Dancing in the Minefields--One Woman's Faith Journey Through Child-Loss, Addiction, and Adversity


30 Sep
30Sep

Maribeth Ditmars

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”  (2 Corinthians 1:3)

We All Want God to Use Our Gifts, but We Have to Let Him Use our Suffering Too.

One summer day I had to ask myself this question: How do you tell a ten-year-old that he has cancer? My husband, Rob and I sat our son, Chris, down on the sofa in the family room to share the news. I remember glancing out of the sliding door that led to our pool deck. It was a beautiful June day and I could see the water toys scattered about, a super-soaker, an inflatable alligator, a few throw toys. But what struck me the most were the fingerprints on the glass slider.

Those handprints had a been placed there in rushed innocence, by the hands of a carefree little boy who had darted in and out while we called out “Shut the door—the air is on!” I swallowed hard as I gazed at those prints and smudges. Moments before, they had been annoying, now suddenly, they had become precious. They had become the fingerprints of a lost childhood.

This began my family’s four-year roller coaster ride into the world of pediatric cancer. A year battling for remission, two glorious years of relative health, and one final year struggling unsuccessfully to keep our Chris alive.

How do you tell a fourteen-year old that he’s dying? Well, in our case, we didn’t have to. Chris already knew. He took me aside and spoke softly, so his little brother, Jarrod, who was seven at the time, wouldn’t over-hear. Not only did Chris know before the doctors did, he had accepted it.

How is this possible? That a teenager, usually the most selfish and easily annoyed species that has ever roamed the planet, could be so stoic, so loving. It was possible because our Chris, in his short, powerful life, had learned 2 things. Two things that took me over five decades to learn. Two things that many people never learn.

Chris had learned to trust God, and he had allowed God to use him. Chris had claimed the promise of Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, that transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Let’s face it, we all want the Lord to use us, don’t we? We want him to use the good stuff—our talents, our successes. (Anyone ever prayed something like this?) Oh Lord, make my business successful so I can tithe huge gobs of money to the church. Here’s one of my favorites: Please make my books best-sellers so I can further your kingdom. After I wrote my first book, and my friend, Lisa, sent a copy to Oprah—I was sure that phone was going to ring! Not only did Oprah not call, her staff sent the book back, saying that they don’t accept unsolicited material.

God wants to use all of it, the good, the bad, the ugly. He wants to use our suffering. That’s exactly what Chris allowed Him to do. Despite his many months of grueling chemo, Chris spread laughter on a cancer ward. He told jokes. He did impersonations, and he never passed up the chance to tell us that he loved us.

Of course, there were many times when Chris felt extremely ill, and he wondered aloud why God allowed kids to get cancer. At the time, I wasn’t in the word, and I had no comforting scriptures to refer to. I had to admit, “I don’t know.” I still don’t know.

You see, until my brave 14-year old son stared eternity in the face, I had only been a nominal Christian. I had been raised in a household where we went to church on Sunday, but I had never understood what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. But Chris’s suffering made me a seeker.

I started speaking with pastors, chaplains, and clergymen. I learned that sin was not only in the hearts of humans, it had infected the entire world. One priest explained that cancer is the result of living in a fallen world. Chris and I discussed this at length, and he was able to accept it and realize that he wasn’t being punished. It’s like the story from John 9 when Jesus healed the blind man. The disciples said, “Rabbi, who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And do you remember what Jesus said? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” … “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” 

This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him—that is what the Lord did in my Chris’s life. Over those four years, we watched in awe as Chris’s body grew weaker—his spirit grew stronger. He went to be with the Lord about a month after he turned fourteen. On his deathbed he thanked Rob and me for being such good parents. He told us repeatedly how much he loved us. He smiled and reminded us of the nicknames that he had for us when he was little—Daddio-Spaghettio and Mommy Meatball. He pointed to his schoolbooks on a shelf and said, “I won’t be needing those where I am going.” As the hour drew near, Chris could only speak in a whisper. He said, “Jesus is going to call me really soon, Mom and Dad, and I have to go.”

