Emma, Joanne and Audrey, just a month before Joanne's stroke, in December 2010.
In 2003, Joanne Heim, '93, began writing "The Simple Wife," her online blog, about life in the house she shares in Englewood, Colo., with her husband, Toben, '93, and their daughters, Audrey, 13, and Emma, 11. She posts about her favorite foods and how to make them, about how she decorates her house for the seasons of the year, about what she's reading and what it means to her. She also writes about home calamities, like the times she forgot to open the fireplace flue -- twice in one week -- and filled the frigid house with smoke before she realized that "The flue is open when that little handle thingy is pulled toward you."
Heim's writing is funny, self-effacing, filled with the familiar little things that make up everyday life. She knew from the start what she wanted her blog to address: simple, abundant life. "Living simply," she wrote, "is not so much about the particulars of our lives as it is about the principles that govern them. Knowing what God has called you to do, and then doing it -- that's living simply." She had declared that 2011 would be the Year of Love on the site, and she was thinking in late 2010 about ways to write about and live out that theme in the context of "The Simple Wife." "I want to learn to love well this year," she wrote. "I want to get to a year from now and look back on 2011 and say with honesty, 'I loved well this year.'"
Toben, Audrey, Emma and Joanne Heim in June 2009
Her planning came to an abrupt halt less than a week after the second fireplace debacle. On the frigid morning of Jan. 11, Heim began a morning run on the treadmill in her basement -- and woke up on a gurney in the emergency room at a nearby hospital, unable to use the left side of her body, with her terrified family praying for her life and a phalanx of concerned doctors hustling her off to radiology for the first of countless CAT scans. Her then-10-year-old daughter, Emma, had found her mom shaking violently on the floor by the treadmill, and Emma and Audrey, then 12, had called 911 and summoned their father and their grandmother.
At the hospital, doctors told the family that Joanne had suffered a major stroke. "They started drug therapy [to remove the clot that caused the stroke], but determined that they needed to go in with a catheter through an artery and into her brain," wrote Toben. Their efforts restored some blood flow, but eventually doctors had to remove and "bank" a piece of Joanne's skull to allow for the brain swelling that took place after the first procedure.
Toben began posting to Joanne's blog, keeping readers up to date and asking for their prayers. At the end of each post he listed specific prayer requests -- requests that went out to thousands of people. On a typical pre-stroke day, "The Simple Wife" received a couple thousand hits -- a healthy following. The day after Joanne's stroke, 60,000 people checked in. Hits on the site would eventually total more than 2.8 million.
Toben asked Joanne's online friends to pray that the swelling in his wife's brain would subside and that she would regain her abilities to speak and read; he also asked for God's grace for his and Joanne's daughters, for pain relief and restful sleep for Joanne, and just for his wife to open "her beautiful brown eyes. And I want to be there for it," he wrote. He was.
At one point early on, before Joanne had regained consciousness, Toben wrote of her as "still here, still the love of my life, still the one I want to grow old with." He ended with this: "Enough of this writing. Time to hold hands with my girl."
Joanne's dad, Chuck Friedenstein, helps her with her physical therapy in July 2011.
Eventually, Joanne was able to squeeze the hand that held hers through those dark early days. After four grueling months in the hospital, Heim went home. Despite her joy at returning to her family, she faced countless challenges that had never been hurdles before. Her father had outfitted the house with ramps and handrails for her use, and eventually he built a gym in the garage that he and Heim use to help her regain movement in her still-paralyzed left side. Though she has come a long way since that day in January, she still fights brutally hard for small milestones in her recovery. Ever the consumer and producer of words, she's trying to master one-handed typing and even texting -- using the tiny virtual keyboard on her iPhone. Friends also bought her a Kindle and an iPad with software for stroke survivors; technology has become her special friend.
Fifteen months after that terrifying dash to the hospital, Heim is generally sanguine about the future. Countless responders to her blog posts speak of the inspiration that she provides by example. Her faith is intact. Her love for her family and her appreciation for those who've been there since the beginning -- including her steadfast parents, Chuck and Kay Friedenstein -- is palpable. The Year of Love turned into something much different than she'd expected, though love was never in short supply. But sometimes the stark reality of her current condition hits her hard. On one of those days, seven months after the stroke, she posted the following:
"'How are you?' is a question that I am asked often. My response is usually along the lines of 'OK...hanging in there.' And it's true. I am OK and hanging in there. But it's not quite the whole truth.
"There is often not time or space to answer fully -- and maybe the person asking doesn't want the real answer. But here it is: I am sad. I am hurt. I am lonely. I am scared. I feel cheated and betrayed and lost and alone. Most days I don't really want to get up and face the day. Most days I creep to the edge of the pit of self-pity and look down into the depths. Most days I back away from the edge.
"But some days I jump on in and wallow in the muck, feeling sorry for myself, angry and bitter. Those are not good days -- days that I may be hanging on, but just barely and only by my fingernails. Those are days when I review all I have lost and worry that I may never get any better than I am right now. Those are days I ask, 'Why, Lord?' over and over. Days I play with despair and wish for a different life. Days I tell God how badly my feelings are hurt ....
"...Every day I try to remind myself of things I know are true: Jesus does love me. My life does have purpose even though it doesn't feel like it. There is good in this somewhere. This is just a season and it will end...someday...somehow."
Heim reports lately that after a long time when she felt that God was far away, she's beginning to feel his presence again. And she is grateful for small things these days -- the flowers blooming outside her house, a warm afternoon spent reading on the deck, an assisted walk around the neighborhood or the mall, a change in medication that allows her to sleep more easily and more soundly.
When asked her fondest wish, Heim writes, "To get back to life as it was in the past. I'm still waiting to see some good come of this, though we have seen huge reconciliation with Toben's family where there had been a lot of distance and hurt. And that makes it worth it for me." After the Year of Love -- which turned out to be the most difficult year of their lives -- Joanne and Toben Heim look ahead with hope.
To read "The Simple Wife," visit thesimplewife.typepad.com. You can also follow the Heims on Twitter at twitter.com/joanneheim and twitter.com/tobenheim.