06/25/2013 05:29 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

After Death Of Her Son, Late-Night Prayers Help JoAnne Whalen Find Solace, Faith

Frank H. Conlon/The Star-Ledger

Late-night cross-country prayers help a mother find solace, faith

CRANFORD, N.J. (RNS) Every Friday at 2 a.m. JoAnne Whalen's cell-phone alarm goes off and the 60-year-old wakes up in her Bethany, Okla., bedroom, boots up her computer and watches a prayer service streaming live from central New Jersey.

The bespectacled man singing hymns on Whalen's screen in the middle of the night is Steven Nagy, a Newark native who ministers at the International House of Prayer, which provides round-the-clock prayer and worship, 365 days a year.

He's also the driver who pulled over last June when Whalen's 37-year-old son lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a guardrail.

And he's the man who ran toward Anthony Whalen as he lay dying on the shoulder of Route 78 and stayed with him, whispering prayers into his ear, as the motorcyclist took his last breath.

That vision, of a stranger giving comfort to her son in his final moments, is what now gives JoAnne Whalen solace.

"I've always had this image of Steven, even before I knew his name, holding 'Ant' the way I would hold him, and it was everything I needed," Whalen said from Oklahoma. "It was everything I'd hoped for if I couldn't be there."

About 200 motorists are killed in accidents on New Jersey highways every year, according to State Police statistics. To many motorists, an accident is mostly an inconvenient traffic jam. Little is ever known about the victim, except, perhaps, for a few details in the next day's paper.

But more than a year after the June 16, 2012, accident that killed Whalen, his death remains an important part of Nagy's life. Nagy couldn't save the stranger by the side of the road, but what he did that day, and continues to do, helped lead a woman back to her faith.

The accident

Anthony Whalen was fully aware of the dangers of riding a motorcycle. It was March 2012, and the graphic artist had just moved from California -- where the roads are wide and more motorcycle friendly -- back home to Scotch Plains with his longtime girlfriend, Kim Karlen.

The couple road-tripped cross-country in Karlen's car; once they were settled, Karlen used the car for work. Whalen's motorcycle wasn't suited to the potholes, narrow shoulders and winding New Jersey highways, the couple soon realized.

The night before the accident, Whalen had witnessed a car crash on his way home from his graphic design job in Princeton and told his girlfriend that his biking days were over, Karlen said.

So Karlen said he made arrangements to see a car posted on Craigslist the very next morning. With the directions taped to his bike, he strapped on his helmet and took off eastbound on Route 78 to see the car in Newark. Somewhere near Hillside, he lost control and flew into a guardrail.

It had been a long day at work for Nagy, a 39-year-old deeply religious minister and civil engineer. As he drove home to Newark, he saw the line of red taillights freeze in front of him.

Earlier that afternoon, he'd gotten emergency crisis training as part of his church's new initiative to respond to natural disasters. So, he said, it was both instinct and instruction that made him pull over and get out of his car.

Nagy saw a figure lying a few yards away beneath the guardrail. As he drew closer, he heard strained, wheezing breaths and saw the young man's eyes flickering, his torso bleeding badly. Other motorists stopped, too, including a doctor and a young woman.

With the crowd gathered, Nagy knelt down next to the man and did the only thing he said he could think that might help: He prayed. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

"It was Psalm 23," Nagy said. "It was all I could do."

When paramedics and emergency personnel arrived, they asked everyone to clear. Nagy also left, reluctantly.

The next day Nagy said he went on where he found a short posting about the accident. He wrote in the comments section that he had been there and provided some details of the last moments of Whalen's life.

To his surprise, Nagy said, Karlen's brother reached out and invited him to the funeral.

A mother's nightmare

Almost 2,000 miles away in Oklahoma, JoAnne Whalen, a mother of three sons, was at a pool party at her brother's home that Saturday afternoon. She can't remember many details about the party, not who she talked to or what she ate.

But she can recall one moment vividly.

"The only thing I remember from that day was my brother looking at me, and I locked eyes with him and I just remember saying, 'Which one?'"

Whalen first met Nagy at the funeral. They began emailing, infrequently at first, and then more often. In the exchanges, Whalen said she often cursed about how betrayed she felt by God for taking her son, and Nagy would respond with soothing words and prayer verses. "I felt attacked -- personally attacked," said Whalen, who was raised Catholic.

"I felt, how dare you take him? How dare you? I was raging that it could be so easily done with so little thought."

But after months of almost daily communication with Nagy, Whalen became a devout follower of his program, which she watches over the live web stream.

"It's an intense connection. I sometimes say to Steven, 'In the beginning, I wanted to grab you and shake you upside down and shake Anthony out of you' -- because he's close to his age -- 'but now I just want to shake God out of you,'" she said.

"Our relationship developed from me longing for Anthony to a place where, somehow, I could get to Anthony through Steven."

On the one-year anniversary of her son's death, JoAnne Whalen reunited with Nagy for a memorial picnic with family and friends. Four days later, she and her son Brian drove to Cranford's International House of Prayer Eastern Gate to see Nagy's ministry live.

"So much of the richness of the music is lost on the laptop," Whalen said of the hymns Nagy performed, which ranged from Mavis Staples' "God is Not Sleeping" to Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed."

Still struggling

While Whalen said she has found peace through religion, it's been a tougher road for her son's girlfriend, who said she had planned on driving her boyfriend the day of the accident to see the car he was interested in buying.

Instead, sitting in an empty photo studio going through paperwork, Karlen found out through a text message that the love of her life was dead.

"It's like not reality yet. I still have those moments where I'm like, 'Oh, he's gonna come back,'" said Karlen, who said she has struggled to return to her job as a wedding photographer.

"It's everything I'm mad at," she said, brushing away tears. "Love and happiness and the celebration of it all. Honestly, it's everything I hate right now."

Karlen said she is going to therapy and said she tries to think about how Anthony would want her to move forward. That's her method of healing.

She cherishes the things he held dear. Keeps mementos close, watches videos stored in cell phones, including one from the time the two went sky diving in California.

"He was fearless," Karlen said, a slight smile forming on her face. "He made everyone around him better."

(Julia Terruso writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)