Chris’s faith was life-changing for me. Up until then, I had been just going through the motions of being a Christian. Chris’s peace and his assurance of heaven had not come from anything that we had taught him. It was a divine gift from the Holy Spirit. The Lord used Chris’s suffering to wrench open my heart. I realized that God wasn’t healing Chris in the way that I had expected, but He was healing Chris for all of eternity. Or as Chris said, “When I get to heaven, I’m going to get my hair back and my six-pack.”

I’d like to be able to tell you that I went on to make uplifting speeches and to help other parents who had lost children, but I didn’t. During Chris’s treatment, I had come to rely more and more upon my false idol—alcohol. And before I knew it, I wasn’t drinking because I wanted to. I was drinking because I had to. 

That’s one of the important differences between an alcoholic and a nonalcoholic. Without help, we can’t stop. We obsess over alcohol. We plan our entire day around alcohol. And we aren’t always obvious. I still held down a job, and I didn’t wear a trench coat and carry a brown paper bag. 

Here’s another example. We have all had to take medicine that has a warning label about mixing it with alcohol. Well, the normal person, the normie as we call them, reads the label that says: “Do not drink while taking this medicine. Alcohol may intensify the effect.” So, then he says oh, I’ll skip that glass of wine with dinner. But the alcoholic—we read that same warning and we go YESSS (hand gesture).

So, the result of my addiction was that I was using alcohol to numb my grief. I had not tapped into the power of Jesus Christ. 

I’ll never forget the morning that I finally had a spiritual awakening. I was driving to work, and it was 8:30 in the morning. 8:30 AM and I was already bargaining with myself about how much I was going drink that day. At the time, I had this theory: Three drinks is the lady-like limit. You know—3 wishes, 3 wise men, 3 blind mice. 

But then I realized 2 things. First, I never really poured 3 drinks. It was just one long drink that I continually freshened up—you know, like the bottomless bucket of popcorn you get at the movies. Secondly, and even more important, it occurred to me that normal people do not think about this stuff at 8:30 in the morning!

It was in that beautiful moment that I surrendered. I looked up to the Lord, and I said, “It’s got me. Please help me.” You see, to allow God to use us fully, first, we must surrender. He can certainly use us without our cooperation, but if we are to become that person that God designed us to be, we must be fully surrendered. Chris had been fully surrendered. Chris had discovered how to have a true relationship with Jesus.

Not long after I surrendered, I became active in a twelve-step program. Out of respect for its highly successful tradition of anonymity, I don’t name the program, but it has worked for me for the past 16 years. 

Once I began doing the steps, I realized how Biblically based they are, and I threw myself into the process whole-heartedly. Now a number of years later, I have had the high honor and privilege of mentoring other women struggling with addiction. 

For several years, I ran a recovery meeting at a women’s department of correction facility. When I walked in there for the first time, it looked like a room full of inmates. It didn’t take long for the Lord to open my eyes. Soon I was seeing, moms, daughters, wives, grand-moms, sisters. 

In Mark 2:17 Jesus says, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

I began to see my alcoholism as a gift. It is a gift because it has allowed me to minister to these women. We share a common suffering, and I get to bring to them a common solution—the power of Jesus. Not long ago a woman approached me. I’ll call her Joan. She said, “Maribeth, do you remember me? I was at the jail where you used to do your meeting. I have a good job now, and I haven’t had a drink in three years.” 

When I was doing my meetings in that prison, I told the women the story of how I ran marathons to raise money for cancer research in memory of my Chris. When I was in my forties and early fifties, I ran 7 distance events all over the world and raised $40,000 for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I shared my running motto with them, “The older I get, the faster I used to be.”

When the women heard my story, it inspired them to organize their own relay. They plotted a track on the facility grounds, made t-shirts, and walked and even danced in memory of their loved-ones—some lost to cancer, many lost to addiction. They had teams that decorated their water stations with different themes. I remember my favorite one was called “Twisted Sisters”. The energy and the atmosphere was more like a college campus than a DOC facility. I looked up to heaven and said, “Chris, look what you started!”

