by Lori Hadacek Chaplin
This is a story of great longing and suffering, but it’s also one of hope.
In Catholic musician Jaime Thietten’s 2012 album, Love Along The Way, she recorded a Kellie Coffey song called “I Would Die For That.” It’s a song about a young pregnant woman named Jenny who sadly made a choice for her and her baby that she later regretted.
When Thietten’s manager initially sent her “I Would Die For That” to consider recording, it touched a raw place in her soul, as she has struggled with infertility for the past 20 years.
The message of the song — that Jenny would never hear a child call her mom — hit too close to home for the Thietten. She shared with Catholic Digest, “I wept so hard as I listened.”
NEVER A STAY-AT-HOME DAD
In 1998, when Theitten, 22, married her husband, Pete Espil, 24, they couldn’t wait to have children. While they were dating, Pete would tell Jaime how he envisioned himself being a stay-at-home dad who volunteered in his child’s classroom. He shared with her how he dreamed that he would one day have a daughter who would enter a scholarship pageant. For her talent, Espil imagined her in a beautiful evening gown playing a drum solo on his gigantic drum set.
“I think one of the hardest things about not having kids is that Pete would be such an amazing dad. It breaks my heart that he hasn’t been able to be one,” Thietten said.
After more than a decade of infertility, the couple turned to adoption twice. One adoption experience in particular, was devastating for them. In 2012, Thietten and Espil were anticipating welcoming a 6-month-old baby boy into their home.
“All of the signs leading up to the adoption were so perfect,” she remembered. “Pete had a great job, we had an extra room, and I’d just recorded ‘I Would Die For That,’ a prolife song. Everything was falling into place, including a lawyer who had come forward and offered to do all of the legal things free for both sides.”
Thietten and Espil got to meet the baby and cradle him in their arms; they felt sure that he would soon be theirs. “God had another plan. The mother chose another family. I grieved so very hard,” Thietten said.
The sorrow she experienced took its toll on her health, even resulting in loss of hair from the stress.
“But after the dust settled and the tears dried up, I realized that even though things looked perfectly in place for this adoption, God knew best,” she explained. “That’s when I stopped questioning, and I was finally able to be at peace.”
‘YOU ARE A MOTHER’
Performing “I Would Die for That” at concerts, Thietten has heard from many women about their struggles with infertility. “It makes you feel not so alone,” she explained. “There are thousands of couples going through the same thing we are.
And there is a comfort in that.”She added, “After singing and sharing my other prolife song titled ‘My Chance and talking about my infertility struggles, I had a lady approach me in Texas a few years ago who told me, ‘Being a voice for all of those babies out there, you are a mother. Just in a different way.’ Those words gave me comfort.”
MINISTERING TO OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN
Espil told Catholic Digest that he’s come to learn that “God’s will is not always what we want for our life.”
Pete has worked with teens for 23 years — 13 of those years as a Catholic youth minister — and now works as a therapist. Since he didn’t have children, he poured his love and energy into the youth in the parish ministry.
“I have made spiritual connections with many teenagers over the years. In some ways, this helps the longing I have for children of my own,” Espil said.
Thietten added, “I don’t think the kids realize what a huge blessing they are to us and that they … are filling a void for us.”
The youth Espil ministered to loved him, too. In 2015, when one of Espil’s youth found out that he was extremely ill, she drove 12 hours — from Denver to Idaho — to deliver a gift to her former youth minister.
By 2014 Thietten and Espil had come to terms with the possibility that they would never conceive or adopt. When the burden of that cross lightened a little, tragedy struck. In January 2015, Espil was at a routine dental appointment when a dental hygienist forced a bite block too far into his mouth, injuring the muscles on the left side of his face.
The pain progressively worsened, and seven weeks after the injury — and after 49 consecutive days with migraines — Espil was in the living room when the searing pain in his jaw and head became unbearable.
“He grabbed his head, dropped to his knees, and started rolling on the floor in the fetal position,” Thietten recalled. “I was terrified. I grabbed my purse, and we went straight to the emergency room.”
