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Spirited Surrender

While life in a wheelchair isn't what Christian recording artist Renée Bondi would choose, it's helping her rediscover God's presence and peace.

It had been a frustrating morning for Renee Bondi—but you'd never guess it from her smile. As this Christian recording artist with the angelic singing voice and bright blue eyes welcomed me into her Southern California home, she apologized for being behind in her schedule.

For most women, this would be a miscalculation. For Renee, 42, it's an example of the challenge she faces daily in a life constrained by paralysis. Renee's caretaker, whose alarm clock had failed to go off that morning, had arrived late to Renee's home to ready her for the day. With her husband of 11 years, Mike, already off to work, all Renee could do was lie in bed. "There were a zillion things I wanted to have done before you got here, such as make sure the banana bread was baked and fresh orange juice was squeezed," she explains. "But I couldn't do a single thing except wait."

Thirteen years ago, Renee didn't have to contend with such dependency. She had what she calls a "great life"—teaching choral music at the high school in her hometown of San Juan Capistrano, California, singing professionally, leading music at her church, and dancing with Mike, then her fiance, under the stars.

Then unexpected tragedy struck. In 1988, two months shy of her wedding day, Renee was in a freak accident that left her a quadraplegic. A year after her five-month hospital stay, during which Renee underwent surgery to fuse her neck bones, as well as rehab and occupational therapy, Mike and Renee married.

Six years after her accident, tragedy struck again—this time with her sister, Michelle, who was paralyzed in an accident while on a family vacation. As Renee labored to give birth to her son, Daniel, now six, Michelle valiantly fought for her life in another hospital in a nearby town.

Experiences such as these could have left Renee embittered with the God to whom she'd committed her life when she was in fourth grade. But as she's surrendered her circumstances to Jesus, Renee's been able to rise above her limitations to experience his peace.

Today, surrounded by a loving network of caregivers and family members (Renee's parents live in a house directly behind hers, and two of her siblings, including Michelle and her family, live close by), Renee's an in-demand speaker and performer, appearing at Mothers of Preschoolers (mops) and Joni Eareckson Tada's Joni and Friends ministry events, on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power, and at a recent Heritage Keepers conference. Renee's also at work on a book about her life. And as one of the largest-selling independent Christian recording artists, she recently released her third CD, Surrender to Your Love (Capo Recordings). But her greatest desire is to be the wife and mother God calls her to be. In this exclusive interview, Renee shares how God gives her strength to deal with her challenges and enabled her to sing again.

What were you like before your accident?

I had an outgoing personality. I was Type-A, independent, and very go-go-go. I was named Teacher of the Year at my school, and I was engaged to be married to an awesome Christian guy. I was a committed Christian, but my faith had never been tested.

The weekend of my accident, Mike flew in from Denver, where he lived and worked, to be my date as a chaperon at my high school's prom that Saturday night. Although we'd already been engaged for a year, Mike was finally able to give me my engagement ring that night. On Sunday, he flew back to Colorado. That evening I went to bed a happy, contented woman.

What happened next?

In the middle of the night, I awoke from a deep sleep and felt myself falling off the foot of my bed. In that split second, my head hit the ground and I heard my neck go chck, chck, chck. As I rolled over onto my left shoulder, I felt a searing pain. I gasped for air, lay back, then tried to roll over onto my right side. As I did, I felt pain like a knife go into that side of my neck. I realized I needed help.

When I hollered for my roommate, Dorothy, a single mom who shared my house, all that came out was a whisper. I realized I could be there for hours, because my bedroom door was closed. But within a few minutes I heard, "Renee? Renee?" Dorothy opened my bedroom door and saw me on the floor. It was 2 a.m. Dorothy said she had absolutely no clue why she got up, but we believe strongly the Holy Spirit woke her. There's no other explanation.

Dorothy called 911. I was confused and engulfed in horrendous pain.

Did you think you might die?

No. But while we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, the strangest sensation came over my body—what seemed to be a wave of silence that started at my neck, then moved across my chest and down to my toes. At that moment I thought, Wait a minute. I can't be paralyzed. All I did was go to bed.

