The late summer sun streams on us in Judy’s garden room. It is an unusually quiet moment. Her five children, ages five to eighteen, are at school. She was in what we call “The Season:” the week of her husbands death. While each day of this week will be marked in her mind by the events of two years ago, evidence spills all around us of lives that must go on. Stickies on the refrigerator, stacks of school papers that must be noted, signed, and dates transfered to the calendar. Parenting does not allow ‘time outs’ to go back and treasure each moment of Darrell’s presence that last week. With athletic children and commitments to school and church involvement, Judy’s challenge is, on some days, her salvation--a reason, no, the necessity of getting out of bed and hitting the floor running.
“The Season” (the first two weeks of September 2005) was marked by the beginning of a new school year, two children in high school, two in elementary, and a three year old. Darrell Stremler had battled cancer for 19 months. In fact, there seemed to be a time of healing where more years of life seemed to be on the horizon. But that was not to be. At age 45 Darrell stood face to face with the greatest love of his life, his Lord; and Judy, age 43, began her season of parenting alone.
But lets go back to October 11, 1980. Darrell and Judy met on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Attending Calvin was an expectation in both families. While both expected to earn degrees, for Darrell it was just a beginning. He planned on devoting at least seven years solely to his education. Meeting a vivacious, blue-eyed blond at this age was not in the plan. The night of their first meeting Judy said to her roommate, “Do you think I should marry him?” A definite connection could not be denied, though others saw Darrell as academic and Judy as fun-loving. In her own words, she said she needed to convince him that she was “more than meets the eye,” the one with whom he wanted to raise children and live a full life.
In Judy’s words, when Darrell first realized she was the one he wanted to spend his life with, ‘it scared the gajibbies out of him.’ (Don’t look for the definition of ‘gajibbies’ in the dictionary. Your heart knows what they are!) In the course of their courtship, Darrell broke up with Judy twice. She simply told him they were both too stubborn to keep returning to the relationship after a break up. From that time on, they were committed to each other. As their relationship grew, as was the custom in their faith, he approached her father for permission to marry her.
He planned graduate school, and with his focus and abilities, no one questioned that his goals would be accomplished. They would marry after he completed law school. Judy’s father did not see waiting as a good plan. They were committed to each other, so why not share the experience? At ages 20 and 23, one year before Judy’s graduation, they married on May 28, 1983 and moved to New York City for Darrell to attend Columbia University Law School.
Judy remembers those years as six newly wed years. They enjoyed the city, each other, and a bright future. With his law degree, they returned to Chicago, and Judy completed her degree from Calvin. Later, Darrell added another graduate degree, a Masters in business administration from University of Chicago. They were to enjoy 16 more vibrant years together, years of work, parenting, building a foundation in their children, and serving others as well. In hind sight, Judy observes that their practice of praying together was God’s tender mercy equipping her for these days.
Darrell believed strongly in physician-led healthcare which resulted in his developing a large, successful organization, the DuPage Medical Group. During its fast paced expansion, Darrell, as Chief Executive Officer, began to not feel like his energetic self. This involved husband and dad was also serving Timothy Christian School, Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church, and Koinonia House National Ministries, a post prison ministry. Judy remembers vividly the tests and hearing what they revealed. Having access to the finest of doctors did not change the reality of his diagnosis. Darrell had colon cancer metastasized to his liver. The next 19 months were marked by intensive treatment, apparent healing, and reoccurrence. Jesus walked intimately with them both, and each experienced enormous spiritual growth individually and in their marriage during those months. On September 10, 2005, Darrell’s Great Physician decided his faithful servant had suffered enough and opened heaven’s doors to welcome him home.
Judy and her children moved through the services, and the dedication of the new medical facility Darrell had planned. They also participated in a celebration that few ever experience. The inmates, mostly ‘lifers,’ at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana, lead a memorial service which celebrated Darrell’s life and love for them as as only soul singing, God loving, incarcerated men can do.
