The sun crept through the floor-to-ceiling windows, breaking the silent peace of sleep. Sleep was better. It meant an escape from reality. A respite from the excruciating pain of cancer. A moment to breathe without the debilitating weight of suffering.
But alas, the sun rose and pierced its rays through the studio apartment as it did every morning. Except this morning felt different. When Allison Blake Howell (known to her family and friends as “Blake”) woke up, she became all too aware of the noises coming from beside her. The top half of her husband Sean’s body had fallen off the bed at some point, and she woke up to his moaning. As Blake ran to his side of the bed and lifted his 200-pound body back up, it became apparent to her that at some point in the night, he had become paralyzed. It was only a matter of time as the pancreatic cancer spread to the rest of Sean’s body and overtook his most basic functions like mobility and vision.
Blake phoned her mother and sister, who were staying at a hotel around the corner, for help. She was able to lift Sean back into bed, but he kept falling off. They rushed over, and the three of them hoisted Sean back into bed, but not without becoming acutely aware of how much pain he appeared to be in. His face twisted and contorted with fear and frustration. He wailed and moaned as Blake did what she could to make him more comfortable.
“It’s O.K., papa,” Blake repeated as she rubbed Sean’s legs and hands. “You’re O.K., baby. I’m here. Everything is alright. Jesus is here, Sean. He is with you. You’re going to be O.K.”
When Blake repeated the words, “Jesus is here. He is with you,” Sean’s eyes suddenly focused on her as if he could see her again. Blake paused. His eyes hadn’t focused in days, ever since he lost his eyesight. But in this moment, Sean looked directly at her.
moment, Sean looked directly at her. And then, his eyes shifted to the opposite corner of the bed.
“I turned around to look at what he was looking at, and there was nothing there,” Blake remembers. “I turned back to him and without even thinking about what I was saying, the words just came out of my mouth: ‘Yeah, you see Him, don’t you? Jesus is here. I told you Jesus is here with you. And you see Him, don’t you?’”
Sean looked back at Blake and nodded. Through heavy, long breaths, he asked, “I…go…with…Him?” And without hesitation, Blake responded, “Yes, you go with Him. Let Him take you home. You’re going to be O.K. I’m going to be O.K. too, papa. Don’t worry about me. Jesus will be with me, too.”
“I was like, I knew He was here with you, but woah!” Blake says. “It was just peace and comfort [that came over him]. He was like, ‘O.K. Jesus, I’m stopping. I’ve been fighting. I’m going to stop. I’ll go with You.’”
As Sean surrendered, the fear that painted his face earlier disappeared. His body still struggled to work as his breathing worsened, but a visible peace radiated from him that Blake hadn’t seen before.
Blake’s testimony isn’t filled with miraculous, metaphysical moments of Jesus’s presence. She has not heard His voice audibly or interacted with Heaven’s angels or anything like that. In fact, one could argue that she should’ve been spared some of the devastating moments that marked her life. And yet, this is what Blake has to say about it all: “I think a lot of people could say that it would be weird for me to say how fair God’s timing was when I’m a 35-year-old widow.
a 35-year-old widow. But it is. He is. He knows better than we do. And He was looking out for us the whole time, whether we knew it or not.”
Blake didn’t mentally prepare for the worst, but something inside her gave her the strength to keep going with grace and poise and strength. A miraculous, metaphysical thing, perhaps.
Just before Sean’s encounter with Jesus on the bed, Blake had stepped outside while her sister and mother took over. She welcomed the biting cold air that hit her face as she stared down at the sparkling snow.
“I was just in this weird daze,” Blake explains. “The only way I could describe it is, I was standing there and the way I had seen it happen through Sean, where it seemed like something moved from the top of his head down to his feet, I felt physically the same type of thing happen to me. I can only explain it as the Holy Spirit. And it literally started at the top of my head, and I’m just there staring off into this sparkly snow. And it just moved down me. The most calm, assured, peaceful, strong feeling I’ve ever had in my life just washed over me. From that moment forward, I went into some weird autopilot thing, where my mind and my mouth were making movements that were not my own. I swear. There’s just no other way to describe it.”
