Living With Kids: The Wolf Family

November 19, 2013

By Gabrielle. Photos by Alex Wolf.

Jay Wolf first contacted me to share a link showing his family’s incredible journey back from a devastating circumstance, and I was floored for a few days. And soon enough, my awe was pushed aside by a little wonder. When your life is turned upside down, how do you right it again? When all your definitions change – of motherhood and wife and husband and home – how do you write a new and improved dictionary?

Oh, I wanted to see more of the Wolf family’s life, and I wanted to show you, too. Because all through this tour and their story, there’s hope. And there’s nothing better on a Tuesday morning than a little hope, right? Please sit a while with this home and this special, special family, Friends. I know it will improve your day. Welcome, Wolf family! (Is this the first time a dad has written the interview? I think it is! Welcome, Jay!)

Q: Please introduce us to your family!

A: Hi, we’re the Wolfs: Jay, Katherine, and James. We’re originally from the deep South, but after marrying at 22, we moved to Los Angeles to pursue our dreams in the entertainment industry and law school (for me, Jay) at Pepperdine. Little did we know that decision would not only change the course of our lives, but it would also save Katherine’s life just over three years later.

Those early years were idyllic, living in a Malibu married housing apartment with a view of the ocean, loving our church community and the creative energy that is electric in the City of Angels. Our son James came along quite unexpectedly, but we relished our new calling as young parents.

On April 21, 2008, an ordinary day, three weeks from law school graduation, Katherine (age 26) collapsed in our kitchen, while six-month old James slept in the other room. By the grace of God, I had come home to get some papers for a final presentation, and I was able to call an ambulance. They rushed her to the amazing UCLA Medical Center where a courageous doctor took on her hopeless case. Katherine was near death as the result of a massive brain stem stroke due to the rupture of an AVM, a congenital defect in her brain that she never knew she had until that day.

Against all odds, she survived the 16 hour surgery. Perhaps even more miraculously, she has recovered and continues to recover her life, finding the gratitude to celebrate this gift though it looks very different than any of us thought it would.

After leaving that Malibu apartment, we were displaced from our lives, our expectations of the future, our community, and literally, our home as we lived in hospitals and neuro-rehab centers for two years. We finally returned to Los Angeles in 2010, but the experience of home now has an entirely deeper meaning to us. We’ve been in our 1,000 square foot 1920 California bungalow for almost four years now. For us, it is a place of safety, a place of re-finding what it means to be a family of three again, a place of celebrating a second chance at life as we gather friends around our dinner table, and a place that truly embodies both the words HOME and HOPE.

Q: You’ve spent the better part of a few years creating a safe and comfortable home for your wife and son. Can you tell us about your specific goals with your house?

A: Following Katherine’s stroke, I knew that our future home would be a place where we would spend the majority of our time. I wanted it to be a place where we could all find healing for the years of hurt we had experienced and where we could be empowered to move forward in hope into our new life ahead. I wanted our home to be a place where Katherine, in particular, could completely re-engage her new life: a place of comfort, safety (given her physical limitations post-stroke), beauty, hospitality, and hope.

I desire not to surround us with stuff but to surround us with reminders of hope and meaning, whether it be in a photograph tucked in a mirror, a pattern that reminds us of a favorite Bible verse, a tattered oil painting literally found by a dumpster, or a lamp at our bedside that once sat next to our grandparents’ bedside. C.S. Lewis says “let your mind run up the sunbeam to the sun.” Our homes should be places that draw us toward greater places.

Q: With only a good eye for design and no design interest, where did you find the best inspiration along the way?

A: I am very interested in design now, but previously, I had no real interest in home design specifically. One of my best design inspirations have always been thrift stores and flea markets. In fact, well over half the items in our home are from thrift stores. Seeing items from bygone eras, the craftsmanship, the styles, have all been an incredible design education for me.