You have no idea what caused you to fall off?

To this day, none. I don't have a history of sleepwalking or seizures. The only thing we can think of was that I must have been dreaming about diving.

What did the paramedics do?

They could tell almost immediately I'd broken my neck. They rushed me to the hospital and pushed me into the CAT scan. The next thing I remember, I awoke in ICU.

The first person I saw in the ICU was my pastor. I was groggy, and he had his hands on me, praying over me. I was startled and thought, Am I that bad?

Did you realize the extent of the injury?

Not until the neurosurgeon came in and said, "You're a quadriplegic." I said, "What's that mean?" He bluntly replied, "You're paralyzed from the neck down. You'll never walk again. You'll never sing again. And you'll need help with about every function of your life."

His words didn't hit me right away. I didn't absorb them until I saw the expression on my mom's and dad's faces.

And Mike's reaction?

Mike's dad called him at work Monday morning to tell him the news. Mike cried and prayed during the entire flight back to California: "Lord, don't let Renee die. I don't care if there's a wheelchair. Just don't let her die."

Up until this point, I'd only seen gloomy looks from my family, the nurses, and the physicians. But Mike walked into my hospital room, put a big smile on his face, and said, "Hi, honey. We can do this."

When I saw that smile, I smiled back and replied, "Well, I guess we're going to get all the good parking spaces now." It took seeing his smile to lighten my heart.

How did you and Mike meet?

My girlfriend Rosie set us up. She kept telling me, "You've got to meet this guy, Renee. Mike would be perfect for you. He really wants to meet you." Meanwhile, Rosie and her fiance, Greg, were telling Mike, "Renee really wants to meet you!"

When Mike and I finally went out to dinner, we hit it off. But Mike was nothing like my checklist. I'd always dated the tall, shy, musician type, and Mike was shorter and kind of loud—he definitely wasn't shy! I crossed our date off as just a fun evening. We didn't connect until seven months later, when I sang at Rosie and Greg's wedding. Mike and I danced at the reception, and he asked me out. The more I got to know Mike and see his character, the more I fell in love.

What did Mike do after the accident?

He never returned to Colorado; his company allowed him to work in California. It's a "God-incidence," really; his employer had only two facilities in the state, and one of them was in Long Beach, where I was hospitalized! Mike came every morning to feed me breakfast, used his 30-minute lunch break to feed me lunch, and visited me every day after work, to keep our communication going.

Did you think about breaking up with him after your accident?

Yes. And if he'd left, I would have understood. During the course of my hospital stay, everyone in my family pulled Mike aside and said, "We understand if you need to walk. There'll be no hard feelings." But Mike's response was, "Renee's the one I was going to spend the rest of my life with. You really think I'm going to leave her now?"

You must have told him to walk, too.

Oh, yes. I said, "Mike, I don't know how we can make this relationship work. I have no idea what my future holds, let alone our future."

Did you struggle with depression?

Who wouldn't? One night I was dancing, the next day I was told I'd never again walk hand-and-hand on the beach. Nights were the hardest. I'd try to pray, but I'd start whining, then my brain would shift to Mike. How can he stay with me? What kind of wife can I be? Can I even be a mom? Or I'd think about my parents or my students. I couldn't stay focused for more than 10 seconds.

But four months into my hospital stay, as I tried to pray one night, the words to a hymn I'd sung hundreds of times before entered my mind: "Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me, and I will give you rest." I realized God was speaking to me, telling me I'd get through this. It was then I knew I was going to be okay—but I also knew the definition of "okay" had radically changed.

Could you sense people praying for you?

Definitely. About a week after my injury, our church held a prayer service for me. Mike came right after the service and told me through tears about how some of my tough students were there in tears, on their knees praying. From that moment, I knew God would use my injury. It was as though God was telling me, I'm not going to waste any of this, Renee.

You were told you wouldn't be able to sing again—yet you can.

If you'd interviewed me 10 years ago, you'd have heard only a whisper. I broke cervical vertebrae 4. If I'd broken 3, 2, or 1, I'd be on a ventilator. But because I broke c-4, all the muscles around my diaphragm were severely compromised.