Blake took a deep breath and went back inside. She walked right past Sean, her mother, and her sister and went straight into the bathroom. She looked at herself in the mirror for the first time in weeks. I look so bad, she thought to herself. She hadn’t taken care of herself for the last five months, ever since Sean was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, and it was showing. Nevertheless, Blake let her long brown, curly hair down. She swiped lipstick across her delicate lips and sprayed perfume onto the nape of her neck and wrists. She changed into a fresh shirt.
“I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing,” Blake says. “But it was like, you need to [look] nice because he’s about to die. You want to look good and smell good. So I got myself together and came down and sat next to him.”
Soon after Blake told Sean he could go home with Jesus , their church pastor and friend, Daniel, arrived unexpectedly. Blake led Daniel to the bedside and explained to Sean that he was here to see him. As Daniel took Sean’s hand and began to ask how he was feeling, Blake stood by the front door to give them some privacy. She heard Daniel say to Sean, “I know the Lord’s Prayer is your favorite. Do you mind if I say that with you right now?” Sean squeezed Daniel’s hand, so Daniel proceeded. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us of our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. As soon as Daniel said, “Amen,” he called over to Blake, concern in his voice. “Blake?” No, no, no, Blake thought. She didn’t move or respond. “Blake!” Daniel called out again. This time, she ran around the corner and saw what she had hoped against. Just as Daniel said, “Amen,” Sean took his last breath.
“God is so good and so merciful,” Blake explains, “because what if all of this had happened before He had shown Sean and I the full power of His love and His grace and His mercy?
this had happened before He had shown Sean and I the full power of His love and His grace and His mercy? All of this could’ve happened when Sean and I were still in that horrible place where we didn’t really know God, before we had real faith and hope and all of that. What if all this happened then? What if we still had all that forgiveness to work through? God is so good. I think a lot of people could look at this situation and be like, ‘You keep talking about how good God is, but He took your husband.’ But He is so good.”
What if all of this had happened then? What if Sean had been given four to six months to live when he and Blake were separated, living apart, and broken with unforgiveness and betrayal? What if he had been diagnosed with cancer before they had discovered the tangible power of God’s redemption? What if he had died before committing his life to Jesus?
Which is exactly why Blake can’t get over how good Jesus is. He gave Blake and Sean a second chance and an opportunity to mend what was broken before it was all too late.
Blake met Sean at the end of her first year in New York in 2001, where she moved to work as a flight attendant. After a double date with Sean’s brother and wife whom Blake knew from her hometown in Texas, the two began dating regularly. Two months later, they moved in together into a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens.
“We were very happy,” Blake remembers. “We were falling majorly in love…we were in that phase of the newness of a relationship, and it was a beautiful, wonderful thing. We were loving life and loving each other, so things were great in the beginning.”
But over the course of the next two years leading up to their wedding in October of 2003, things went from good to bad very quickly. In 2002, Sean’s stepfather suddenly died from pancreatic cancer. Meanwhile, it became apparent that Blake and Sean were in bad financial shape.
For the most part, planning a big, expensive wedding distracted Blake from seeing the effects stress and unmet promises had on Sean. But after the hoopla of the wedding passed, Blake and Sean were face-to-face with reality back in New York.
“Within three to four months after our marriage—that quickly—I saw a big change in Sean that was not good,” Blake says. “He was very bitter now. He was very resentful and angry and scared and frustrated."
The easygoing guy she fell quickly and hard for became depressed, turning to alcohol and marijuana to cope. Little did Blake know, however, just how far they were from hitting rock bottom. For the next decade, Blake and Sean suffered through multiple miscarriages, a desperate move to Dallas, a disappointing move back to New York, endless financial struggles, sudden familial deaths, betrayal, and the continuous alcoholism that plagued their marriage from the start.