Strangely, near our current home, there are about three or four really great thrift stores. For some reason, this treasure hunt of sorts became a very cathartic experience for me, a respite from that very emotionally weighty time in my life. In a way, I was mindlessly rifling through other people’s junk looking for something that was valuable in my eyes. But more than that, what I was embodying was an incredibly poignant metaphor for my own life and my family’s…looking for a second chance, finding the thing that once was lost but was now found.

Also, as you may notice scattered around our home, there are some symbols that are daily encouragement and reminders of hope.  Some of these symbols include…the starburst, the fig leaf, flowers, the ocean, and the anchor.  To see these and live with these beautiful symbols make our home deeply personal and give layered meaning to the everyday things in our lives. All five of those symbols are found in the painting done for us by artist Lulie Wallace for our “Hope It Forward” Movement project, “Hope Heals Art.”

Q: Describe your new normal daily life now and how your home works with that.

A: Katherine and I both work full-time for our faith-based non-profit, Hope Heals. We work together and we work from home, which both present some interesting challenges, but we could not be more grateful to be doing something that we love and feel called to do. We do a good deal of traveling and speaking, getting to share hope all over the country, but there is truly nothing like coming back home.

I have continued rearranging the layout, organization, and accessibility of our home as our son has gotten older and as Katherine has progressed in her recovery, and as we continue to learn how our home works best in the context of our lives. For me, home is directly reflective of the people and relationships there, so it should be a more fluid, dynamic thing, rather than something immovable and set in stone. We love how our home works for us now, but we appreciate change too.

Getting stuck in any rut always prevents growth. For us, home should provide stability but should also provide adaptabililty to meet us where we are and more importantly to empower us to go where we desire to be go.

Q: Art is EVERYWHERE! How do you choose the pieces that hang on your wall?

A: For me, art is one of the most important things in our home. Those simple moments of beauty serve as poignant reminders of the fleeting beauty of life itself. Art adds life to any space, and it’s transcendent as it takes on new meaning over time. Almost all of our art is vintage art, which only adds to the meaning.

We ran out of wall space long ago, so I started suspending art by black chains from the ceiling in front of walls of windows. I also think a mix, a thoughtful juxtaposition, always makes for the most interesting design as it helps your mind engage the different elements more fully. For instance, a modern lamp on a country French chest of drawers or a hand-written piece of art above a 1960′s chair.

One of my favorite sights in our home is the wall of vintage seascapes in our living room that I’ve collected over the years. They are reminders of our first home together by the water in Malibu, and they are reminders of the healing properties of water that often come thru the storms, the immersion and the gasping re-entry into a new way life. It gets me every time.

Q: What has been your shining moment so far living with your son? What has surprised you the most about being a dad?

A: Largely my shining moments in fatherhood have always been in conjunction with my wife’s shining moments in motherhood. We are inextricably linked together in life and marriage and parenthood, so when she struggles, I feel it too. When I celebrate, she is my biggest cheerleader.

The loss of being an active mother to our son was one of the hardest parts of her stroke for both of us. Correspondingly, the process of re-gaining independence and motherhood has been one of the most shining experiences of her life, as well as mine. Parenting a child is certainly one of the most challenging and thus rewarding experiences we can take on, but getting the chance to do it when you really shouldn’t (ie. you shouldn’t even be here because you should have died) make that, and all other experiences, that much more precious.

Q: Your life and your plans for it completely changed after your wife’s stroke. What has surprised you the most about the changes? Both in yourself and in your life? What makes you the most proud?

A: We all have gotten or will get that phone call one day that changes everything, creating a line of demarcation in our lives after which nothing will ever be the same. We think we have control over many things in life, but it really is an illusion. Just about the only thing we can control is our response to our circumstances, and even that seems hard to reign in at times.

We have failed at responding in the best way quite often, but I have been so proud that the foundation of our lives, one that was there for a very long time, proved itself reliable when we needed it the most. Thus we have been able to respond to our pain in ways that have not only helped heal our own hearts but also those who have encountered our story. Our overflow of hope has been a very natural progression for us, but it occurred because we sought out real hope and continue to do so.

