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With faith, she survives

"(God) will wipe away every tear. There will no longer be any death, any mourning or crying or pain." Rev. 21:4

ESCALON — Today is Sheri Heida's first Easter without her husband, Jim, in nearly four decades. Good Friday would have been their 35th wedding anniversary.

But on Dec. 20, Jim Heida, 54, died of a heart attack while the two were visiting family in Texas.

It's also Sheri's first Easter without her oldest sister, Thel Dotinga. Thel, an 11-year breast cancer survivor, died of meningeal cancer, which affects the membranes surrounding the brain, on Feb. 24. She was diagnosed one day before.

Four days after Thel's funeral, Sheri and her daughter, Shelly, went on a mission trip to Nairobi, Kenya. There they got the news that Sheri's youngest son and his wife had suffered the miscarriage of their first child.

As a prologue to those three losses, Sheri's 21-year-old nephew died in August 2005. He had a heart attack while working on his home computer.

Her father, John Vander Schaff, barely survived his heart attack three months later. A sextuple heart bypass saved him.

Despite all of these tragedies, Sheri Heida is looking forward to celebrating Easter today.

"Easter means the world to me," she said. "I can picture that empty tomb in Jerusalem. I remember going there a few years ago and feeling the grief of me causing Christ's death, and then turning around and seeing a sign that says, 'He is not here. He is risen.'

"That's why I can get through all my grief. Someday, all sorrow is going to be set aside and the greater reality is going to be living with Christ — eternal life. All of those graves are going to be empty someday because Christ's grave is empty."

Jim and Sheri were in Hereford, Texas, on Dec. 20, visiting their son's family and tending to the Heida family dairy, which they had moved from the Stockton area the previous year. Richie Heida runs the day-to-day operations.

"I was shopping with my daughter-in-law for a few last-minute Christmas things," Sheri said. "My cell phone rang and it was Jim, calling to tell me he wasn't feeling well and asking me to meet him at the hospital.

"That was a huge thing because Jim has never been admitted to a hospital. I asked him if it was his chest, and he said he didn't know, he just felt weird."

Sheri beat Jim to the hospital and ran in to get a wheelchair. He sat in it, but told her he didn't need it. An electrocardiogram was done.

"They said it was unremarkable and nothing was going on. He was complaining of discomfort really high in his chest. The doctor said when we got home (to California) it would be good to have our doctor check him out.

"So we were thinking maybe pneumonia. Jim said he'd been lifting heavy things and maybe that was it."

The doctor ordered a chest X-ray. Sheri said people started bustling after the results were revealed. She asked what was happening.

"They said, 'We're going to transfer him to the Amarillo Heart (Clinical Research) Institute because we think he may be ready to have a heart attack.'

"A doctor came in and Jim seemed to be in more discomfort. The doctor put (Jim's) head down and said, 'Mr. Heida, you are having a significant heart attack. We are pumping you full of clot-busters to break that up in there.'

"Then they chased me out. I was happy to go because I wanted them to fix him. I heard them yell, 'Clear,' and I knew what that meant. But because this was happening in the hospital, I thought they could fix him."

They couldn't.

Someone to comfort her

As they were trying to revive Jim, Sheri said she saw God working. She was talking with her pastor from Modesto's Shelter Cove Community Church and he prayed, "Lord, let someone be there now to hug her and let her know she's not alone."

At that very moment, the principal from her grandchildren's school came up and put an arm around Sheri.

A doctor came and told her that Jim had suffered an arrhythmia. Sheri asked, "Is he gone?' The doctor said no.

"I asked her if he had been without oxygen for a long time. She said yes. I said, 'Is he brain damaged?' She said, 'We're concerned about that.' I said, 'I'll take him any way I can get him.'"

But a few minutes later, the doctor said Jim had died.

Sheri said it was 70 minutes from Jim's phone call to the news of his death.

She flew home Dec. 23, spent Christmas with her four children and six grandchildren, and buried her husband on Dec. 27.

"There's a lot of fear, being 53 years old and looking at a long life without Jim," Sheri said. "I didn't think I could live a day without him. Now it's going on 3½ months."

They dated for three years and married when she was 18 and he was 19.

"What a gift God gave me to marry so young," she said, "because it wasn't going to be as long as we thought."

There are still many tears and sadness, but Sheri said there are blessings as well.

"The night before he died, we were sitting in a little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop," she said. "It had sleeted that day and I put a hood over my hair. I looked pretty awful — flat hair, no makeup, and he said, 'You're pretty; do you know that?' I said, 'I wish.' He said, 'To me, you are pretty.' I'm thankful we sat in that coffee shop that night, to remember that he said that to me."

Going downhill very quickly

"I realize exactly when I knew she was sick," Sheri said about her oldest sister, Thel. The two are part of a family with five sisters and a brother.

"I was sitting in the front row at Jim's funeral and Thel walked around the corner. Her color, her weight loss, everything let me know she was sick. But Thel was busy protecting us from a lot of how she felt. That's the way she was."

By mid-January, Thel could no longer hide her condition. She was disoriented, losing her balance, having some tremors, fainting.

Thel, 59, "was in the middle of changing doctors, looking for answers and having trouble finding exactly what was happening," Sheri said. "She was going downhill very, very quickly.

