How one man’s faith gave him strength when his life went from a dream to a nightmare—twice.
Linda R. Buxa
When Chris Nowakowski was a junior in high school, a friend pulled up unexpectedly and asked if he wanted to go for a ride. “I jumped in the back, and there was Laura,” he says.
They dated on and off through high school and freshman year of college but then went their separate ways. Senior year he kept thinking about her, but he couldn’t muster up the courage to call her. “My roommates kept egging me on, and I finally gave in. But as I went to pick up the phone to dial her, it rang. It was Laura calling me,” Chris says. “After over two years of no contact, we were calling each other at the same time.”
They married on August 26, 1995, and spent the next years working, raising children, and being active in church. “On Dec. 23, 2009,” he says, “we went to bed with what I would describe as a near perfect earthly life. Good careers, wonderful home, beautiful children, incredible family and friends.”
A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE
He woke up in the morning and found her dead—not dying. He performed CPR for 12 minutes while their children, ages 10 and 8, watched.
In the ambulance, the paramedics restored a heartbeat, but Chris was told Laura had so little heart function that she would never survive. They put her into a medically induced coma, and he fell asleep holding her hand, going from living the dream to living a nightmare.
Then a miracle happened. On Christmas Day, she fought through the induced coma, and “she woke me up by squeezing my hand!” he says. Two days later she received a pacemaker to prevent her heart from stopping again. A follow-up visit in March 2010 discovered her heart had normalized. “We went from meeting with transplant teams to being told she was perfectly fine. We received a miracle,” he said.
Her pacemaker remained in case this ever happened again. She fully recovered and life returned to normal. Laura served as president of the parent/teacher association, volunteered to serve her children’s youth swim team, taught Sunday school, and was studying for her master’s degree.
A SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE
Three years later, they woke to the sound of her pacemaker beeping. Laura was fine; a wire from the device had failed. But as she underwent the procedure, things went horribly wrong. There were obvious reasons to suspect safeguards, and standard of care were not followed. There would be no miracle this time. Laura died on Feb. 27, 2013.
While Chris was grieving for his wife, attorneys were telling him that any award from a trial would be based on Laura’s fixed companionship worth—an amount set by the state, plus her annual income as a substitute teacher and stay-at-home mom, two jobs that don’t pay well. Yet they would subtract “value” because Chris would no longer have to provide her food and clothing. “Can you imagine they would say that to someone who lost their wife under very questionable circumstances?” he asks. “It was horrible, insulting, and infuriating.”
In addition to legal battles, he found himself struggling spiritually. “After she passed away, I had a very difficult time talking about 2009 anymore. When you see a miracle, it is hard to want anything else,” says Chris.
“I had a searing anger with God. I called him horrible, shameful things, yet he was with me in ways I could never have imagined. He got me through such terrible, difficult times, and all I ever felt back from him was intense love,” says Chris. “I wish I could have behaved more like Job. Job questioned God in the midst of his sorrows, but he did not demonstrate anger toward God like I did.”
Returing to their home church wasn’t easy either, but he remembered his children’s example from Christmas Eve in 2009. While Laura was in a coma, Christyna and Patrick asked to go to their Christmas Eve program because that’s where their mom would want them to be. “Ultimately I believe getting right back to church was the best thing for us, but I cannot tell you how difficult it was to go. To go to communion without my wife. To see somebody else leading the children,” he says. “It was incredibly painful and took some time before it didn’t hurt so much.”
The members of the congregation lent enormous support during the funeral, provided six months of meals, and gave the children rides when Chris needed help. “The compassion I have received from our church family gave me hope and helped me remember there are good people in this world even when you are in the midst of dealing with some very bad people.” Christyna became more active at church. At age 14, she became a Sunday school teacher because “she was concerned about the void in teachers when her mom died,” he says.
It also helped him to remember the day he talked to Laura about her first cardiac arrest. “I asked her if she had a near-death experience back in 2009,” he says. “She responded she did not, but didn’t need one. ‘God will take me when he is ready,’ she told me. I was so impressed with what she had been through and how incredible her faith was.”
A STRONGER FAITH
Three years have now passed since Laura’s death. “Though I am still but a sinner, I have stayed in the Word, continued attending church with my children, and my faith is stronger than I think it has ever been—even if I don’t always act like it,” he says. “I feel like I have grown closer to God than I knew was possible.”
Chris has also been able to forgive the medical staff. When he realized that one day those responsible for Laura’s death would be held accountable, “my anger toward them turned to pity. I was able to pray for them and eventually forgive them,” he says. “I know it is possible to forgive, but still seek justice. The two are not incompatible.”
As he continues moving forward, Chris also sees blessings in the ways God has used his suffering to help others. He realizes that, back when he was living the dream, he couldn’t relate to those who were suffering. Now he does, and reaches out to others who are hurting. “That was actually the first step toward my own healing was learning how to help others again,” he admits.
As he helps others, he shares his story and the depth of his awe about God. “I cannot tell you how deep I was in a dark pit of anger, depression, sadness, frustration, and despair,” he says. “I have learned that our God is true to his Word and is with us always and loves us always—even when we are not capable of seeing it.”
Linda Buxa is a member at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
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Author: Linda R. Buxa
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016
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