One afternoon in early 2008, Blake opened Sean’s laptop to do a quick Internet search while she talked on the phone with her girlfriend. She mindlessly clicked on an open tab, which led her to an inappropriate chat room that Sean had been in the night prior while Blake was on a work trip.
“That was the very first time I became painfully aware that Sean was betraying me,” Blake remembers.
Blake sat with the new information for the rest of the day, trying to figure out how she could make her husband come clean. When she eventually confronted him with her discovery, Sean denied any infidelity, only admitting to being on the website out of curiosity while being under the influence. This incident led to five years of marriage counseling, in which Blake desperately desired an admission from Sean that he had been unfaithful. She didn’t get one.
In 2012, Blake and Sean planned a five-day vacation to get out of the city. Blake envisioned five meaningful days to reconnect with Sean. Instead, Sean spent the five days so high he could barely hold a conversation. When they returned home, Blake knew what she had to do.
“By the time that trip was over, I kind of knew that I probably needed to remove myself,” Blake says. “And yet still, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t give up on the marriage or him. So I hung in a little bit longer, like a few more weeks.”
Blake hoped that it could change, that their marriage could somehow be salvaged. She loved Sean so much. They had gone through a lot together. But in the weeks following their “vacation,” Blake knew more and more that she had to remove herself from the situation.
“It was a rapid decline,” Blake says. “It just got worse and worse. Eventually, I said I can’t anymore. So we had an incredibly heartbreaking, very painful sit-down. It went on for hours in the middle of the day. We were both just bawling our eyes out. There wasn’t hatefulness or anger. It was pure heartbreak on both sides.”
Sean knew he had hurt Blake. And he was sorry for hurting her, but he admitted he didn’t know how to stop himself. Meanwhile, Blake still wanted the admission she never got. She begged him to tell her the truth, that perhaps if he was honest from the start, they could have begun to work through it and move forward.
“And finally, he was just so broken sitting there, like a little boy. It was tragic watching him and listening to him,” Blake remembers. “And through tears, he said, ‘I can’t tell you because you’ll never be able to look at me the same. You’ll never be able to forgive me. And I can’t have you know the whole truth. It wouldn’t be good for you. You don’t need to know.’”
That was enough of an admission for Blake without needing to know everything. She told Sean she still loved him very much and that even though she didn’t want this marriage to end, she had no choice but to leave and protect herself.
“I said, ‘I will go away and I will be working on me, and I really hope you take this opportunity to do the same and fix Sean. And who knows what happens? Maybe that works and we become people who have a healthy marriage,’” Blake says. “But as I was saying all of that, I didn’t really believe it. I just didn’t want to hurt him.”
Blake moved into a studio apartment in Manhattan, close to her job. She threw herself into her work and for the first time in years, Blake was free. Free from the dark spell of alcoholism and addiction. Free from the constant pain of trying to make someone change. Free from the betrayal. She mourned the loss of her marriage, but she had already lost the Sean she met for some time now.
At this point, Blake likes to highlight the “coolest part” of it all.
“I did my darnest to run and ignore and push against God and His will for my life or His presence,” Blake shares. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with Him a lot of times. I started to question whether He was even real or not at certain points. The cool part is that all the time, He was there. All the time. He really pursued me. Pretty relentless in His pursuit. I don’t really know the whole story as to why, but God was like, ‘Girl, I’m tired of chasing you.’ He grabbed me by the back of the hair and was like, ‘Enough already!’”
A couple months after Blake moved out, her sister and brother-in-law visited New York from Texas to support the kickoff weekend of a family friend’s new church. They invited Blake to the first service of Connection Church in Astoria. Blake obliged, only to discover that her brother-in-law, Chris, had also invited Sean.
“My wife gives me a hard time about how I just blunder along, but in this particular case, it worked out!” Chris confesses. “So I’m really glad I could be of help even though I don’t feel comfortable taking any credit for it. I was just inviting my sister-in-law and brother-in-law to church. And just to tell you how clueless I was, he sat in the back of the church and Blake wouldn’t come into the church for quite a spell. I was oblivious to all that. I guess I just figured they were all talking on the phone or busy doing this or that. It was one of my shinier moments that I was absolutely unaware of.”