Who would have thought that my son’s short, powerful life would have a positive impact on these precious children of God? Lord had taken our currency of suffering and exchanged it for grace. You see, when we allow the Lord to use our suffering in this way, our suffering becomes sacred. Our Chris didn’t make a global impact with his suffering, but I believe whole-heartedly that he fulfilled the unique role that out Lord intended for him.

This thought gave me comfort as we adjusted to life without Chris. We didn’t get over it. You never get over the loss of a child. Now our hearts forever beat with a limp. We still had our other two children, Erin, who was 18 when Chris died, and Jarrod who was seven. 

Erin had been 14 when Chris was diagnosed so her entire high school experience had been overshadowed by Chris’s cancer. Erin was a good kid who was very involved in dancing, so we were grateful that she had that outlet.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was during those years that Erin tried drugs for the first time. While we were distracted with Chris and learning to numb ourselves with alcohol, our beautiful daughter began dancing with the devil. She hid it for a long time, got married, had two kids, then got divorced. 

After her divorce she and our older granddaughter moved in with us. The younger one went to live with her Dad and his Mom. Not long after they moved in with us, Erin lost her job. She was depressed and sleeping all the time. I started taking over the parenting role of our little Saradi, who was 6 at the time.

One day, I was putting away laundry and I walked into their room to put it away. I opened a drawer and found drug paraphernalia. Suddenly, it all made sense. We had been suspicious, and we had questioned Erin, but she had an answer for everything. Perhaps you’ve heard this saying: Do you know how to tell if an addict is lying? Their lips are moving.

We gave Erin 10 days to find a new place to live, and we told her that Saradi was staying with us. She didn’t argue. I think she was relieved. She knew that no one else could take better care of her precious daughter. So, there I was, a sober woman of grace taking care of a beautiful little girl. I think I was a better mom to Saradi, than I had been to Erin. We had Saradi for several years while her mom slowly got better. What a blessing that time was.

Saradi thrived at school and in the youth group at church. When we rode to school in the morning we would pray together. Saradi and Jarrod became like brother and sister, and we had laughter in the house again. Erin went to rehab, and slowly got better. We made her earn our trust back, and over time, we gradually released Saradi back to her. First, it was supervised visits at our house, then it was an overnight, then a weekend and so on. My own personal struggle with addiction had positioned me perfectly for the role I was playing. I am happy to say that today our Erin is drug-free and successful.

Our second son, Jarrod, was also transformed by suffering. Jarrod was funny, intelligent, and charismatic. But he was also extremely ADHD and impulsive. Let me tell you, this boy did wonders for my prayer life!

One afternoon, when Jarrod was about seventeen, I got an urgent phone call. “Mom, Mom, I’m in pain.” “What’s wrong?” I said. “I was riding my bike on a ramp at the skate park and I fell. My collar bone is poking out! Ahh, it really hurts!” “Jarrod, hang up and dial 911!”

Now, I have to say, I was touched by the fact that Mom was the first person Jarrod thought to call, but given the fact that I have no medical training, and we lived an hour from that park, I probably wasn’t the most logical choice.

But that was our Jarrod, by the time he was 5 years old we had lost count of the ER visits. I remember rushing him to the hospital one time, and he was so small he was still in his child seat. He had a towel pressed to his head to try to staunch the flow of blood from his latest gash, and he just said very calmly, “Mommy, how long do you think we’ll have to wait in the ER this time?”

One time, Chris had only been home from a chemo treatment for about an hour, and Jarrod had managed to run full speed into a door jam, leaving behind a substantial piece of flesh clinging to the molding.

It was this nonstop, dare-devil nature that eventually did Jarrod in. On July 4th, 2015, Jarrod went spearfishing against our advice. The conditions were extremely poor, and he was free diving with no air tanks. He was accidently shot in the head by another diver and he never woke up again. He was 21 years old.

So, I lived every mother’s worst nightmare again. But I wasn’t the same person that I had been back in 2001 when Chris went to be with the Lord. By 2015, I had been reading the Bible for 12 years. I wasn’t just reading the word. I was studying the word. I had been transformed by the renewing of my mind.