Q: Is there a time you think back on and wonder “How did we survive that moment?” What helped you endure? What still gives you nightmares?

A: We were all made for community, not to experience life in isolation. For us, that community, specifically our families and our church community in LA, helped us survive the darkest moments. Both of those communities share the thread of faith, the source of true hope, and that has undeniably made the difference in our survival, recovery, and flourishing after having experienced some of life’s greatest pains. There are still lingering fears of loss and pain that may lie ahead, but we have found it so true that perfect love casts out fear, and we are clinging to that!

Q: What memories do you hope your son carries with him from this time in your life? What traditions are you trying to build for him and his future family?

A: For years, we have prayed that our son may survive this experience, though scarred, with a heart of courage, resilience, compassion, and hope. I pray that he will ultimately see in the example of our lives, not some sort of idealized model of perfection, but a picture of parents who are real people with struggles and pain but who have found hope thru their hardship to look outward from ourselves to the needs of others and to love sacrificially.

Our lives are still kind of crazy and without a great schedule, but one thing we do nearly every night is to tuck James into bed, holding him, praying truth and love over him, instilling gratitude for his family, his life, and the gift of another day. Those moments are precious – even if they are interrupted by a Spiderman flying thru the air or a little jumping on the bed – and I believe the intention and consistency of those nightly moments have and will create a deep change in his heart, one that he will someday give to his family.

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…

A: I wish someone had told me that the greatest balance to achieve in life is to live into each moment with your whole heart while simultaneously holding it all with open hands. This is such a difficult balance. But when we live in this way, the story of our lives will transcend our emotions and circumstances and end up being immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine.

–-

Jay, I’m so glad you agreed to be more than one of my Friday links! We needed your story, and I’m grateful to you for sharing it. We talk a lot on Design Mom about work-life balance, but you took it to a whole new level with this: “The greatest balance to achieve in life is to live into each moment with your whole heart while simultaneously holding it all with open hands.” Beautiful.

Friends, when Jay mentions a phone call that changes everything, that moment that draws a line in our lives between what used to be and how things will be from now on, it made me think. And think. And think. And worry. And worry a little more. Have you gotten that phone call? What got you through it? Your stories always ease my mind and inspire. Thank you for that!

P.S. — Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here. And if you’d like to share your own home with us, just send me a note! It’s a lot of fun…I promise!

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shani November 19, 2013 at 11:30 am

What a beautiful family!

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2 amyks November 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Wow, just wow. Their story is so amazing and yes, hope heals. I remember reading from the Book of Job after the loss of my first born son. A friend shared that and the book “When bad things happen to good people” with us. It helped us get through a very difficult time, too. Much love to this special family.

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3 Val November 19, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Wow….. reading this family’s story was incredibly moving for me. I adore the symbols of hope that Jay, Katherine and James have incorporated into their home and life. Hope has special meaning in my life, and the idea that Hope Heals is so very powerful. Thank you for sharing this lovely family with us today!

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4 Jenny also November 19, 2013 at 12:44 pm

I love the wall of ocean pictures!

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5 Viorica November 19, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Amazingly beautiful family and home, thank you to you and to them for sharing their truly inspirational story!

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6 kate wilson November 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm

this really inspired me today. i watched their short film and was so deeply touched. what lovely people, and a lovely home.

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7 stephanie November 19, 2013 at 1:18 pm

what a beautiful, love filled home.
it looks so cozy!
moreover, i really enjoyed the interview.
these people seem incredibly grounded and full of amazing faith.
what an amazing testimony they bring.
this was a great post!
thanks for sharing, gabi!
xo

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8 Rea November 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Lovely story. I can really feel the truthfulness of each word. Indeed, hope heals.

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9 M November 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Just watched the short film and was completely drawn in. Such a wonderful family and Katherine – you are amazingly inspirational! Thank you for sharing your story Jay x

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10 Janet November 19, 2013 at 3:11 pm

What a lovely family and story of hope and healing. Very inspirational.

