5 Weeks Later: A Postscript to April’s Death

The last few weeks have been hard…unbelievably hard. During the last weeks of her life, I told April many times that my heart would forever contain a purple stain. Having lost a son four hours after his premature birth and having buried my own father not too long ago, I thought I knew something of the scars that wound the human heart. But when I awoke on June 26 to a world that no longer contained my purpley person, I experienced a penetrating and soul crushing grief unlike anything I had ever encountered. My heart had not been wounded. It had been severed…wrecked at its core.

The night before, April had been my everything…the source of my earthly happiness and the marrow that infused hope into my future. Even as she slipped into an unconscious state on the evening of the 24th, our marriage was real. Memories of vows, first dances, and nights alone rightly informed my vision for tomorrow. Hope, however precarious, still remained. Relationship existed. Her soft inhale and exhales and the touch of her warm hand brought comfort to my heart. But the moment that she turned cold, I was alone. What had been the most fundamental and essential essence of my life was became but a memory – a treasure chest of joys and wisdom to be stewarded well- but still a lifeless memory. Life to death. Hope to tragedy. Whole to less than whole.

Though my grief is profound, I know that all that has transpired is no tragedy for my dear bride. She has exchanged her frail body for one of eternal peace and her flawed husband for the perfect love of Christ. Though I know her desperate wish and prayer was to stay with me and our children and though I affirm that her love for us still resides within her heavenly heart- albeit a perfected love, I cannot wish her back to this troubled planet. I cannot ask her to exchange Christ’s headship for mine. She has achieved her end. She is glorifying God and perfectly enjoying him forever. Her joy is complete.

And yet, mine remains hidden by hidden a glass covered by shadows.  

In the hours after her death, an unsettling silence settled over our home. As I wandered are room alone, I could not help but fill that forsaken space with the simply cry of, “Where are you?” Though I asked the question often, no reply came. All those pictures that she valued so much just coldly stared backed at my tear-stained face. I miss her. Ten years ago when I stumbled into April at Southern Seminary, I found in her something far greater than any ruby or diamond. Though she has gained all, I have lost the companionship, the wisdom, and the affections of this woman worth more than gold.

These last weeks, I have found a new affection for Paul’s sentiment in Philippians 1:23 which says,

“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Phil 1:23).”

I long for Christ…for the joys that my dear April knows well. Life is hard. Oh, what faith it takes to say, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Lord.”

The Path Forward

Though no prophet or son of a prophet, I suspect my life is not close to its end. At the very least, I know God has not called me to prepare for death as much as he has called me to prepare for and to minister to my children and to my church family. As Paul notes in the next verse in Philippians 1, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Thus, I will cherish the days ahead. I will navigate the dark alley ways of doubt and the swamps of sorrows, knowing that my savior will hold me fast. As the Psalmist says,

“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their trouble. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18).”

Though hard and emotionally complex, the path forward possesses a spiritual simplicity that even the youngest of believers can easily recognize. God asks nothing special of me during this season. He calls me to trust his wise, loving, and all-powerful character. Then, he commands me to live out the gospel within my local church context, attending to the things that he has called me to such as preaching and loving my children well. In short, I am to love the Lord my God with all my heart soul, mind, and strength and my neighbor as myself.

When April and I lost our first-born son, we found simple obedience to be the surest pathway to hope. Even as she and I grappled with her cancer over the last three years, our souls were forever and always reinvigorated by ministry. The very act of caring for our neighbor in the midst of our sorrows often brought us the divine perspective and hope that our hearts needed to make sense of the very pain that only hours earlier had tempted us to withdraw from the community of faith. If I will but obey Christ in the minutia of life as I suffer, hope will come. As Paul wrote,

“Suffering produces character which leads to the hope of Christ that never disappoints (Rom. 5:2-5).”

With this in mind, I have resumed working on my dissertation, returned to the church office, and reascended the pulpit. The pathway to restoration is beautifully simple.

As I traverse the many ups and downs of this path of grief over the next months, I know there will be many more tears…some anticipated – such as the first full week of school – and some not so much. Life will continue to hurt for a time. And I fully suspect some sorrows will not fully healed until the other side of heaven. But I also know there will be new joys…new relationships…new and increasing evidences of grace in my life, in the lives of my children, and in my church family. Christ promises of abundant life have not grown stale. The God who knew April would live but 39 years and ordained that I would have the blessed joy of being her husband (of being one with her) for 9.5 of those years still loves me. The valley of Bacca will once again flow with the streams of hope. By God’s mercy, I will go from strength to strength (Psalm 84:5-7). The clouds will lift. Joy will come in the morning, and I will praise him again.