Doctors didn’t know what was causing the pain and tightness in Espil’s jaw, which was so locked up that he could barely talk, making it impossible for him to work.
“For almost six months, I lived almost exclusively in my home in the dark, and the only position in which I could get comfortable was lying flat on my back,” he said.
For more than a year, the couple traveled from Twin Falls, Idaho, to Salt Lake City for Espil’s treatment, but the pain didn’t ebb. “I was scared that his doctor didn’t know what was wrong,” Thietten said. “But I did know that God was in control.”
RELYING ON PRAYER
Espil didn’t like how the pain was changing his personality.
“There were aspects of my personality that came out early in the struggle that I’m not proud of,” he said. “I was irritable and impatient with my wife and others. I became defensive about everything and for a while dealt with a lot of self-pity.”
Even so, Espil never abandoned his prayer life. He’s an oblate in the Benedictine tradition with the Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome, Idaho. Morning and night, he prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, said rosaries, and meditated for hours at a time. At one of his lowest points, Espil recalled praying while lying flat on a wooden floor.
“As I meditated, I remembered a practice of the early Church where a priest would pray for God to give a foretaste of heaven to new Christians,” Espil said. He asked God for this grace. “Instantly, it felt like my mind was directed by God, and I was shown what I believed to be a foretaste of heaven.
I would rather not describe this image as it is deeply personal, but that day was the end of any despair.”
Healing may take years.
COMING TO TERMS
“As I came to terms with my condition and the daily pain, I began to pray even more about acceptance as opposed to miraculous healing,” Espil said.
Espil found solace in three books: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl, The Rule of St. Benedict, and Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. “These were all books that made a huge difference in accepting my condition,” he said.
Called ‘the suicide disease’
In 2017, Espil finally found a specialist in Utah who knew what was happening to him. The injury and an initial incorrect diagnosis caused the trigeminal nerve (a cranial nerve responsible for feeling in the face and movements such as biting and chewing) to become inflamed and restricted, causing a condition called “trigeminal neuralgia.” Because of the intensity of pain caused by this condition, it’s known as “the suicide disease.”
After seeing the specialist in Utah, Espil eventually found a temporomandibular joint disorder (commonly known as TMJ) doctor in Boise and a jaw physical therapist. Their treatments helped heal Espil enough that he could talk without pain and work again by February 2018.
“I don’t know that you ever completely get over the chronic pain. It changes you neurologically as well as physically, but it also changes you emotionally, psychologically, and most importantly spiritually,” Espil explained. “I believe I have been changed for the better, and I’m willing to accept the fact that healing may take years or the rest of my life.”
He added that none of his healing would have been possible without his wife. “Without Jaime’s support, love, and her hard work, I do not believe I would have recovered.”
Years ago, I wrote a story about a mother whose college-aged son was taken by gunpoint from his apartment in the middle of the night and later shot execution style. This mom and her son were faithful and dedicated Catholics. Writing their story was a meditation in suffering for me. I questioned God about why he would allow two people who loved and honored him daily to experience such a tribulation.
St. Peter addresses suffering in the Bible. In 1 Peter 4:12–13, he tells us not to be surprised when suffering visits, but instead to be glad that our agonies can be joined with Christ’s.
Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.
My pastor, Fr. Caleb Vogel, at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Nampa, Idaho, says Christianity doesn’t promise us comfort. Jesus, who died on the cross, modeled for us precisely what our life was going to be like.
“When suffering comes, many of us can lose hope — we see it all the time. One of the main reasons people fall away from the faith is because of suffering,” Fr. Vogel said. “Something happens, and we shake our fists at God and walk away.
He continued, “St. Peter is saying that when it gets hard, you’re being formed into saints. Let God be with you. Welcome God in. Turn your heart to him, and seek him out. Spend more time searching for him rather than less. Let the Lord be there in your life to help transform you into a saint.”
Christianity is a community of men and women of profound courage and perseverance. The great heroes of the world are those who persevere in great trial.
— Lori Hadacek Chaplin