Tragedy Re-arranges Priorities
In the 1970s and early ’80s, corporate America was still fairly paternalistic, promising a career and long-term employment, a reasonable pension at the end of 30 or so years, and an invitation to the annual picnic, weather permitting.
Elvira, a native of New York City, left the big city to attend college in Tennessee and later worked as a flight attendant for TWA for 13 years. Gary, raised in rural Indiana, had earned a degree in chemical engineering and joined the DuPont Company in 1973. The two met and married in Kansas City where their older son Aaron was born. A few months after Aaron’s birth, the couple moved to Buffalo, NY where two years later, Nathan was born.
Gary’s career included stints in manufacturing, technology, sales, and research and development. In his words, “It was a good company that was well-respected, but, with the exception of two or three positions over a 28-year career, it was not particularly fulfilling.”
Gary was the classic “company man,” moving from position to position, learning new skills, and helping wherever the need existed. Moving his family with regularity, Gary’s focus for most of his time with DuPont was on making his contribution to the company. Everything else took a back seat, “Looking back, I can now see that I was using my career as a feeble attempt to prove my personal value.”
Then, through a series of what he refers to as “defining moments,” Gary and Elvira’s lives began to change—initially for the worse. In 1996, they were asked to relocate to Atlanta, their third move in four years. The house the Delaplane’s bought in a suburb of Atlanta turned out to be defective. “Over the next three years, we spent $52,000 in legal fees and another $15-18,000 in repairs, neither of which we could afford,” explained Gary. The house became a source of additional stress in the Delaplane’s marriage. “The pressure of work, ever-increasing expenses, the hassles with the house, and the challenge of raising teenagers made for a very stressful environment, and we weren’t handling it well.”
Their family was struggling. There was little closeness in their marriage. Nathan and Aaron were growing up, living separate lives and not communicating with their parents. To escape the chaotic environment, Aaron left home to work at the Grand Canyon following high school; Nathan was still in high school at the time.
Then, in late 1997, came the revelation that changed their lives. Gary explained, “God spoke to my heart – ‘enough is enough’. In that moment I realized that I had spent 30 years of my adult life trying to prove that I wasn’t poor white trash from Indiana. I asked God to ‘take over’ my life, our marriage and our finances.” With that submission, the healing process began. The couple joined a small group at church that worked through a curriculum on marriage intimacy. The lines of communication began to open. They began to pray together, they became faithful in tithing to the church, and, by 1999, there had been so many positive changes in their lives that they almost felt normal again. Then came the ultimate defining moment.
On May 4, 2000, Nathan, 19 by then, took his own life. “He was a special child in so many ways, but we found out later, through his writings, that he had kept so many of his feelings and frustrations bottled up inside of him,” Elvira reflected. “It really made us reevaluate our lives, our priorities, everything.”
Nathan’s suicide was impactful in many ways. His writings have touched the lives of nearly 30 young people his parents know of, and likely many more. “Nathan helped us put a whole different perspective on our lives,” Gary recalls. “My job, in particular, took on a different perspective - people at work who had issues began sharing with me like they never had before.” Gary had long wanted to be a mentor or a coach to others, and his son’s tragedy provided a platform for that. He and Elvira began ministering to others, initially to a colleague whose son had committed suicide. “God was beginning to make it clearer where I belonged,” Gary says.
While Gary had expected to stay with DuPont until he reached full retirement age, that plan changed. In January 2001, he and Elvira began to adjust their lives to fit their priorities. They both felt called to work with couples whose marriages and families were struggling. They moved out of their large house, with its equally large mortgage, started to reduce other living expenses, and decided in July 2001 to take advantage of an early retirement package that DuPont offered. They didn’t have a large monthly pension, but Gary and Elvira believed God would bless their willingness to re-prioritize their lives.
In addition to hosting marriage workshops with Gary in the evenings, Elvira began working as a substitute teacher in elementary schools. Gary completed a master’s degree and is now licensed as a Christian counselor. They now work together and have founded a marriage counseling ministry called Mourning Dove Ministries (www.mourning-dove.org). They feel called to use their positive experiences and their trials to serve others and help them avoid the same mistakes.
They’re a great testament to following your passions and using whatever platform God provides. This couple experienced marital strife, the loss of a child, and plenty of other trials. They now have a tremendous platform of credibility to talk with other married couples about what God has taught them.
“Life is good,” says Gary. “We have found our purpose, and we have an opportunity to see change in people every day. No one is controlling our schedule. We love the flexibility in our lives and our ability to help others.” Elvira adds: “We don’t spend as much money as we used to, but we don’t miss it because we traded it for more freedom of will and time.”
Gary: “Nothing’s more important than God, marriage, and family, in that order. Everyone should ask themselves why they are pursuing what they are. If it’s not in line with their priorities, change.”
Elvira: “You only have today; we’re not promised tomorrow. Make the best of today. Life is all about relationships; everything else is a distraction. If we don’t focus on our relationships, we’ll have regrets.”