My young husband had a massive heart attack at 44 in his office. I watched as the paramedics shocked him 7 times and brought him back to life. He survived a blockage in the “widow-maker” and has done very well. At the time, our oldest son was an altar boy at mass and assigned the 6 am daily mass times. I found such peace and hope at those masses and truly felt the power of prayer surrounding us and giving us hope.

I will pray for continued healing and hope for Katherine, Jay and their family. Thank you for sharing their story.

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11 Emma November 19, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Wow!
Thankyou for sharing Jay. The love that shines through for your wife and your family is truly beautiful and so very inspiring.

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12 Melissa November 19, 2013 at 6:02 pm

I love stories of true love! Beautiful!

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13 Erin November 19, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I especially loved this home tour, and I have loved a lot of them. Back in 2009 I first read about the Wolf family, it is amazing to see all these years later how far things have come. What a beautiful family and a beautiful home.

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14 chelsea November 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Wow, wow, wow. This is a truly wonderful story. Just had a chance to watch the video and was so inspired. I love this family!

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15 Dale November 19, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Wow ! (as above many times over)
An amazing family and the most beautiful home I’ve seen in this series
all the best

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16 Shannon { writer + editor } November 19, 2013 at 6:43 pm

What a beautifully written testimony to love and faith and family.

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17 Tracy November 19, 2013 at 7:11 pm

Gabrielle,
For a few years now, weekly I “tune-in” to your blog to read the Living With Kids series and settle in for an inspiring read. This one – this. I was a part of that LA Church community who prayed for this amazing young family as they went through this experience. I didn’t know Jay or Katherine or James, and have not met them since, but as one who was a part of a young mom’s group we weekly prayed for them. I even recall getting the news of what had happened and immediately being a part of prayer groups and helping to organize and mobilize to meet other needs. (my part was so very small.) And to come here today and read this brings immense hope. Being a part of a faith community and receiving tangible love and care, along with prayer is such an amazing and hopeful experience. Thank you so much, Gabriella, for sharing, and thank you to Jay and Katherine for sharing your lives and experience so openly. I love the themes and symbols in their home – and the color scheme!
Receiving that call – or going through the thing which you never wanted to have to face (and thought you made all the right choice to prevent) is tough. (For me it was divorce) I like when Jay speaks about control and when the illusion of thinking we have control collides with realizing all we can control is our response. Amen to that.

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18 Ginger J. November 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Jay and Katherine’s story brought back so many memories for me. My mother had an AVM too–a cerebral hemorrhage–when I was 19. I was with her at the time; I rode in the ambulance to the ER with her. She, too, had a 16-hour surgery and surprised everyone by living through the ordeal. Though I was at a different stage of life then Jay and Katherine were when it happened, I very much understand the trials associated with an AVM. I’m grateful for their message of hope. Even now, 20 years later, I still need that message. Thank you for sharing.

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19 Gia November 19, 2013 at 8:05 pm

I love the abundance of art in this home. I love how when all the wall space was used up Jay began hanging art in front of windows. Art is that important. Their story is inspiring and Jay’s words are so thoughtful (and though provoking). Thank you for sharing this beautiful home and family with us.

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20 Michelle November 19, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Thank you for sharing something true and real.

I had never heard the C.S. Lewis quote “let your mind run up the sunbeam to the sun.” I’ll carry that around in my heart for a while.

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21 Kristen November 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Oh, wow! WOW! Thank you for your openness and honesty. So beautiful. So sincere. Thank you.

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22 Sally Bluhm November 19, 2013 at 9:27 pm

My ‘phone call’ came in July of 2010 when my then 2-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Leukemia. After two-and-a-half years of treatment she is cancer-free, although not side-effect-free. I most definitely related to this couple’s journey, and especially liked how he described his ocean art as “reminders of the healing properties of water that often come thru the storms, the immersion and the gasping re-entry into a new way life.” After such a jolt to what I thought was my ‘way of life’, the ‘storm’ of cancer felt like a ‘re-entry’ into life in every sense of the phrase. I feel changed forever.

