Shuffling through the mail, Brad Kremmer pulled out several envelopes from credit card companies and ripped them open. His muscles tightened as he skimmed over the new balances. “She’s lied again,” Brad realized.
His wife, Jennifer, had promised to stop gambling at the casino and going on out-of-control buying sprees. She seemed to understand the seriousness of their mounting debts and he really believed her when she tearfully promised to quit. Instead, she had gone through at least another two thousand dollars. It would probably amount to even more by the time the other bills rolled in.
“Jennifer,” he called angrily to his wife. “You’ve got to stop. Can’t you see we’ll end up going bankrupt?”
Jennifer stiffened when she saw Brad’s disappointed face and the pile of bills in his hands. Up until that moment, she had always responded with shame and remorse over her gambling and spending addiction. But suddenly, she released her own building tension.
“I’m stuck home all day with nothing to do but take care of Kristin and housework,” she yelled. “All you do is complain and treat me like a child. I’m sick of it and I’m sick of you...I’m leaving!”
“Where are you going?” Brad demanded.
“Out!” Jennifer screamed. “And don’t bother to wait up for me.”
Brad looked out the window as his wife sped off in the direction of the casino, where so much of his hard-earned money had gone the last couple months.
“Dear God,” he prayed. “Watch over her. I’ll do whatever it takes to help her, but I don’t know what to do anymore. Please help us so Kristin and I can have her back the way she was.”
“Daddy,” his two-year-old daughter’s voice broke his reverie. “Where’s Mommy?”
“She’s taking a little break, Kristin,” Brad answered gently picking her up. “Let’s get something to eat and then we can go for a walk, okay?”
Brad smiled at his little girl and choked back his tears. There was a time when he and Jennifer delighted together in their daughter. But now, it seemed the only thing that Jennifer cared about was gambling and shopping. It had happened so fast that Brad did not understand it. Ironically, Jennifer’s addiction emerged shortly after he began getting serious about his faith.
Falling in Love
Brad and Jennifer were only 20 and 19 when they married on June 27, 1992. A physical attraction sparked immediately when they met and the emotional attraction followed easily.
Brad was from a Catholic family with four children. Jennifer was Catholic too, but she had been raised as an only child of a single mom. Brad’s levelheaded nature and warm affection gave her a sense of security she had missed by being cared for by babysitters so much of her life.
Jennifer’s beauty and fun-loving personality were irresistible to Brad. Marriage made Jennifer feel special and more grown-up compared to all her single girlfriends. Having a good-looking and attentive husband seemed to erase all the years of not having a father in her life.
Brad started his own graphic arts business and Jennifer had her own shoe shine company. Life was good: independence, business success, love, and plenty of friends and parties. Two years into the marriage, Jennifer discovered she was pregnant. In spite of a twinge of fear, excitement over having a baby filled her. Brad was one-hundred-percent thrilled.
As her belly grew, Jennifer often daydreamed of rocking her newborn to sleep all snuggled up in a soft blanket. But when baby Kristin entered the world, jaundice and a difficult time nursing shattered Jennifer’s perfect image. This and sleep deprivation brought out Jennifer’s low stress threshold and strong-will.
Crying and lashing out at Brad became second nature. Initially, Brad’s easygoing disposition chalked it up to hormones and lack of sleep. But when it became habitual, he firmly told Jennifer he did not appreciate her treating him that way. Still, Jennifer had poor self-control when stress mounted, so Brad learned to mostly stay out of her way until she pulled herself back together.
Within a few weeks, Kristin's medical and nursing problems cleared up and Jennifer began to embrace her new role as a mother. Jennifer and Brad agreed that she would stay home to care for the baby. Caring for her little girl filled her with happiness. Jennifer often delighted in buying pretty baby girl things and dressing Kristin up like a little princess.
As Kristin went from baby to toddler, life became routine. During February of 1996, Brad and Jennifer planned a trip to Disney World to escape the winter doldrums. At nineteen months, Kristin, was an easy-going toddler who would enjoy the vacation too. The trip turned out to be the trip of a lifetime, but when they returned home, Jennifer felt suffocated by the monotony of housework, a lingering winter, and the demands of childcare.
A restlessness nagged at her. Anything associated with religion also became a bore for her at this time. “I feel like Catholicism was shoved down my throat as a child, ” she complained to Brad. “I don’t know if it’s right for me. Let’s take a look at some other churches.”
Brad had no interest in looking around at different faiths and she resented that he did not support her interest. “Do what you have to do,” he told her, “but I’m not going anywhere.”
While many of his old friends had started turning to cocaine and dealing drugs, Brad began embracing his faith with a passion; even to the point of attending regular spiritual retreats put on by Opus Dei.