I greatly appreciate your prayers for me and my family as we continue walk through this valley.  

May God be merciful!  

Memories of a Great Dad

I believe my father is worthy of honor for he loved others well. He also did many things well. He wrote articles as a guest editorialist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, taught college economics classes at multiple universities, organized a host of athletic event for kids, played football at the Airforce Academy, and racked up a lifetime of honors as a high school athlete, including a spot in the St. Joseph High School Sports Hall of Fame. But he would be the first to tell you that those things mattered only a little to him. People remained his first passion. More specifically, we his family were his joy.

Why Blog?

Before I dive into the essence of who my dad was, I want to briefly explain why I write and blog. As it did for C.S. Lewis, writing proves for me to be a powerful means by which I organize my sorrows and find answers to my questions. I suppose one could say it’s my method.

What follows is but a small reflection of the light that was my dear and now deceased father. It is not the sum total of who he was. To piece together that picture, one would need to talk to my dear mother, all of my siblings- their spouses and children, my uncle, my father’s beloved university students, his extended family, and the many random people that my dad had helped. I believe that many of these stories will also be shared in the days and weeks ahead as antidotes, eulogies, and phone conversations. What follows below is one section of one chapter in that much grandeur story, the story of Mark Witkowski.

My Dad

Though my dad always downplayed his own accomplishments, he always highlighted mine. When he battled brain cancer decades ago, one of his highlights from that hard season of life was watching my older brother and I play little league baseball together. Thomas opened the game on the mound, and I caught him behind the plate. I cannot remember the score of that game. But I do remember my dad watching the game in the cheap, metal bleachers behind home plate with my mom and the ride home in the blue dodge minivan where he shared how proud of us he was.

Though always quick to praise me, he also was never afraid to correct me when I mis-stepped. He was the first coach to make me run laps after I angrily questioned his coaching strategy during my 11-year-old little league season. That strategy ended with me winning our league’s championship trophy. He was a great coach. At the sports banquet that commemorated the end of my high school baseball career, the speaker praised my godly character. But dad and I both knew my character on the field fell short of God’s holiness. I had ended the season shoving a teammate in anger. As we walked back out to the car in the quiet of the night sky, he looked at me and said, “Peter, what he said about you was a lie.”

While I disappointed him at times, he never gave up on me. He was always ready to encourage me. He rejoiced when I told him that I had become a Christian and quickly arranged for me to go on my first mission trip a few days later. It was there in the deserts of New Mexico that I first sensed God calling me to fulltime ministry. He helped me get into college and encouraged me to apply for the UALR Donaghy Scholars Program when I felt deeply insecure about my academic abilities. When I sank into depression during my final year of seminary, his simple advice to keep going to church proved to be the life raft that my soul needed until God righted it afresh. There was no limit to his simple and yet profound encouragement.

There was also no limit to his laughter. My mom could make him laugh like no one else through her teasing and nudges. He in-turn never stopped tickling her. If I have coopted anything from my parents’ marriage into my relationship with April, it is undoubtedly my father’s love for long conversations and tickle messuages. In other words, I knew April was the one because I could both talk to her without stopping and never get bored and could find great joy in tickling her.

He also liked to play pranks. Once when I lived in Louisville, he arrived at my home while I was still at work. Since my roommates had not meet him, he seized the moment, entered the house with his badge open, and told all my roommates that he had come to investigate Peter Witkowski for trafficking in stolen antiques. And they thought I was just a simple seminar student.

When I entered fulltime ministry, he became the closest thing I had to a pastoral fan club. He made a point to attend my ordination service with my mom. He liked my blogs so much that he convinced major websites to republish them. During COVID, he faithfully watched every sermon I preached. About Forty-five minutes to an hour later, I would invariably get a call or a text from him telling me that I had done a good job. A few months ago, he even approached me about creating an Amissville Baptist Church St. Louis Campus. Though completely impractical and somewhat antithetical to my understanding of ecclesiology, the gesture beautifully captured his never-ending love and support for me. This past Sunday, I once again received a text message from Mark Witkowski. It read, “Good sermon today.” I will miss my dad.

What meant the most to me in these later years was his love for my family. He dearly loved my bride, April. I think he was always somewhat surprised that someone so amazing as her could love his son. He was deeply thankful for her presence in my life. He warmly welcomed her into our family and loved her from the day he met her.