And I had witnessed this same transformation in Jarrod when he was 19 years old. He went out with some friends who were up to no good. They got caught burglarizing some unlocked cars and Jarrod ended up in jail. That same Jarrod who made everyone laugh with his impersonations of Johnny Cash, that same Jarrod who used to interrupt me to show me funny YouTube videos of people falling, that same Jarrod who called me “Mama-wah—he did this. 

Do you know what the hardest part about visiting your child in jail is? You can’t touch him. Our visits consisted of a video image. But I’ll never forget the day I visited, and Jarrod told me about Ephesians 6:10.

“Mom, this is so cool,” he said, “Did you know that the armor of God has a belt of truth and a breastplate of righteousness. There’s a shield to protect you against flaming arrows of evil. Every single part of the armor has meaning.” He went to explain about the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit. When he spoke, he had a sparkle in his eye, not unlike his brother Chris had had 14 years earlier when he had told us that Jesus was coming.

So like Chris with his illness, and Erin and me with our addictions, the Lord had come to Jarrod in his brokenness, in his suffering.

After Jarrod was released, we had the best conversations. We discussed spiritual warfare, God’s plan for marriage, and what Chris must be doing in heaven. Out of our 3 children, Jarrod was our deepest thinker. Oh, how I miss our talks.

 And Jarrod had developed a servant’s heart. One of the last things he did before his accident was to have a cookout for the homeless. He and a friend had caught dozens of mangrove snapper, and Jarrod had come home all excited and had asked Rob the best way to cook them. “Dad, we’re gonna get a portable grill and take them down to the homeless camp.” The light in his eyes reflected the joy in his heart.

When I was a child in the late sixties there were a lot of civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests. (Not unlike what is happening today.) Because of the  rioting in New York,  the mayor enacted a curfew. You might remember this famous public service announcement: “It’s ten o’clock and do you know where your kids are?”

Well, I can answer definitively. I know where my boys are. I can’t hug them, I can’t email them, and sometimes I pretend that they are away getting their doctorates at The University of Heaven. But I do know where they are. 1Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  A lot of people in my position have lost that hope. Folks who have buried children, had their lives torn apart by addiction, bankruptcy, or they have faced adversity so overwhelming that they see no way out. I stand before you to tell you there is a way out, and it is Jesus Christ.

My family’s suffering has given me a platform to offer hope to others. It has also produced many amazing connections-or should I say, divine appointments.

I have a fireman friend named Bill Lavin. He was one of the first responders who entered the twin towers when they were under attack. Afterwards, the fireman received hundreds of letters from children all over the country thanking them for their bravery. When one of those schools was leveled by hurricane Katrina, Bill asked them what they needed the most. The answer: We have no place to play. So, Bill and a crew of volunteers traveled to their little town and built them a brand-new playground. This was the birth of The Where angels Play Foundation. 

Since then, the foundation has built over 50 playgrounds all over the United States and even one in Rwanda. Most of the playgrounds are built in memory of children who have died, including 26 playgrounds built in memory of the Sandy Hook victims.

If you ever get a chance to visit beautiful South Lido Park in Sarasota, Florida, you can find playground number 48, nestled under the trees along the white-sand beach. It is built in memory of Chris and Jarrod Ditmars. The panels are adorned with original family artwork and that references our favorite scriptures. If you look closely at the helmet-like shell of the sea turtle you’ll see the words, “Ephesians 6: 10-18

7 pm each evening in New York City the residents go to their windows and clap for the medical personnel, the first responders, the caregivers, and everyone else who risks their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are all united in our suffering.

Jesus’s suffering was necessary for our salvation. Without it, we’d be lost. I think that we become an authentic part of the body when we allow the Lord to use our suffering as well.

I have comforted other women who have lost children. I have lifted up suffering alcoholics. Rob and I gave our once shattered marriage to Jesus, and He healed it. I wake up every day and strive to walk the unique path that the Lord has set out just for me.

***Click on the photos below to be brought to Maribeth's ministry site & to purchase her books. She is available for speaking and school programs.***

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