He could not share his enthusiasm with Jennifer, however. Even going to Mass was more than she cared to do. Occasional shopping trips brought Jennifer some relief from her boredom. Buying clothes was fun and it also made her feel good to dress up Kristin or herself in something new. Getting a sitter and going out with Brad was something else that Jennifer enjoyed. One of her favorite things to do was to go to the casino with Brad and her mother. They would take forty dollars and make an evening out of it.
As Jennifer’s restlessness grew, her nights out with girlfriends increased, usually at the casino. Before long, Jennifer started going to the casino alone when she could not find someone to go with her. Often she drove home feeling euphoric, with a few hundred dollars more than she walked in with. But more often, she had to keep feeding money into the insatiable machines that sucked up her coins.
The excitement and intensity of gambling made Jennifer feel alive while the dull hues of the rest of life was something just to get through. The only other enjoyment she had at this time was shopping. As the bills mounted, Brad took notice.
“Jennifer, you can’t keep shopping like this...how many clothes do you and Kristin need?” He was especially concerned about the cash advances on the credit cards that evaporated into the casino. “Jennifer, your gambling is getting out of hand,” he’d say. “You need to stop.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jennifer would respond tearfully “I promise, I’ll quit.” She had every intention of keeping her word at the time, but then the deep down craving to release her tension and pull herself out of the doldrums by gambling grew until she could not stand it.
“I need a break,” she’d say to Brad. “I’m going with some friends to play pool for a couple hours if that’s okay with you?”
Brad’s stomach began to tighten when Jennifer mentioned going out. “Is she really going out with friends or to gamble?” Brad wondered.
When the credit card bills kept increasing, it was obvious Jennifer had started lying to him. When Brad expressed suspicion, Jennifer reacted with anger and headed straight for the casino anyways—angry at Brad for questioning her.
“Jennifer, this has to stop,” Brad demanded one day after opening the bills. “Our minimum payment is up to $1000 a month. Your gambling is ruining us.”
His patience had worn thin and he began raising his voice when confronting Jennifer. Getting yelled at, even a little, was something that Jennifer could not stand. Her reaction was explosive and resulted in another trip to the casino. Sometimes, Jennifer would disappear for days at time. There was no longer any trust between them.
Brad started checking the car’s mileage and doubted Jennifer’s every word. Jennifer refused to address her own behavior and instead began to see Brad as a hindrance to her happiness.
Maybe being married was not a good idea, Jennifer began thinking. Jennifer still loved Brad and Kristin, but she began to think that she just was not ready to be tied down to such a seemingly dull life. In contrast, Brad became more committed to his marriage. Daily Mass, the rosary, and more time spent in prayer were his weapons to fight the evil that was tearing apart his family. Yet, the bills and the lies kept mounting.
The Last Straw
During the last week in December, Brad’s parents had arranged for everyone on their side of the family to get together for a ski vacation. “I’m not feeling well,” Jennifer begged off. “You go ahead and have fun, and I’ll see you and Kristin when you get back.”
Brad was not comfortable leaving Jennifer, but he could not physically drag her there. “Okay,” Brad said skeptically, “I’ll see you in a few days.” But he was livid when he returned home to an empty house. He took Kristin to his parents’ house and then drove to the casino. It was New Year’s Eve, ten months since their Disneyland vacation.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, he frantically scanned the crowd for Jennifer’s face. What he saw terrified him. It was Jennifer and yet it was not Jennifer. Her zombie-like face was fixated on a gambling machine until she noticed Brad. Then she instantly seethed with anger and hatred at the sight of him.
Something snapped in Brad. “I cannot take it anymore,” he told Jennifer. “You need to leave our home.”
“Fine,” Jennifer responded defiantly, “Then I’ll leave.”
In spite of kicking Jennifer out of the house, Brad still loved her intensely but he would not continue to enable her destructive behavior. And Jennifer knew she still loved Brad. It was the responsibility that went along with being a wife and mother that no longer interested her.
Jennifer was too proud to tell family or friends that Brad had kicked her out. She slept in her car for the next two nights and continued to gamble. On the third day, Jennifer won an $8,000 jackpot. She got an apartment and happily shopped for all the furnishings.
Staying the Course
Jennifer and Brad maintained regular contact with each other and he kept faithfully praying for her. But by the middle of February, Brad called a trusted priest who served as his spiritual advisor.
“Father, I’m ready to throw in the towel,” Brad stated. “How long am I suppose to take this?”
He expected the priest to agree that maybe it was time to move on. Instead, Father’s response both surprised and comforted him. “You take it forever,” he said. “You are married to Jennifer forever. “A peace and strength filled Brad as he listened.