I did not know Judy then, but through the post prison ministry of Koinonia House National Ministries and our mutual bond of widowhood, we discovered we had much in common. Having started Widowconnection.com, I asked if I could share her story. Her firm resolve, her faith in her Maker, her willingness to walk the walk on a journey she has not chosen, is a story that needed to be told. She agreed.
Our conversations have been a source of mutual comfort , but on this September afternoon of 2007, the clock is relentless and the school bus will soon end my time to hear her story. We step out into her garden, breathe deeply to revive our senses, and continue.
“What was your first year like,” I asked?
“I thought about Darrell all the time! I thought about him every time I made a decision. That surprised me. When he was here, did I think about him all the time? I don’t think so. I was madly in love with him. We worked hard on our relationship. But I didn’t think about him all the time. Occasionally I’ve been able to tell him that I’m resentful. Resentful that he is not here! We were supposed to do this together. I know you suffered, but you got out of half the work!”
“He did so much, more than I ever realized before. For example, I did nothing about vehicle upkeep. Now I must decide if a repair and its’ costs are appropriate. I have not told the car dealership that Darrell is gone. Then I’ll feel even more vulnerable.”
“Have others helped you,” I asked?
“It’s hard to be gracious and accept help when you are a competent person.” One friend whose daughter shared the same sport and practice schedule as Judy’s daughter, drove her daughter to and from practices. “How can I ever repay you,” Judy asked? “Pay it forward,” was her friend’s reply. “Someone will come in your life later. You will be there for them.” How true! For many of us, we cannot repay those special kindnesses extended by our remaining friendship network. But our moment will come to be there for someone else.
Judy’s advice to those who want to help new widows is this--Keep asking. Her friend offered to do her laundry. Ever the sufficient mom, Judy said “‘No.” But her friend kept asking. “How about the ironing?”
Well, “Yes.” The family ironing was piling up.
Her friend persisted. “It’s easier to iron when clothes are just out of the dryer.”
Persistence paid off. Her friend picked up dirty laundry and delivered it clean and ironed for a year! For a family of six!
“How do friends know what to offer,” I asked?
Judy advises that you wait on the Lord and figure out what is your giftedness. Her friend’s giftedness was laundry. Don’t try to give the gift of what you are not good at. She also advises that you call and specifically ask, “What can I do for you this week?”
“How do I go to a parents’ meeting when I have 4 kids at the school? Who can ‘represent’ with you? Go and take notes. Come over and help your kids with homework. Meals? Kids like their own mom’s cooking. Will the kids be home? Who will eat the leftovers? That’s not always the best help. Gardening, weeding. Ask what needs to happen this week, that someone else can do.”
“Telling us to call anytime does not work. We are numb, we are grieving, we cannot reach for the phone. To ask us to initiate the call when we need something simply does not work.”
Every widow I have met concurs. The silent phone at our moment of need is a heavier weight than can be lifted.
The Stremler’s first family picture without Darrell is indeed beautiful. Smiling faces and and moving forward does not mean there is not pain.
The first year had much fun, and joy, as well as tears and sadness. Judy states that each of her children are so different. One, like Judy, could enter joy quickly, leave and be sad, and then go on with living. While others, wired up differently, took longer to ‘recover’ from feelings of sadness. Wisely, Judy knows them and allows them to be different, for them to be real with themselves.
One of her great recognitions on the eve of two years is the sense that there is no one else on this earth, who is committed to her children’s well being. Only one person could share that passion--the man with whom her babies were conceived.
“There was such security in knowing that Darrell always had my kids best interests at heart. If I was skewed or lost my perspective, there was always that other person. Committed, unconditionally, sacrificially, living, breathing for Me, and for those kids. And now I’m the only one, their number one advocate. Everyone else has their own focus.”
“Then you go to the verse, ‘I will be a father to the fatherless, a husband to the widow.’ I had a dream or vision, you might say, Jesus was in a tuxedo, and I was in my wedding dress. Jesus was carrying me across a thresh-hold, exhilarating, exciting, wish-filled, I did not see his face, but he had me, I felt him saying to me, ‘I’m your husband, you are where I want you to be. I will be with you in this house, raising these children, this is what I designed for you.’ Might not be my design, but its His.”