When I was in the hospital, a vocal coach friend noticed how I breathed as I talked to visitors. She devised a way to strengthen my diaphragm muscles by putting a one-pound ankle weight across my diaphragm, making my muscles lift the weight as I tried to talk. By the end of five months, I was lifting up to 55 pounds on my stomach. Talk about unconventional respiratory therapy!

Four years later, in 1992, a musician friend visited our home. "Come on," Jim said to me as he sat at our piano and started to play, "get over here and sing with me."

I started to cry. "Jim, I can't sing any more." Then Jim started playing "Be not afraid. I go before you always," the same hymn God used to get back into my head in the hospital. It was no coincidence Jim used that song; it was from God. I know Jim through Broadway musicals, not the Christian music world. The wealth of repertoire this guy had to choose from—and out of the blue he picked "Be Not Afraid"!

By the time we finished, this grown guy was sobbing with me as we both realized I really could sing again. As my voice grew stronger, I recorded my first CD, Inner Voice, and started singing for others and sharing my story. Then, in 1995, Daniel was born.

I've never heard of a quadraplegic giving birth before.

As far as my medical team and I are aware, I'm the highest-level quad in the country who's given birth. The neurological and obstetrical staff at the hospital were surprised when I went in and announced, "Hi, gang, I'm pregnant!"

Because of my spinal cord injury, my pregnancy was very high risk; when I went in to be induced, two nurses doublechecked my monitors constantly to make sure I wouldn't suffer any serious complications. They started giving me pitocin, a labor-inducing drug, at 8 a.m., but my obstetrician didn't think I'd de-liver until late afternoon.

Around one o'clock, as Mike and I were watching a movie to distract ourselves, I started getting goosebumps around my neck. Usually goosebumps tell me something's happening in the lower part of my body, so I asked my nurse, "Am I having a contraction?" She looked at the monitor and said yes.

I had more goosebumps five minutes later. When she saw I was having another contraction, she checked me—and saw the top of the baby's head! The nurses raced to get my physician.

It seems as though the big events of our lives, such as our original wedding day, had been blown out of the water by other circumstances. Now my baby was being born as my sister, Michelle, was in critical condition in a hospital one hour south. I started bawling, saying, "Lord, our family can't take one more thing. This baby has to be perfect."

What happened with Michelle?

She'd been critically injured nine days earlier in a dirt bike accident that occurred while her family was on vacation. Besides being paralyzed, Michelle had punctured both lungs and was truly fighting for her life.

Well, here came Daniel. They laid him on my lap, and I was so scared, I couldn't look at him. I asked Mike and the doctor to count Daniel's fingers, his toes. Finally I looked at Daniel as my obstetrician said, "This baby's perfect." Mike and I sobbed and sobbed.

Within 10 minutes of Daniel's birth, who walked in to visit us? It wasn't a family member; it was my pastor, who'd been with me in the ICU right after my accident! He had no idea when he popped in that I'd just given birth. As Mike placed Daniel in my pastor's arms, it hit me like a bolt of lightning how faithful and present God is.

How's Michelle doing now?

Obviously she has many challenges as a parapleglic wife and mom. Michelle's also a dental hygienist and is back to work three days a week. She and her husband just celebrated their 18th anniversary—and the 6th anniversary of her accident. They're still grieving the loss of the things they were able to do when Michelle had full use of her body, but overall, they're doing well.

What's Daniel learning through all this?

I desperately hope he knows God will see him through anything. Daniel's only six, but I pray that when he's older, he'll not look back on his childhood and think, My mother was one angry, crabby, bitter woman. Mike and I pray we'll be a concrete witness of Philippians 1:6: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

To be honest, though, sometimes I have to pray, "Lord, I'm struggling greatly with being a mom this way. Please let Daniel know I love him, even though I can't wrestle on the ground with him like his daddy does."

And the biggest thing you're learning?

That while certain things are allowed to happen—and I'm not sure why—I know beyond a shadow of a doubt God is present, that he has and will continue to provide for me every step of the way.

