfailingly, ‘No, Mom’ was her response. She died in May 2011, and the last time we saw her was Thanksgiving a few months earlier. She, Dennis, & the family ended up staying an extra week because a car issue popped up. In hindsight, that was such a blessing from God. We had a lot of quality time together; there was nothing left unsaid between us when Jill died. I’d actually been wondering, every time we parted, if it would be the last time we saw each other. But that was because I knew, at my age, my own death might not be far off; that God would take Jill first was never a thought. Her funeral was beautiful. Jill’s children, who did everything in pairs, walked down the aisle two-by-two; a moving tribute to the mother who loved them so well.
I didn’t understand why God took Jill when He did (I still don’t). But though I didn’t understand, I also didn’t doubt or waver in my faith. Part of the reason might’ve been that Jim and I were driven immediately to prayer for our son-in-law & grandchildren; they -and we- were going to need to feel God’s strength to get through. It also helped to know I would see Jill again. But God had also been preparing my soul for this trial over the course of several decades, going all the way back to my time at Harrison Tech High School in Chicago. That was where I met Jim. He was a senior, I was a junior. His mom told him he needed to find someone to take to prom or she’d go with him! So one day in the lunchroom, he found himself looking at two girls: he said one was pretty, the other had a nice figure. He chose pretty, and that was how we started going together. I began attending church with him, heard the gospel, and got saved. I guess you could say this was sort of a whirlwind period of life. Jim was truly the All-American boy: a football star who wanted to be an engineer. I thought being married to an engineer sounded pretty good! So we got married at 18. But the engineer part didn’t work out. While he was serving in the Army at Fort Bragg, Jim felt the call to ministry. There was an emergency at church one Sunday, so the church asked Jim to get up and preach. He gave a 10-minute sermon. From there he started spending more time around our pastor, doing visitation and other things. He really loved the work and started pursuing pastoral ministry. I wasn’t happy about it at all. I didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife. And during our first pastorate, in Chicago, I really struggled at first. Tried to please everyone. Bad idea. Thankfully, I ended up talking to another pastor’s wife who gave me great advice: ‘Be yourself.’ Well, that was the key: realizing I could be a pastor’s wife and still be myself, not whoever I thought of as the perfect pastor’s wife. My discontentment washed away. I was happy because Jim was happy.
God really did use my struggle with being a pastor’s wife to grow me in my faith. His presence in my life just became a given. He gave Jim & me 50 wonderful years in pastoral ministry; 10 in Chicago, then 40 in Milwaukee. Our churches were small congregations; less than 200. (At one of them, a man came up one Sunday and warned us the service needed to be over by noon. He wasn’t kidding- the Packers were playing!) We had four beautiful children, including Judy Randazzo- she, Juan, and their son Jonathan & his family are longtime CSPC members. They’re the reason we started making visits to Knoxville and ended up moving here in 2019. Jim was long retired and facing serious health challenges, so Juan & Judy graciously set aside space in their home just for us. Jim had battled kidney failure for 15 years. (The Lord gave him extra time in the mid-2000s when, after intense prayer, a kidney donor came forward to save Jim’s life; Jim had led the donor- a young man- to the Lord years earlier!) By the time we moved to Knoxville, Jim’s unraveling health meant he required a lot of care- carrying his oxygen around, monitoring his medications, things like that. (He always apologized to me for having to take care of him. I told him, ‘You’d do the same for me. That’s what marriage is all about.’) One night, about a month after we’d moved here, I started writing down my caretaking routine for Jim, just in case something happened to me. Judy came up and asked: ‘Why?’ I admitted I was feeling a little light-headed. So she took me to urgent care, where they determined I was on the verge of a heart attack. What better place to be, right? The treatment for that also led to the discovery that I was battling colon cancer. Over the next year or so, I went through two cancer surgeries: both required four-day hospital stays. I feel good now (though I hardly have a colon left!) and if the cancer returns, I’d just rather not know. I’ve been ready to meet the Lord for some time; to see Jim & Jill again. Jim’s lungs failed about four months after our move to Knoxville and God took him. Now he & Jill are happier than they’ve ever been. I can rest in God and be content knowing that.
As if losing Jill & Jim and facing my own health challenges weren’t enough, there’s now a fresh sorrow: my 23-year-old great-granddaughter Gwen has just stepped into the arms of Jesus. Gwen bravely battled leukemia since November 2022. She was in remission, entering the ‘maintenance’ phase of treatment, and feeling so good she went to visit a friend for the weekend in early October. (Since last November, she’d only been in the hospital or home for short visits). Sunday morning of that weekend, Gwen’s friend was unable to awaken her. Shattering, just shattering. As so much of the last 12 years has been. Yet I’ve never asked, ‘How much more can God give me?’ or anything like that. I’ve never questioned him. I’m grateful to Him- I know His goodness. I see it all the time here at CSPC, especially in my Saints Alive Sunday school class. This group of people has meant everything to me! I’ll never forget my first Sunday- it felt awkward walking in alone. But Dr. Tom Kim put me right at ease, getting me a name tag and sitting beside me the whole time. That’s very typical of our class- people know each other and work to show they care. They were such prayers warriors for Gwen. I love plugging in and helping where I can: serving ice cream at VBS, writing our class newsletter, and especially sending notes of encouragement. Don’t overlook the value of an encouraging note! I learned it many years ago at a church Jim & I were serving. The service had wrapped up for the day, and I was cleaning out items left behind. What a joy to stumble upon a surprise in one young man’s Bible! Several years earlier I’d written him a quick note telling him how encouraged I was by his progress in the faith. Would you believe he still had that note in his Bible?! So I spend a lot of time writing notes of encouragement now, something I couldn’t always do when I was younger. At 89, I know how much people need God’s encouragement. He’s never stopped encouraging me. Even in the hard times, my prayer is that God will grow me in some way. And He has. From struggling young pastor’s wife to grieving great-grandmother, the story of my life is that you can rest in God.