After traveling 1,200 miles, seeing dozens of relatives and eating two Thanksgiving feasts along with gallons of coffee, we are back in the Black Hills pondering the time we had in Minnesota. Of course, the highlight was spending time with our son, his wife and their children, but two other encounters stand out as I think back on the weekend.
My 94-year-old Aunt Millie lived independently until about a year ago when health problems necessitated nursing home care, but through determination (the Finns call it “sisu”) she worked her way up to assisted living, making the move about a week ago. She graduated from a wheelchair to a walker. In spite of all her accomplishments, at times she feels depressed and hopeless.
My 42-year-old niece Stephanie, confined to a wheelchair, is able to feed herself and understands what is going on around her, but speaks very little. Up until two years ago, she had a good job, was up on what’s going on in the culture, liked to laugh and have fun. Doctors found and removed a huge tumor from her abdomen which triggered a blood clot to travel to her lungs, and yet another surgery to remove it. Somewhere in the midst of that, her old personality was lost and she is now dependent on her 72-year-old parents to care for her. They are tired, but love and sisu drive them on. I think Stephanie took pleasure in all the activity of Thanksgiving Day, but I know at times she was sad.
These two women, both never married, have been mentally sharp and independent all their lives, and I think they wonder why they live life as they do today. On the return trip home from Minnesota I read an article about Joni Earkeckson Tada, a quadriplegic woman who 50 years ago asked things like, “Why me?” “Why can’t I be healed?” and “Why can’t I just die?” She dove into shallow waters in Chesapeake Bay as a 17-year-old in 1967, broke her neck and was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Over time she began to embrace the sovereignty of God in her suffering, and Joni points to a phrase shared with her by a friend as a turning point for her. “God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”
As she realized that all hope was not lost, she certainly saw God working His love through her in many ways. She founded a ministry called “Joni and Friends” that has helped hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities all over the world, and another ministry, “Wheels for the World” that has provided wheelchairs for at least 100,000 individuals worldwide. She learned to paint with her mouth, has written several books and has spoken out publicly for the disabled as well as talked with them one by one, encouraging them individually. She went through a bout with stage 3 breast cancer a few years ago, and she is in constant pain, but still with the help of her husband and caregivers, she continues the ministry.
Joni’s story inspires me to think that my niece and elderly aunt have every reason to hope. Their lives may be altered, but they are not finished. They have learned in weakness to depend on others, a hard thing for all of us, and their lives have taught family members to slow down and take time with loved ones who aren’t in the fast lane.
If a tragedy can turn to triumph in a case like Joni’s, surely there is hope for us in the ups and downs of everyday life. We may not receive an answer to the “why” questions, but perhaps embracing God’s sovereignty as Joni did might be a start.