The Word Among Us

Lent 2009 Issue

My Journey to Hell and Back

How could I possibly forgive my son-in-law?

By: Ida Mae Kempel

How well do you know yourself? I was forty-four years old, a mother, grandmother, and “a good Catholic,” when I hired two criminals to take care of a problem. You may wonder how I could stoop so low.

Perhaps we don’t really know ourselves until we are confronted with a major crisis.

My husband, Walter, and I were a typical middle-class American couple. We had dreams of financial security and comfort, and we worked hard to make our dreams come true.

God? He was on the fringes. We went to Sunday Mass and sent our children to parochial schools. Sometimes we had family evening prayers; when we had a special need, we said extra prayers. But after the need was met and forgotten, so was God. It was as if we kept him in a box, to bring out whenever occasion demanded.

The Nightmare Begins. This complacent life came to an abrupt end one warm October afternoon, when our oldest daughter disappeared. Her husband, Tim, insisted that she had run off with another man.

That was impossible. Not only was Mary Jo sensible and conscientious, she was devoted to her two-year-old, Rachel, and would never have abandoned her. In fact, she had just filed for divorce and for custody of her daughter because Tim had become unstable and threatening. Almost immediately, we became convinced that he had murdered Mary Jo.

Worried that Tim might kill little Rachel, too, we hid her away and played dumb when he came looking for her. Ten days later, he sued us for custody. The court put Rachel in our care, with one stipulation: I had to take her to visit Tim twice a week, or she would be placed in a foster home. I complied, but his insults and hostility made every visit an ordeal. “I’m sorry you have to live with these monsters,” he’d tell Rachel. “One day you’ll be with me.”

I prayed endlessly, begging God to do something to bring Tim to justice. Still, he walked around free, with a smugness that said, “I committed murder and got away with it!”

Meanwhile, our family life crumbled. Walter began drinking to dull his pain. Our children were depressed and frightened; they lost interest in school, and their grades plummeted. As for me, I became consumed with hatred for the man who had caused our misery. And since it seemed God had abandoned us, I hated him, too.

Murder in My Heart. As hatred ravaged my soul, one goal alone energized me: “Find Mary Jo’s body so that Tim can be arrested!” We scoured river banks and graveyards, looked into abandoned buildings, probed irrigation ditches and canals with grappling hooks—all to no avail.

Finally, while I moaned in despair, someone suggested hiring hit men to kidnap Tim and torture him until he talked. I recoiled, then rationalized that it was the only way to get the truth. The two thugs described how they would break every bone in Tim’s body and warned me that he might not survive. “That’s okay,” I said. “If he doesn’t confess, he shouldn’t be allowed to live.”

Providentially, my mother learned of my plans and insisted I call them off. I did—but only because she was so upset I feared she might have a heart attack. She kept urging me, “Have faith in God! If he wants us to find Mary Jo, we will!” My response was: “God? He couldn’t care less what happens to us.”

Nearly two years went by before Tim was arrested. Though he hadn’t confessed, there was now enough circumstantial evidence to try him for murder. I shook with anger throughout that trial; I became so upset that I felt physically ill.

To Hell and Back. The night before the jury was to deliver its verdict, I was awakened by a phone call from the police asking me to go to the jail. Tim had cut his wrists and tried to hang himself, but he refused to go to the hospital until he had spoken to me.

I walked into the holding cell with one thought in mind: “Maybe now I will know where Mary Jo is!” Tim lay on a concrete slab, one arm covering his eyes. As I sat down next to him, he took his arm from his face and looked at me. He said, “If it’s any consolation to you—she went quickly. She didn’t suffer.”

Those words hit me like a hail of bullets. The reality of my daughter’s death fell upon me full force, and I felt as if I were falling into the gaping jaws of hell. In that moment, I knew in the deepest part of my being that only God could save me. I closed my eyes and silently cried out, “Help me, God! Please help me!”

Words just can’t describe what happened next. When I opened my eyes again, I saw a whole new world. The cell was filled with the presence of God. I knew he was there! And suddenly I knew that he had been with me all along, even when I was ranting and raving against him. God had never left me—not for one moment, not even when I left him. There in that grim holding cell, he poured out his love so powerfully that all my anger and bitterness were wiped out.

I looked down at Tim and saw that he was shivering. “You’re cold! Let me call the guard and get you a blanket!”

“You must hate me,” he said.

“No, Tim, I don’t hate you.” And it was true. My hatred was gone, totally dissipated. All I felt was deep compassion and a peace that defied description. I walked out of that cell a different person. I didn’t know exactly what had happened to me, but I knew that life would never be the same again.

All Things New. Many things have happened since that night. Tim was convicted of first-degree murder; he served time in prison, was released, then died of cancer. Mary Jo’s body was found, and we gave her a proper funeral. Our family began the long journey of recovery and healing.

As for me, that amazing revelation of God’s presence continues to illuminate my life. I love him more and more each day; he directs my paths, and I want only to stay close to him. I will never stop praising God and thanking him for his love and mercy!

When I was sinking to the depths, he lifted me to the heights. When I discovered my potential for evil, he showed me my potential for good. Truly, “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Ida Mae Kempel is a writer and mother of eight who lives in Alameda, California. (For a fuller version of this story, see