Everything happens for a reason.
A relationship falls apart, and your heart breaks. Then you find that one person you are truly meant to be with.
You don’t get that job you worked so hard for and had your heart set on. Then an opportunity develops you hadn’t even envisioned as a possibility.
While trying to make people laugh at an event, you perform your best kung fu move, hit your head, go to the hospital, and learn you have inoperable cancer.
That is just the BEGINNING of the story for my friend, David Wenzel. THAT moment, a kung fu kick, led to his diagnosis.. and a roller coaster of life changing events including divorce, unplanned pregnancy, and love by accident (is there any better kind?). His story is the stuff Hollywood is made of, and I’m so very honored he’s letting me share some of it here.
David and I both went to high school at Papillion-La Vista (go Monarchs!). He was one of those rare Jack-Of-All-Trades, involved in drama, speech, mock trial and band.. but also ran cross country, played golf and baseball, and was friends with EVERYBODY. We didn’t have a ‘class clown’ award for our senior class, but David was THAT guy who was forever the center of attention and could always make people laugh.
Our junior year, David’s ‘status’ skyrocketed, when he was cast in Alexander Payne’s film Election, shot at our high school in 1997. David got his own trailer, made the final cut that hit theaters and I think still gets royalty checks for like $10 from time to time. (His ‘thumbs up’ scene with Reese Witherspoon still cracks me up!)
While many of us chose Creighton, UNO or UNL for college, David chose Cedarville University in Ohio, a school known as a top Midwest Christian school. Faith was always important to David (he grew up in Omaha’s Christ Community Church.) We’d all hang out together from time to time when he came back to Nebraska, but as you often do, many of us lost touch. He got married, moved to Michigan, and life went on.
Years later, I was working with another Papio alum (and friend!) John Campbell here at KETV. John asked, ‘have you heard about David? He has a brain tumor.’
SHOCK. I was engaged to my husband at the time, planning our wedding and life together, and the idea of being faced with cancer, faced with DEATH, was mind-boggling to me and terrifying.
That was NOTHING compared to what David was going through six years ago, especially, how his diagnosis came about.
“I attended an Experts Conference in San Francisco,” David told me recently. “The conference instructed us to start every conversation with ‘what are you an expert in?’ Since I was actually an expert in training and working with other experts, my answer was quite confusing. I gave up and started telling people I was a Kung Fu expert. Late one night after hearing my response, a guy wanted to start a fake kung fu battle with me in the hotel lobby. Never one to turn down an opportunity for a good laugh, I took him up on it. He delivered a fake roundhouse kick to the head. I quickly turned as though he hit me and struck my head on a concrete pillar. I turned back around to laugh it off but realized I couldn’t speak. It was my first seizure.”
David tried to shrug off what had happened, but the next morning on the final day of the conference, he suffered another seizure, much worse than the first.
“I fell to the ground shaking, then passed out,” describes David. “I woke up as I was being loaded into the ambulance; I remember joking with the nurses and hospital staff, even tweeting about this entire crazy scenario! After three to four scans, a doctor came into my room and told me I was diagnosed with a Grade II Oligoastrocytoma, a terminal and inoperable brain tumor. I stopped breathing. I remember thinking they had delivered this news to the wrong person. I was in remarkable shape, never broke a bone, never even had a cavity. And this (somewhat horrible) thought crossed my mind: this doesn’t happen to people like me.”
The doctor left. A nurse sat down with David and held his hand as he cried. For hours, he was alone, trying to process what was happening.
“I remember trying to truly ‘understand’ the idea that everything, forever, would be different,” said David. “Knowing from that moment on, the future would forever be changed. A few hours later I started making calls to my wife and family. It was rough. Just tears after tears after tears.”
John and I, and many of David’s old friends back in Nebraska, followed what happened next on his blog, Jump David Jump. I don’t know if it was from his amazing PLHS English teacher Mary Birky or from countless hours listening to the Dave Matthews Band on repeat, but David has always had a way with words, and sharing his own story was no different. Clearly we weren’t alone in following his journey; David soon started receiving invitations to speak at universities, churches and conferences. People wanted to hear about his treatment, taking an all-natural approach to beat cancer rather than trying conventional measures (read more here.) They wanted to hear the crazy story about his diagnosis. Simply, as I’ve written before, people want to be inspired.
“This was the first moment in my life when I was positive that I had a unique story to tell, was given opportunities to tell it, and was receiving messages that people’s lives were being changed because of it. At this point, I was in full appreciation for the life that I had been given,” said David. “Everyone was so supportive, but over time my (at that time) wife had issues with me continually sharing [my story].”
The couple tried a new church, a place where David grew uncomfortable after a few months. He wanted to leave, she wanted to stay. Eventually, the two divorced.
Everything happens for a reason. Try telling that to a young man with cancer, recently divorced, who just years earlier was healthy, happy and had the world at his fingertips. Adding to it, David didn’t know anyone else who’d been through a divorce.. until he met Lori.