When the oncologists diagnosed April with breast cancer and talked of her impending death, it was his voice that spurred me to search for better treatment plans and better doctors. And it was he who daily and at times hourly prayed for her healing, “a full healing” as he would say. Even in these last days as his strength and soundness of mind briefly return, he once again called April to tell her that he was praying for her.

Closing Thoughts

Though some kids never hear their father say, ‘I love you,” I regularly heard those words. April and my children regularly heard those words too. We also felt them. In their own way, my kids knew that Papa Wit loved them. He was Luke’s model train buddy and Lily and Lacey’s friend who took them on wagon rides. As his health declined, my kids regularly asked me to pray for Papa Wit.

They prayed for him to come home. With the help of hospice, he returned to his home a few weeks ago. Then on Wednesday December 1, 2021, he went to his final home, to highest heaven above. As I type out these reflections, I have no doubt of my dad’s final destination for he loved others well. As 1 John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” In addition to seeing Jesus face to face, my dad has also gotten to meet his eldest grandson, Peter Alexander. He has no reason to return to this sad world.

Still, I find great sorrow in this moment. I distinctly remember my father crying at his father’s funeral. I suspect I will do the same. I do not mourn him but rather the relationship with him that death has temporarily interrupted.

When second Peter died in 2013, Isaiah 65:20 became one of my favorite verses for it addressed the heartache associated with losing an infant child. Today the verse takes on an ever-fuller meaning as it addresses the heartache of losing my father. Oh friends, how I long for that promised day, a day when, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not fill out his days.”

Memo: The Regathered Storm – March 2021

The words sent our souls sprawling across the sands of life. Stunned, April and I tried to comprehend what her oncologist had just said: “Her cancer has grown and we need to discuss new treatment options.” As the wave of bad news receded, April and I found ourselves unexpectedly pulled back into the murky waters of breast cancer as we stared at the walls of the 10th floor exam room. The doctor went on to tell us that April’s latest scans revealed the formation of 10 new tumors in her liver. All ten had materialized since her lasts scans on December 23rd. One breast cancer tumor measured a centimeter and a half in diameter. She also developed four new insignificant cancerous spots in her lungs. Though the cancer in her bones and breast remain stable, her new cancer growths revealed that her first line of treatment has failed. The first sea wall of protection composed of hormonal treatments has been breached by this dark storm.

We thank God for the past twenty-three months of success. Still, we had longed for more time. Since the medicine had repulsed more than one fear blown wave, we had begun to believe that April’s health was relatively secure. With the storm clouds fading into the horizon, we had begun to build tiny, happy, little structures in the sands of life, basking in the sun of providence. This past Wednesday morning, the waves of breast cancers washed our little sandcastles away and began pulling us back towards the law of averages, a beacon that often proves more ominous than hopeful.

With regards to what happens next, April and I have more questions than answers at this time. On Friday, March 19, April exited the Promise study at The Mayo Clinic and stopped taking her medications. Though she may continue to seek treatment in Minnesota, she and her doctors no longer know which principles of navigation should guide her journey. In an effort to determine what should be the guiding star for the second phase of her treatment, April underwent multiple blood tests and a liver biopsy while at Mayo. The reports should lay anchor within the next two weeks. At that time, she will work with her medical teams at Mayo and UVA to create a second treatment plan. Once we have charted our next course forward through this uncertain storm, we will share that information with you.

Though some things about our circumstances appear set against us, we know our God is forever for us. At times we cannot help but wonder why our good God would allow April’s cancer to flood back into our lives. Our children are so young; our church ministry is so new; and our marriage is so dear. At first glance, his plan for us seemingly does not align with the course that April and I would chart. But if we have been left to our own plans in years past, April and I would not be married; nor would we have our three little kids or our precious church family. Because God did not consult us and our foolish sentiments when forming his plans for us, April and I have the good gifts we that we hold so dearly as the waters rage today. We are confident that the God who has guided our lives by his love to towards the edge of this storm will be with us as we sail into its breakers.

Contact Info:

Email us at: biblefighter@gmail.com 

snail-mail at : P.O. Box 637/ Amissville, VA 20106

call us at: 540-937-6159.

Support us at: April Witkowski Medical Fund (gofundme.com)

We will posting updates here at witkowskiblog.com

Thank you for your love, prayers, and never-ending support.