"I remember celebrating my parents' 60th anniversary on Jan. 29. I was looking at Thel and thinking she was dying before my eyes."

Thel was admitted to the hospital on a Tuesday and slipped into a coma two days later. Early Friday, the diagnosis finally came: Cancer in the lining of her brain with no hope of treatment.

On Saturday, Feb. 24, "we surrounded her with singing and praying and Bible-reading," Sheri said. "We were just singing old hymns of the faith, singing her into heaven.

"We sang, 'What a Day That Will Be.' It's an old one; we sang it at Jim's funeral. It made me think of him. I had made a comment earlier, when I thought she could still hear me, to tell Jim that I missed him and really loved him. I was just thinking, 'She's going to see Jim before I will.'"

'What else can go wrong?'

A few days after Thel's funeral, Sheri and her daughter traveled to Nairobi on a trip that had been planned with Jim since the previous fall.

Shelly is the child sponsorship coordinator for Agape Children's Ministries, headquartered in Modesto, and has made eight trips to Kenya, site of the Agape home for street boys and a day school for other children.

Sheri got a message to call her youngest son, John, six days after they arrived.

"At first I was mildly irritated, thinking he was calling me about a business decision," Sheri said. "Then I knew it probably meant bad news. But part of me thought, 'What else can go wrong?'"

John and his wife, four months along, had lost their baby.

"I took the choice to be alone that morning," Sheri said. "I really did start praying right away, but instead of asking God to be with them and bless them, I was really ticked off. 'Would that have been so hard for you (God) to allow us to have this baby?' I felt this was a gift he was giving us, and now he was ripping it out of my hands. I did not see any redeeming purpose for this.

"I was angry. I was really tired of it. I was sadder than I'd been in a long time. I know this was a culmination of all my grief. But I thought this baby was a reminder of Jim's legacy and that he was living on through his grandchildren. I'm not embarrassed to say I was angry. I just wanted to go out and break something."

Instead, she said, she and Shelly decided to walk to the Agape center.

"To get there, you have to walk through a lot of places where kids are playing in poverty," Sheri said. "And in Agape, you're reminded of the kids who don't have a home.

"All of a sudden, I think God just wanted me to look around and see how most of the world lives. The sadness. The death they live with all the time. It was like a thunderclap. I had the thought, 'And why are you deserving more than they are?' The moms don't even name their kids for months or a year because they often don't live long.

"It hit me that sometimes I think because I'm an American and a Christian, I do deserve it more than they do. I think God told me that day, Christ died for them. I'm still sad, but it reminded me of how much I have instead of looking at the negative."

A supernatural strength

Sheri has four children: Jim Jr., 33; Richie, 31; John, 28, and Shelly, 25. They, of course, have their own grief, but point to their mom as a role model of putting feet on her faith.

Richie got to the hospital in Texas just after his dad started having his heart attack.

"Mom just kept praying and praying," he said. "I thought, 'How can you be praying now?' Most people would have lost it. I was blown away by the strength of my mom.

"I kind of think she's Job (a biblical character who lost his possessions, livelihood and children, but who steadfastly refused to blame God). I think the only thing that's keeping her together is her faith. She talks about it all the time, and I know she's got her nose in the Bible more than ever. I'm just blown away by it. It's supernatural strength, if you ask me."

Shelly lives with their mom, but was planning to move into her own place a while back. Her dad asked her last year to wait until April.

"It was like my dad was still protecting my mom even when he wasn't here," she said.

Shelly said she's learned a lot from her mom.

"I'm kind of, 'Lord, what are you doing and why are you doing it?' And she's like, 'Lord, thank you for being with me in the midst of it.' It's a wonderful example to me and my brothers about how to have a good relationship with the Lord even in the bad times."

'Don't waste time'

Sheri spends her days praying, studying the Bible, getting together with her adult children, grandchildren, surviving sisters, parents, Jim's mom, and in other activities.

One thing she enjoys doing is feeding her buffaloes, a gift from Jim.

"Throughout our marriage, we always go way out of our way to see the buffaloes," she said. "Once, we drove through the middle of a herd in Montana. It was so amazing.

"One day, Jim came home and said, 'You know, Sheri, if we get some buffaloes, they can keep down the weeds in our pasture and I won't have to drive you all over the place looking for them.' So he found a man who sells them, and we got ours in 2000."

Every day, you can find her out feeding the animals. It brings another good memory of her husband.

To those who also have experienced loss, Sheri gives this advice:

"Don't waste time. I listen to people fussing about unimportant things and think, 'What a waste of time.' Our 34½ years seemed like such a long time, but it's over. I'm so appreciative of the good moments now — my kids, my sisters, my friends.

"I hope I don't waste time anymore. I don't mean reading a book, I mean the relationships I have."

She won't waste time today.

"I'll be thinking of the victory from death and the resurrection, which makes me think about eternity and heaven. Of course, when I think of heaven, I think about that's where Jim is now and Thel and our little grandbaby, my nephew and others I love.

"I'll be spending Easter with my sisters, my brother, my parents, some of my kids, Thel's family. I know we'll shed some tears, but we'll laugh as well."

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or snowicki@modbee.com.

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