Photo courtesy The Awesome Mitten
The Chicago native moved to Grand Rapids for college, then opened The Sparrows coffee shop, which became one of David’s favorite spots for coffee. The two met when Lori asked for writing help for her non-profit group, and their friendship blossomed after-hours, comparing stories about issues in their respective relationships. Doctors had told Lori she couldn’t have children.
David proved that theory wrong.
“My first and only one-night stand,” said David. “One night, one baby.”
Lori became pregnant; the two friends had only known each other for about a year.
“I was in shock. Like, actual shock. I couldn’t believe it,” said David. “I was so afraid that the goodwill I’d built up around me would all come crashing down. But I experienced so much love from my friends and family. I couldn’t believe how well everyone handled it.”
May 15, 2014, Marian Wenzel entered the world.
“Marian has two meanings: ‘bitter’ and ‘long-awaited child’,” explains David. “So to each of us, she was that. She was a complete surprise, and in many ways, a bitter one. But in the end, she was the best surprise possible, our long-awaited child. I suppose we just had to live some life and make a few mistakes before she could join us as the miracle of all miracles.”
A MIRACLE, not a mistake, as David says God proved just a few months later. Lori, who thought she was incapable of having children, became pregnant again.
“Lori and I had determined that God knows what is going on. If I was on death’s door, he wouldn’t get Lori pregnant again,” said David. “She walked onto the front porch where I was enjoying a beer and grinned as she showed me the positive pregnancy test. My response this time was quite different from the first. We were so happy. Apparently, Lori and I are quite fertile people.”
May 15, 2015, one year later TO THE DAY, Lori delivered Viola Wenzel at the couple’s home. Irish twins.
Note what I wrote there.. the couple. Between baby girls, David and Lori made a big decision.
“I realized that Lori had become my best friend,” said David. “It took a few months of complete shock before I dug myself out of my past to realize that I honestly loved her. And since then, she has become my beautiful constant. She’s my center pole in my tetherball version of life.”
The two married, at The Sparrows, just before Christmas.
I wish I could just type HAPPILY EVER AFTER, and leave David’s story at that. But thinking back to when he married Lori jars another memory.. David being rushed to the hospital in the weeks before his wedding. In the midst of such an incredible story, remember, David has terminal cancer. He had made it six years, keeping a high quality of life through alternative treatments.. but also suffered seizures so bad that by December, he became unable to drive.
In September, when Marian was just four months old, David’s doctor told him his brain tumor was still growing, and without conventional treatments, he had possibly two years to live. If he pursued chemotherapy and radiation through the Proton Therapy being advised, there was a 50% chance he’d have ten more years.
David began treatment in March. He lost a lot of weight, his hair, and at times, even memories embedded in his heart like his daughter’s name. Hopefully, he gained TIME. Time to post the CUTEST pictures of his sweet girls together, all three of them. Time to share that witty sense of humor with the world, as he always has. Time to continue to pursue his passion to write, contributing to and ghostwriting several books, and now… his own. David is currently raising money through Kickstarter to fund his own book: Thank You Kung-Fu.
“I have learned, first hand, that in all the messiness and disorder and pain and anger and hopelessness, there is a God. And what God originates, He orchestrates,” said David. “I know I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can share my story of how three miserable things happened in my life and through each of them, God has been quietly leading me towards where I am right now. And I can honestly say, my life has never been better.”
Photo courtesy Jon Melton
As of today, David’s supporters have donated about $34,000; a recent event through Failure Lab raised $8,000 in one night alone.
CANCER SUCKS, guys, it just does. This terrible, horrific disease steals away fathers, friends, mothers, wives.. it is cruel and mean and blind to who it attacks.. people that the world NEEDS, people who are innocent and undeserving of this terrible fight they’ve been dealt. I wish I could Kung-Fu cancer.
Photo of David & Lori courtesy Jill Devries Photography
David Wenzel is trying, directly and indirectly. He’s fighting his own battle for himself, his wife, and his beautiful, baby girls. He’s also sharing his story to help others fight.. maybe against cancer, maybe against other demons. I will NEVER justify cancer, but David Wenzel is living proof everything happens for a reason.
Note.. LIVING proof.
With that, I leave you with two final messages. From me, maybe you don’t believe in fate. Maybe you don’t believe in God. Whatever you believe in, find HOPE in something. Search for whatever makes you happy and gives you strength, and JUST DO IT. In the end, who knows how much time any of us has?
David certainly doesn’t know. But he’s still making people laugh, still the center of attention, and very much so, living life to the fullest. He leaves you with this.
“I have no idea what you are going through, but I am positive there is a God who knows. He has not forgotten you. He knows you and loves you and wants you to know you are not alone.”
Photo courtesy Gorilla
To learn more about David Wenzel and his memoir, Thank you Kung-Fu, click here to visit his Kickstarter fundraising site, active through July 25. As of this post, David was approximately $6,000 from his fundraising goal.
David invites you to click here and visit his blog, Jump David Jump, to follow his journey. You can also click here to learn more about his work with Robin Hood Ink.