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23 Kathy November 19, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I have known Jay since he was a baby and Katherine since they were engaged. They have both had a Joy for life that surpassed their years. It is an honor to know them and pray for them and now to see their awesome home. They are the real deal. Faithful, honest and loving. And very, very talented. Thank you for this great article.

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24 sarah November 19, 2013 at 10:07 pm

I was just thinking last week, “when are we going to hear from a dad?” And here it is!

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25 Kyran November 19, 2013 at 10:20 pm

This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it.

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26 Freida November 19, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Thank you for sharing. Beautiful- your home and your story!

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27 Bridgette November 20, 2013 at 12:32 am

Oh my GOODness! I watched the film, so inspiring. My own mother suffered a massive stroke. And now, 39 years later, I clearly remember the phone call that changed our lives forever.
One big difference, my father left us.

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28 susan November 20, 2013 at 7:16 am

I really needed this post today. I had a lumpectomy on Monday and am waiting for test results that should be here today. It is my second time with breast cancer. I needed to hear about hope. Thanks you for sharing your story.

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29 Gabi November 20, 2013 at 11:17 am

Thank you for sharing, Jay. And best of luck and hope to Susan (poster 28): stay strong!

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30 lisa thomson November 20, 2013 at 11:32 am

What an amazing family! Thanks for your beautiful inspiration, Jay. I just love how your home decor tells your family’s story. I hope you write a book because you express these intangible things so beautifully with your words.

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31 lisa thomson November 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm

I just finished watching your video. Katherine is an incredibly strong and inspiring woman.

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32 Julie Lowery November 20, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Beautiful…. I am a member at First Baptist in Montgomery, Al. where Jay’s father is the pastor. I am famaliar with the story of Jay Katherine and James, but I needed this inspiring story today. I love these words spoken by Jay:

“We all have gotten or will get that phone call one day that changes everything, creating a line of demarcation in our lives after which nothing will ever be the same. We think we have control over many things in life, but it really is an illusion. Just about the only thing we can control is our response to our circumstances, and even that seems hard to reign in at times.”

My husband and I had the line of dmarcation created in our lives on June 2, 2011 when we lost our only son Matthew at the age of 19.

Our faith, family and friends is what continues to get us through each day. Thanks Jay, Katherine and Jay for this beautiful and inspiring story.

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33 Liz Wheeler November 20, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Hi Gabrielle,
I’ve been a fan of your site for many years for many reasons. Yes, we got that phone call, or rather, had that moment almost 2 years ago when our 6 month old son, Michael, was diagnosed with brain cancer. It’s been a long journey and he is still with us, but has significant challenges and our future is uncertain. I’ve followed your blog, reading about your traipses across Europe from our hospital rooms, always looking for the beautiful when I’m in such a dark place. I just had my 5th child this summer and along with an unexpected move and adjusting to the disabilities of my little guy, it just about broke me. I find strength when you share about your family and your life and you help me find the beautiful, so thank you! Your blog is such a blessing to me!

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34 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag November 20, 2013 at 11:24 pm

what an amazing story. just amazing. i’m so glad they shared it! love the wall of ocean art…..

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35 Karen November 21, 2013 at 4:33 am

Thank you for your beautiful story, Jay. My mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage when I was 12 years old, in 1972. I love to hear stories of people who have survived,. I am now an ICU RN and I see what families go through during crises. Something like that will show us all how fragile humans can be. I am so glad your wife is able to live with you and be productive and that you all have managed to created such a beautiful life together. What an affirmation of life!

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36 Elizabeth November 21, 2013 at 8:36 am

May God continue to bless this family. Thank-you all for sharing. I love the symbolism in the house and the love this family shares. So inspirational.