“I go to the verse, ‘Pour out your heart like water to the Lord, and lift up your hands on behalf of your children.’ (Lamentations 2:19, the theme verse for Moms in Touch) I go on to Lamentations 3: 21, 22, and 23. He has called me to be their mother, and He will give me what I need to be their mother, but not their God. ‘This I called to mind. . . great is your faithfulness.’
‘I’m getting to the place of saying not, ‘what is God going to do for me,’ but ‘what is He going to do with me?’ How is God going to work this out? Darrell was able to verbalize this to God in the presence of his children as they gathered around his bed. “I’m giving them back to You,” was Darrell’s bold statement of trust.
Judy states today with firm resolve, “This is our opportunity in history to experientially live, that God is who he says he is, to know that God is enough for us. If God is life, then death is, completely other than what He is. Death is almost in defiance of Him. God did not intend for us to die. Yet, precious is the death of God’s loved ones. In their moment of dying, He holds them closely in his heart.”
Judy summarizes her memories of ‘The Season.’ Two years have passed and still her voice is hoarse with emotion. “The Saturday after Labor Day he did not wake up. Every day you are are thinking of that whole process. Recognizing that the miracle is not happening. Still trying to have faith that God is going to give you what you asked for. Spiritual turmoil. You realize you must lay down his life.
Former Chicago attorney, Darrell Stremler, who was Chief Executive Officer of the DuPage Medical Group, died Sept. 10 at age 45 of cancer in his Oak Brook home. He was active in a prison ministry program organized by Koinonia House in Wheaton.
A 1986 graduate of the Columbia University Law School, Mr. Stremler received a master’s degree in business administration in 1994 from the University of Chicago.
He was associated with Mayer, Brown & Platt, Baxter International, and Caremark International before developing the physician-owned DuPage group in 1999.
“What is a day like now,” I asked?
6:30 am begins the check to make sure everyone has heard their alarms. Now 2 are in high school, one in junior high, one in grade school, and one in afternoon kindergarten. Next--lunches. 4 lunches and snacks, sometimes two sandwiches for the children in sports, and a snack for the youngest. They pick their snacks, and of course, all have their personal preferences for sandwiches. (No wonder Judy frequents Cosco regularly!) And then the commotion of catching the bus. She has made new ground rules after the first year. If you forgot it, the consequences are yours. After a year of much driving of left behind items, she decided things needed to change. Her rationale? If the teacher assigns it, they believe you can and will complete it, and are capable of turning it in.
And then there are the decisions of who will represent at all the events? Soccer, volleyball, basketball, golf, and tennis. Judy has new empathy for single parents, and both working parents.
I am impressed by her frankness with her children. “I do not try to be their mom and dad too. I’m their MOM.” She says she has told them, “God tells you He will give you what you need. And you don’t have a dad here now. I am only your Mom.”
She confidently states that her life today is not about her. “Its not about how strong I am in holding on to Him. He holds me fast. Its about Him. He won’t let me go. He is faithful when I struggle. All I have to do is fix my eyes on Him. And when I’m too tired to look up at Him, He cups my chin in his large gentle hand and lifts my head so I can fix my eyes again, on the One who has not failed me yet.”
I listen to this bold and strong woman today, and I recall her reminiscing about the early days when she and Darrell were contemplating doing life together.
Then “stubborn.” Now a woman of mature and firm resolve.
Then “married to the man she was madly in love with.” Now married to her Maker with visible evidence of the importance of that commitment in each decision she makes.
Then “More than meets the eye.” Now a woman not only rising to the occasion but moving forward with her faith not only in tact, but larger and more bold.
Those were her beginnings for this journey. And to this woman today--We salute you, Judy Stremler!
PART 2 OF JUDY STREMLER’S STORY