And if that wasn’t painfully awkward enough, Chris also invited both of them to dinner after the service.
“So now I find myself on a double date with my husband whom I’m probably going to divorce soon and my brother-in-law, who I’m so mad at, and my sister,” Blake says.
But that dinner actually proved to be a pivotal point in Blake and Sean’s almost-nonexistent relationship. Although Blake didn’t return to Connection Church after that, Sean threw himself in head first. He attended every Sunday service as well as every midweek meet-up, known as “connect groups.”
Since reuniting at that first church service, Blake and Sean kept in touch via sporadic phone calls and text messages. It was in these conversations that Blake realized how quickly and how hard Sean was falling in love with Connection Church.
“All he wanted to talk about was the people at that church and God and what was happening to him spiritually,” Blake remembers. “It took time for all of this to develop, but I was watching this transformation happen in him. And I was like, wow, not only am I super excited for him, I want some of that. I need it, too. And it was an interesting moment when I [realized that] I have spent all of these years completely focused on how screwed up Sean is and how wrong he is, that if Sean wasn’t this way, everything would be different. And I completely neglected and ignored the fact that I’m screwed up too and I need a lot of help. It’s definitely not just him. It never was. And now here he is on some sort of path to happiness like I’ve never seen in somebody before and that was desirable to me.”
Blake decided it was time to give this church a shot. She started attending Connection Church with Sean, and those Sunday evening services often doubled as their date nights. Although it had only been a few months since separating, Blake felt like she was dating a completely different man. Aside from the typical what’s-new updates, all Sean could talk about were the people at church, God, and everything He was doing in Sean’s life.
from the typical what’s-new updates, all Sean could talk about were the people at church, God, and everything He was doing in Sean’s life.
“We didn’t know every detail as to why [their marriage] was suffering so much,” remembers Daniel, the head pastor of Connection Church, “but from what we did know, it was major. We were able to teach [Sean] what grace was, what forgiveness was, and that he could be forgiven for his sin against her—mainly his sin against God—but it was against her as well. It seemed to click with him that he could be free from that. He just kept coming around and kept trying and making his best effort to restore the relationship.”
As Blake and Sean continued dating, they both realized they wanted the same thing: to give their marriage another shot. This time around, however, they had the resources to start things right again. Blake and Sean asked Pastor Daniel to take them through marriage enrichment courses before any big moves were made, like moving in together.
As they wrapped up their marriage enrichment courses, Blake and Sean began planning a vow renewal ceremony, which would be a huge celebration equivalent to a full-blown wedding, scheduled for the day of their 11-year wedding anniversary. After that, they would move back in together.
In September 2014, just three weeks before their vow renewal, Blake and Sean sat in the waiting office of a gastroenterologist during their lunch hour. They typed away on their smartphones, answering work emails while discussing who had RSVP’d and who had yet to. Blake laughed at Sean’s jokes, appreciating the nice break in the day to be together. Finally, the doctor called them in to discuss the CAT scan results Sean had done a couple weeks prior. Recently, Sean experienced some chronic stomach pain that he assumed was due to ulcers, at worst.
“There are masses on the pancreas that have spread to the liver,” the doctor explained. He cut straight to the point. “And I think it’s cancer.”
Sean went silent. Blake did, too. But after a long, deep breath, she began asking all the necessary questions one needed to ask after a statement like that. What do we do about it? How do we get it treated? But what she really wanted to be told was that everything would be fine. That they’d get through this, just like they had gotten through the storms of their marriage. But the doctor didn’t bite the bait. He just explained that if it is cancer, like he suspects, then it would be inoperable. Charts, scans, and words like “biopsy” and “tests” were thrown around, and just like that, the meeting ended.