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37 Diane Taylor November 21, 2013 at 9:03 am

Hi Gabrielle – I love Jay’s story. I found Hope Heals thru another blogger and now here I am on your site. The power of social media :) I can relate to that one phone call that changes you forever – I received it on March 1, 2012 when my only child Jonathan Paul Daily, age 24, was found in his apartment after his kitchen caught fire, feet from the door, before the smoke overcame him. In one split second, I went from light to dark. And here I am, almost 21 months later – still in the dark. I feel like that last leaf on the barren tree in my front yard, desparately clinging to the branch. To my old life. I pray for the courage and strength to let myself fall from that tree and into the life God has waiting for me. I love the hope that Jay and Katherine’s story holds: I know it’s there, waiting for me. Waiting for the day that I let go….and fall into the light.

Thank you for this great interview.

Thank you Jay and Katherine and james – you are such an inspiration to us all :)

Diane

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38 JO November 21, 2013 at 11:21 am

Diane,
I wish I could help you. I will think about you and Jonathan with all my love.

Gabrielle – thank you for this article.

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39 Shazia November 21, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Thank you for sharing this story and this beautiful home with hope. I too am going through a very rough patch with my family. Our moment was almost 2 years ago and I struggle daily still. But I still have my blessings, I sometimes just need to be reminded to have hope.

Thank you,
Shazia

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40 Sarah November 21, 2013 at 10:39 pm

Don’t want to agonize about a phone call too much, but sure have had those moments that change everything. Where the things you were worrying about the day (or moments) before seem so inconsequential. And a phone call came to some dear friends last summer that has been life altering, so I still am carrying that. A great reminder to actively seek hope and remember that each day is a gift.

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41 Karen November 22, 2013 at 9:54 am

Jay+ Katherine- what an inspiration and testament to faith you are. That video rocked my world and I’m so thankful I stumbled upon your story this morning. I love that you are using the pain and struggles you have been through to encourage and uplift others and are in turn being lifted up and encouraged. Blessings on you guys and your ministry!

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42 Kimberly November 22, 2013 at 2:26 pm

God Bless this family~ May your journey continue to be filled with hope and healing always! Y’ALL are amazing and inspiring.

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43 Lonnalee Anderson November 22, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Praise God for the beautiful work he has done in you and is doing though your story… really, his story for you:) May the hope and peace found in our dear Lord continue to strengthen you in every way. What beautiful, broken people you are! I am so thankful to the Lord for you, and look forward to meeting you on the other side… if not sooner:) Many blessings!

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44 julia November 23, 2013 at 8:03 pm

I just watched the video. Thank you for the encouraging story of faith and truth. Thank you.

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45 Christina November 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm

I can’t stop looking at these images. I’ve kept this page open for days. There is something so peaceful about the ocean paintings in particular. Overall, the blues, greens, and golds are lovely. I also love the starbursts and the whole idea that the items in your home can have symbolic significance. It makes me want to rethink everything about how my home is decorated. This home truly creates a feeling and an environment – like I’ve never seen before. It’s not just stuff. Wonderful. Inspiring.

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46 Jen November 29, 2013 at 6:45 am

A truly beautiful family and inspiring story. I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer 1 1/2 years ago at only 38. It has changed my life and the lives of my husband and two children. These things can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. I love the idea of bringing so much meaning and inspiration in to your home. We need to be reminded each day to stay strong as well as how blessed we are to still be here with those we love.

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47 Cindy December 1, 2013 at 10:01 pm

The foundation well laid will stand the storms, a life built on the sand will surely fall. Their foundation has been firm while they continue to build with hope. God’s blessing on their family and to Him be the glory. Love the thought & design put into their lives and their home.

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48 Noel December 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm

So wonderful to find the Wolf family here! They are an inspiration to so many.

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49 Amy January 8, 2014 at 9:44 pm

wow this was the most beautiful home and story. such a lovely heart this man has. home also! this was so touching, thanks for sharing…..

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50 Jessica January 15, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Thank you for such a beautiful post.

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