“But what if she ends up divorcing me?” Brad asked.
“Then you go on and raise your daughter without her but you will still be married to her. You are being crucified like Jesus and your suffering is being offered up for Jennifer with our Lord. It does not matter how long it goes on, you are saving her soul with our Lord.”
Brad suddenly found the strength and determination to stay the course. Father’s straight talk solidified his determination. There would be no quitting. His work and suffering would be offered up for her soul and he would pray for Jennifer now and forever, regardless of what her response to him was. Brad now fully understood the complete lifetime commitment he had made to Jennifer before God, and he was determined to keep it.
The Weight of the Cross
Shortly afterwards, Jennifer discovered she was pregnant. Like their love for one another, the physical passion had never left their relationship. Neither of them was surprised to learn of the pregnancy.
But when Jennifer was just a couple months along, a phone call from a male friend of Jennifer’s led Brad to believe that the child was not his. Shaking, he drove Kristin over to his parent’s house and then stormed over to Jennifer’s apartment.
“How dare you!” he screamed so loud that it cut into his throat. Seeing Brad's fury and hearing him scream terrified her. Through everything, Brad had never done more than raise his voice. “That baby is not mine, you whore! How could you go to bed with another man?”
Jennifer was shocked and indignant. She had never slept with anyone else. Brad’s rage ignited her own. “You’re crazy!” she yelled back. “You don’t know what the hell you're talking about!”
“You’re nothing but a damn liar!” Brad hollered at the top of his lungs.
Jennifer grabbed the phone to call 911. She was terrified that Brad had lost control. Brad grabbed the phone out of her hand and yanked it out of the wall. The screaming continued for several minutes until two police officers showed up. A neighbor had called.
Jennifer’s hand had been cut when the phone cord scraped past it. Since the police saw blood, they handcuffed Brad.
“No, don’t arrest him!” Jennifer pleaded. “It was an accident.”
Anyone trained in domestic violence knows that typically the abused wife defends her abuser when the police show up. So, Jennifer’s defense of Brad fell on deaf ears. He was charged with domestic violence and taken to jail.
Sitting in a cell among hardened criminals, Brad was too exhausted and emotionally numb to care about the sneers and curious looks from the other inmates. He pulled out his rosary. “This is the cross,” he thought, “and I will carry it for Jennifer. In the name of the Father and of the Son...” The next day, his dad bailed him out.
And Old Boyfriend
After Brad left in handcuffs, Jennifer went to visit a friend in another town for a couple days. During this time, she started thinking about Steve, who she had once thought she was in love with. Since he was recently divorced, Jennifer began to imagine getting back together with him. She drove for two days to New Mexico to see him, hoping to get back together. Steve agreed to meet her at a bar.
“Hi,” Jennifer smiled, walking up to Steve’s table. The two talked for a couple hours as if they were picking up from where they left off a few years earlier. Jennifer was ready to drop everything if Steve would have her. After all, she decided, there was nothing else to go back to.
Steve listened patiently as Jennifer confessed her troubles to him. His response did not fit the script she had written in her head.
“You need to get your butt back home and save your marriage,” Steve said. “You’d be insane to leave your husband. Why would you want to leave a man who has stuck by you through all this? You don’t know how good you have it.”
Hearing these words spoken by an old boyfriend was more than a rejection; it was an injection of reality.
Steve did not want her. And, Jennifer suddenly realized, she did not want him. She did not even know Steve anymore and here she was ready to leave everything for him. It was as if the cloud of insanity that had covered her began to lift.
Hearing Steve tell her what an incredible husband she had, forced her to face the hell and humiliation she had put Brad through during the past year. And somehow, even though she did not deserve it, he still loved her.
Sitting across from Steve, everything began to sink in: her selfish lifestyle, the guilt for abandoning her daughter and husband, and the lack of sleep from her drive. Jennifer finally crumbled. It was time to stop running.
The attraction of the single life, spending sprees, and gambling became intensely hollow. Brad and Kristin were the real treasures. She was totally exhausted both physically and emotionally. Steve let her sleep on his couch a couple nights then gave her gas money for food and to get back home.
It was a very different Jennifer who drove back home. Her heart throbbed with love for Brad and Kristin. She cried for the mistreatment she had inflicted on them. And she did something she had never really done before.
There was no example of prayer in her home while growing up, with the exception of a few rare blessings before special dinners. But now, Jennifer poured her heart out to God. “God, I’ll do anything if you give me my family back. Please let Brad still love me. Please help us recover from all the damage I’ve done.”