The doctor ushered them out the door and waited until Sean had turned the corner in the hallway to take Blake’s arm. He asked if she had any children.
“No,” she said. “Why?”
“Good,” the doctor responded, “because Sean’s going to die soon. But he shouldn’t know yet because he still needs to fight.”
As the doctor said “going to die,” Blake’s world collapsed. And with it, the air from her lungs escaped so fast, she couldn’t breathe. She cried, heaving uncontrollably. Panic. Fear. Confusion. Loss. It hit her so hard, the room spun. But, as she would do so many more times in the coming months, Blake gathered herself and faced Sean, so that she could care for him, comfort him, and just be with him.
They left the gastroenterologist’s office to talk to their family physician. As they crossed City Hall Park, Blake sat Sean down on a bench to take a minute before going on to the next doctor.
“I need to tell you the whole truth because I think if it were me, I would want to know,” Blake confessed to Sean. She proceeded to tell him what the doctor said, about cancer, about not being around much longer, about making arrangements.
doctor said, about cancer, about not being around much longer, about making arrangements. Sean looked away as he listened quietly. When she finished, he took a deep breath and said, “Well, O.K. It's going to be O.K., mama. Let’s go.”
“I felt like I was sitting there watching how God was working in him in all of this,” Blake says. “It was so cool to see how amazing God is when He’s in you and doing major work in you. And at the exact same time, you’re seeing Him do major work in the person sitting right across from you. It’s just mind-blowing. He was giving Sean so much strength and peace. Sean was so faithful and hopeful. He was so filled with hope and that really never changed.”
On September 29, 2014, the day before Sean’s 45th birthday, Blake and friends from church threw a surprise party for her husband. The next day, they would receive the results of his biopsy, so she wanted to make sure he would celebrate fully in case the results were negative. The following day, the biopsy results revealed that Sean had Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer. He had no option but to at least try chemotherapy, the strongest that there was.
At that point, Blake’s sisters in Texas, Pastor Daniel’s wife Kari, and others from the church took over planning for the vow renewal ceremony, while Blake refocused all of her time, energy, and attention to taking care of Sean and getting out of bed everyday.
“It still always makes me cry thinking about how amazing those people were,” Blake remembers. “I’ve told them many times about how awesome it was to see the hands and feet of Jesus through all of them. They were so good. God was constantly there for me through them. And I told them that there were so many times when I really felt like Jesus would enter the room when they entered the room. He was constantly saying, ‘I’m still here.’ It was just so awesome.”
The day before the ceremony, Sean underwent surgery to block his nerves because he was in so much pain. And yet, they did it. They renewed their vows. Sean stood at the front of the altar, waiting for his bride, just as he had done 11 years prior. And Blake, in a black and champagne-laced dress, looked across the church and saw her husband.
The song “Oceans” by Hillsong began playing, cueing Blake to make her way down the aisle.
You call me out upon the waters The great unknown where feet may fail And there I find You in the mystery In oceans deep My faith will stand
Blake had chosen the song months prior because it perfectly signified the faith it took to give this marriage—this tumultuous, broken, hurtful marriage—another chance.
Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You've never failed and You won't start now
But with everything that had happened in the last month, the song took on a completely new meaning. And Blake couldn’t stop crying. She understood the significance of this moment more than ever before. The love of her life, who waited for her at the other end of the aisle, wouldn’t be around much longer.
So I will call upon Your name And keep my eyes above the waves When oceans rise My soul will rest in Your embrace For I am Yours and You are mine
But God would. He is. He will.
On February 23, 2015, Sean took his last breath in front of Daniel, with Blake around the corner. Blake says that he remained hopeful, faithful, strong, and even joyful until the very end.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what the situation is. If you rely on Him, put your faith and trust in Him, and let Him carry you, you can do anything,” Blake says. “You can survive anything. And not just survive it, but [you can] walk away from the worst situations in life with peace and joy and happiness and fulfillment and love and courage.”
Because if anyone knows that it’s all real, it’s Blake, who says this through tears...and a smile.
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