ROCHESTER, Mich., (WXYZ) - It's dinnertime at the Spehn house in Rochester, Michigan. A time to share the day's happenings and be thankful for all this family of 7 has.
"For all the blessings in our lives, amen," Michael Spehn prays with his wife and five children.
Nearly six years ago, Gina and Michael Spehn didn't think this kind of contentment and joy would be possible a second time around.
It was Christmas day 2005. Just hours after Gina and Matt Kell's young sons opened gifts from Santa, their dad died of a rare form of cancer.
"Matt was passionate, he was funny, he was an amazing dad and he just loved life," Gina says of her late husband.
Knowing he was dying, Matt Kell spent the last months of his life leaving behind a legacy for his wife and kids; a series of video diaries in which he teaches his boys the types of things he wouldn't be around to teach them as they grow older. In the diaries he talks about everything from growing their faith in God to treating girls and women with respect. But with his words only on video now, Gina was left to raise two young boys as a single, heartbroken mom.
Just three weeks later, across town, heartbreak was about to knock on the door of Michael Spehn's life. Cathy was his beloved wife and mother of his three kids.
"She has a smile that would light up the universe," Michael says. "It's one of those unique kinds of unique smiles that people just notice. But she was a wife and mother, better than any I've ever seen."
But out of nowhere came excruciating headaches.
"We walked into the ER, and that's when they diagnosed her with gleoblastoma, or brain cancer. And from there it was just 17 days later that she passed away."
Two grieving spouses and 5 young kids left without one parent. Shortly after Cathy died, in their own heartache, her kids wrote a contract for their dad to sign, promising he'd never marry again, unless he asked their permission.
So how did these families become one? Cathy and Matt, both now gone, had been childhood friends but their spouses had never met. As Cathy lay dying, she had a message for her husband.
"And sort of out of the blue, she said to me, ‘Michael, call Gina Kell.'" But Michael said he dismissed it.
"She grasped my hand a little tighter, she opened her eyes and said ‘Michael, call Gina Kell, she'll help you' and a few hours later she passed away."
Before long, he did call Gina and the two became a support system to each other during their darkest days.
"I couldn't wait for the phone to ring because I knew there was going to be someone on the other line that I could lament do, and would be no judgment, there would be total understanding," Gina says.
"When you're the widow or the widower, people are very solicitous to your every need, they walk on egg shells, they talk in certain tones that say you've been damaged and I don't want to upset you," Michael says. "And you really crave a normal conversation. When Gina came in our life, and her boys, we interacted with each other like normal people, and it was wonderful to feel that way again."
Their kids shared a connection no children should have to, and they became fast friends. And for Gina and Michael, as the fog of grief cleared a bit they began looking at each other a little differently.
Gina added, "First you're my companion in grief, in this miserable club that we're a part of, and then all of a sudden, you and I are looking at each other saying you're an amazing dad, you're a good strong Christian man and I'm looking at you a little differently than I was six months ago.
Marriage is something neither imagined ever doing again. But just as Cathy had left Michael a gift, telling him to call Gina, Matt had also left a gift, telling his boys in those video diaries that he wanted their mom to marry again! So when things got more serious between them, they talked to the kids about blending their families.
"We had to almost ask for permission first," Michael explains. "We had to ask for their blessing, before we could actually ask each other formally.
In fact, Michael was honoring that contract his kids had made him sign.
"They hooted and hollered and were jumping around the house, they were as happy as we were," Gina says.
So on a warm October day in 2007, almost two years after they had attended funerals, Gina and Michael got married and were pronounced Mom and Dad.
"They still hold their late parents very close, they're very present tense, and even between Gina and myself, we get to still be in love with our spouses," Michael says. "I'm still in love with Cathy, and Gina is still in love with Matt, and she should be. There are nine people in this household; two of them have just been called home."
Gina and Michael have written a book about what they've been through. It's called "The Color of Rain."
"When you have the lens of faith to look at it, it puts the right light on things. There's still color in life, there's still joy in life," Gina explains.
Gina and Michael also started the New Day Foundation For Families, which so far has raised over $250,000 to help kids who have lost a parent to cancer. You can read more about the book, an upcoming book signing and the Foundation at www.ColorOfRain.com
Below is an excerpt from The Color of Rain.
"Taken from The Color of Rain by Michael & Gina Spehn. Copyright © 2011. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
I headed back to the hospital the day after the biopsy. As I drove along Coolidge Avenue, the sun shined through the windshield and I fumbled for the fifteen-dollar sunglasses that Cath got for me on a trip to the grocery store last summer. Finding them, I realized that there were a thousand little things in my life that were gradually being transformed from worthless trinket to treasured memento simply because she was a part of them.