Sometimes I get embarrassed when people stare at me in my wheelchair. But then I think about how Jesus was questioned. Jesus was mocked. He was humiliated. He was tortured. What I go through is minor compared to that.

What would you tell someone struggling with a chronic condition?

Try to be the kind of person people want to help. Nobody—no matter how Christlike he or she is—could handle being around me very often if I just sat here and said, "Woe is me." Of course I have days when I'm whiny, but I make an extremely conscious effort not to air my dirty laundry every time somebody walks into my house.

I've learned it's important to surrender my wheelchair to God, and open myself up to allow others to help …

… which is hard to do!

Especially for us women. It's extremely hard to let somebody else take care of every aspect of your life, from taking care of your personal feminine hygiene to putting your groceries away in the right place in the pantry. I've gotten better at it, but I was horrible at first. I'm realizing that just because I've surrendered something once doesn't mean it's not going to rear its ugly head again. Now when it does, I acknowledge it, bow my head to God, and say, "I give this to you."

What's a typical day like?

At 7:30 a.m., Mike's in the shower and my caregiver arrives. She rolls me onto my back from my side, places a catheter into my bladder to empty it into a urinal, then helps me do range-of-motion exercises for 30 minutes. Then she helps me empty my bowel, gives me a shower, and washes my hair. My caregiver rolls me back onto the bed, puts my pants on, lifts me into my power chair, dresses me, brushes my teeth, washes my face, blow-dries my hair, and puts a little make-up on me.

By this time Daniel's stirring. I make sure Daniel gets dressed and eats breakfast, then we get into the car and my caregiver drives us to his school. I roll down the ramp and give Daniel a ride on the wheelchair to his classroom.

While Daniel's in school, I grocery shop and work in our ministry office. Then at 2:30, I lie down as my caregiver puts a catheter into my bladder to empty it, puts my pants back on, and gets me back in the wheelchair. We drive to Daniel's school to pick him up.

Does your caregiver stay all day?

No, she leaves at three. That's when my extended family kicks in. After lots of playtime with Daniel, my mom comes over to assist with dinner. She feeds Daniel and me, because Mike, who works for a large communications company, usually can't get home from work until later in the evening.

When Mike gets home, we all play and laugh. Then Mike and I get Daniel to sleep. When it's time for bed, Mike picks me up from the wheelchair, lays me in the bed, takes my clothes off, puts the catheter in, empties my bladder, rolls me over on my side, and gets me comfortable. I wake up maybe twice a night asking Mike to turn me. He'll turn me on my other side so I can fall back asleep. Mike's now able to fall right back to sleep. The alarm goes off—and it starts over the next day.

Does Mike ever get depressed?

Sure. He won't always let me know when it's happening, but I can figure it out when all he wants to do is sleep. So I try to pay attention to that and find an appropriate time to ask Mike, "Honey, what's up? I really want you to verbalize what's going on in your heart right now. There's nothing you can say that will make me turn away." Then I get an idea of what Mike's feeling.

Mike loves to backpack, so he takes a week every year with his brother to go backpacking. At first I felt jealous of him taking off, but now I'm wiser. I see how vitally important that backpacking trip is for Mike. So I'm the one who says, "Hey, that trip's not on the calendar yet. Let's schedule it!"

What would you most like to accomplish through your story and music?

I hope I can open women's eyes to see God's presence in their ordinary lives, so they don't have to break their neck to experience it! I want women to know God cares for them greatly, that he'll see them through any situation—no matter what the circumstance.

There's nothing to which Jesus cannot relate. Hebrews 4:15 says, "We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

I still can't comprehend how I got in this chair. It surpasses my understanding. But Philippians 4:7 says, "The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." I've bowed my head, many times in tears, and prayed, "Lord, I give this to you." I've found that in doing this, God gives me the strength and clarity of mind to face the challenge of the next day.

For information about Renee's music and ministry, check her Web site at www.reneebondi.com. And watch for Renee's book to be published in spring 2002 (Fleming H. Revell/Baker Book House).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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