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!