I arrived at the first stoplight a -couple of blocks from the hospital and waited. The light turned green, but I hesitated. Turning right would take me under the same old underpass toward 8-South. For some reason I turned left.
I was overtaken with emotion. It began to wash over me. This was real. This was bad. No, this was evil. Suddenly I felt completely alone. I was filled with the most obvious thought: I needed him.
I had not spoken to my father in almost three years. The rift between us had grown to Grand Canyon proportions and everyone in our family was resigned to the fact that we simply would not ever speak again. Now, however, I needed to connect with him. Cathy wasn't sick; she was dying. My children were about to lose their mother. There was one simple truth: I needed my father with me and everything else was just crap.
I dialed Norma's number. Norma, the woman who lived with Dad for twenty-eight years, had become an important part of our family. They met almost six years after my parents split up. Norma was well traveled, refined, and had a marvelous, quick laugh. Best of all, she loved my dad. She brought him peace in ways that no one else could. They enjoyed so much life together, and she and her family became yet another twisted branch of our weird and lovable family tree.
"Norma, it's Michael," I said into the cell phone as I drove aimlessly. Her tears, like mine, came almost immediately. I hadn't spoken to her in three years either.
"How are you?" She knew of course. Lynn had been calling Dad several times a day telling him everything about Cathy's status.
"It's not good," I said through tears. "Norma, we're going to lose her." We cried together on the phone.
"I'm so sorry, Michael," she said.
I continued making left-hand turns as we talked. From Coolidge to 13 Mile Road to Woodward and back again. I was actually lost for a while and I knew it, I just didn't care. The sun beat into the car each time I turned left onto 13 Mile. The cheap sunglasses were not up to the task. My phone battery was running low so I got right to the point.
"Can I call him? Will he allow me to call him?" I asked.
This was humiliating. Not in the sense that I was groveling or that I was somehow "losing" and he was "winning." I wasn't humiliated about reaching out to my father, but rather that it had taken such dire circumstances to bring me to this point. I regretted what I had done, and what I had failed to do, all these years.
Love atrophy. I had simply let go of our relationship. We both let it go, too far and too long. How could I have allowed things to slip into such disrepair that in the midst of a crisis, I was forced to reach out to Norma for permission to call my own father? I did not know what to expect from her, but I could tell that she was pained by the whole premise.
"I don't know, Michael, really I don't," Norma said. I was heartbroken. To me, this was the same as saying no. "I don't know" really meant "It probably wouldn't be best."
I always thought that he and I would deal with our past and with each other when the time came. Eventually we would get it right between us. I figured that all of it — the business decisions, moving away to Michigan, the good times and the bad, the arguments and the disappointments — would be sorted out someday. It was just that in the meantime I had things to do.
In the meantime I had my life to lead. I was a husband, father, businessman, and coach. I would get around to dealing with my father and all of the history between us. I would eventually get around to being a son again, but in the meantime I was busy doing other things.
What I didn't anticipate was that it would turn out to be a very long meantime.
I was crying now, the kind of tears I hadn't shed since I was a boy. I parked the car on the side of the road. Gripping the steering wheel tightly, my words came almost as if being pushed out of my mouth one at a time.
"Norma, please tell him that I called and that I hope he is okay, and if he wants to call me, I'd like that. I need that. We really need him here now."
This wasn't what I imagined. None of this was going according to script. I was being shown in so many ways that real life was not as tidy as it is in Hollywood. The movie of my life that plays inside my head had things working out differently. My wife and I were going to be ninety years old together. My children would grow up in a loving and intact home. My father would always be a part of our lives.
Instead, I was driving in circles around southeast Michigan pleading with Norma, asking forgiveness and repenting and kneeling before God himself, begging for the forgiveness and love and acceptance of my Father.
Both of them.
My pride and stubbornness and laziness and naiveté . . . all had kept me at a distance from him. Now, in the right lane of traffic on Woodward Avenue, I was reaching out to be closer to him. He was still here and I knew I needed him.
Both of them.
I needed his presence. I needed him to simply be here. Right at that moment I desperately needed his presence to change things in my world merely by his being in it.
"I'll talk to him. But, Michael, I can't promise anything," Norma said with regret.
Late in the evening the next day, the phone rang. Caller ID told me it was him. I felt the chills on my arm as I reached for the phone. My heart raced.
"Yeah, it's me," he said, with the West Side of Chicago, get-to-the-point tone I had missed for so long.
Tears welled up in me. I was so thankful that he called. "Dad, thanks for calling me. You know what's going on, right?"
"Yeah. How's everyone holding up?" he asked.
"Dad, we need you here. Is there any way you can come and be with us?" For my father, knowing that he was needed was enough. He didn't hesitate.
"I'll be on the next plane," he said.
I knew he would be. He was my father and I needed him.
Both of them.