Jennifer expected that she would have to work hard to get Brad to accept her back. She trusted that he would still love her and knew he would want them to raise their children together, but she did not imagine that he could easily forget the hell she put him through.
When she was halfway home, she called him at work. “Brad,” she said nervously. “I’m coming home. I’m so sorry for everything that has happened. I want us to be together again.”
Brad was quiet a moment. “Well,” he said flatly, “We will see.” He wanted to believe in Jennifer, but she had disappointed him so many times before. He put down the phone and said a prayer.
Jennifer got back into the car and began pleading with God again. “Please let me have my life back again. I want to be a good Christian wife and mother. Help me to be the person you want me to be, Lord.”
Brad looked up from his desk when Jennifer nervously opened the door and walked in. She looked like a scared kitten. He walked over to her and they embraced.
“Can you take me back?” she cried, melting into his arms. “I do want to be with you for the rest of my life. I’m so sorry for all the things I’ve done to hurt you.”
“Yes, I’ll take you back,” Brad said through tears of joy. “I love you.”
Jennifer moved back that day. Kristin squealed with delight when she saw her. “Mommy’s back,” she announced.
“I love you so much,” Jennifer said, hugging her little girl. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long. But I’m back now forever.” During the three months Jennifer moved out, she still spent time with Kristin but her daughter made it clear that she missed having her mommy at home.
Brad expected that there would be an adjustment for Jennifer, but amazingly, they were able to pick up where they left off--only better. Waking up in her own home with her family made Jennifer feel like the luckiest person in the world. She had expected that she would need to work hard to prove herself, but Brad made it clear that he had forgiven everything and would love her for the rest of her life.
The week after Jennifer returned was Easter. Sitting at Mass, surrounded by family, tears of gratefulness filled her eyes. Jennifer truly rejoiced that Jesus Christ had risen that day.
The following weekend, Jennifer attended a women’s retreat. She felt deeply embraced by God’s love and forgiveness as she spent the time praying, listening to speakers, and going to confession. For Jennifer, Brad’s unconditional love brought her part of the way, and then God took over.
The desire to read the Bible and pray daily blossomed in her. Listening to speakers talk about God sanctifying us through our daily life brought the deeper meaning she had been searching for. Realizing that God was giving her another baby also filled her with gratitude and a desire to live in union with Him. Jennifer felt overwhelmingly blessed when she reflected on her life; all the people who had prayed for her, her motherhood, and Brad--a virtual hero in her eyes.
After the retreat, Brad noticed a remarkable difference in Jennifer. She was more peaceful and confident in her faith than he had ever seen her. It seemed as if she actually glowed with joy. Now, Jennifer was finally able to share Brad’s enthusiasm for his Catholic faith.
Six months after Jennifer’s return, she gave birth to another beautiful baby girl. That same month, the couple realized they could no longer keep up with their minimum $1,200 a month credit card payments. They declared bankruptcy. It was an unfortunate consequence of Jennifer’s past. But instead of lamenting it, it was a reminder to them that they had so much to rejoice in now.
Brad admits that there were many times when the past threatened to haunt them. It would be a passing thought, or the temptation to feel resentment as when, for instance, when they had to pay a higher interest rate than people with good credit.
For Jennifer, the temptation was to feel bad about herself--how could she have done all that to her daughter and husband? Even though she trusted Brad’s forgiveness, some memory would come up and it would hurt. But both Jennifer and Brad understood the need to access their marital grace by running to God when thoughts turned negative.
“If these thoughts popped into my head,” says Brad, “I would give it to our Lord and ask Him to take it away. We need to ask for the superhuman ability to forgive, even ourselves, because it’s too big for mere humans. The only way I made it through was by staying as close to God as I could.”
Five years after Jennifer’s return, she went into a casino with Brad. She was appalled to the point of feeling nauseous by the emptiness she felt watching people frantically gamble.
“I knew they were like I had been,” says Jennifer, “trying to fill the hole in their lives with gambling. I wished I could tell them that if they put God in that hole, it would overflow forever and never be empty. Putting time in with God pays you back. Gambling never will.” And when it comes to shopping, Jennifer says it’s just a chore now.
It’s been eight years since Jennifer returned home. They have five children ranging in age from eleven to one. She finds raising her family anything but mundane. Although Jennifer has hobbies and a part-time job, she says it is God and her family that fulfills her.
As Brad and Jennifer look back over the difficult times and the healing, both say that the love they share now for one another, is deeper than anything they ever imagined on their wedding day. “It feels as if there was an overall purification for both of us,” says Brad. “It did not come easy, but God was with us and gave us the grace we needed to persevere.”
Copyright 2014, Patti Maguire Armstrong
About the Author
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.