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For Better or For Worst

Two couples who have faced tragic, unforeseen circumstances—together.

A Terrorist Act

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Brian and Mel Birdwell
Married: May 16, 1987
Hometown: Manassas, Virginia
Children: 1 son

I was run over by a 757," retired Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell explains as he lifts his scarred arms and hands and points at his singed ears. "Whenever we drive past a KFC, we laugh that I'm the extra crispy kind."

He and his wife, Mel, are able to bring lightness to their situation now. But on September 11, 2001, Brian's life hung in that delicate balance between life and death.

At 9:37, Brian was walking toward his office when American Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon, 20 yards from where he stood. Immediately, Brian was doused in flames and jet fuel.

"I knew I was going to die," says Brian. "The thought of never seeing Mel or my son, Matt, again was the worst feeling in the world."

Mel was watching the horrific scene on television as the flames shot from her husband's office. "We prayed he wasn't in there," she says. "But I feared the worst."

Miraculously, Brian was able to get to safety. But he was burned over 60 percent of his body (40 percent were third degree burns), and had to endure months of excruciating therapy and more than 30 surgeries.

When he arrived at Georgetown University Hospital, minutes from death, the physician told him they had to operate immediately.

"I knew this could be it," says Brian. "So I asked for a chaplain to pray with me. Then I gave my ring to a friend and told him, 'Give this to Mel. And tell her, I always loved her.'"

"The first time I saw him [after he was rescued], I didn't recognize him. He was incredibly swollen and ghastly white," says Mel. "I knew my Brian would never be the same."

Neither would their marriage.

"I instantly became a full-time caregiver," says Mel. "It wasn't a happy time—his pain was often unbearable, and he was like a baby—I had to do everything for him. Yet as frustrating as it got, we always realized that the worst could have happened.

"What most surprised us, though, was the number of people who'd say, 'Wow, I can't believe you stuck it out. I'm not sure I would have.' But we'd committed to each other. There were no other options."

"You can't cut and run when it gets tough," says Brian. "That's when you learn the most."

What they learned were blessings in disguise: "God gave me the opportunity to serve my husband," says Mel. Mel became Brian's advocate, communicator, primary caregiver. "Loyalty taught Mel servanthood—her part in our marriage during that time," says Brian. "But loyalty called me to humility and a deep appreciation for being served and what that cost Mel."

While life is mostly back to normal--and Brian has recently become a state senator for Texas, the Birdwells have changed. "We've realized that loyalty and commitment come with a price you can't appreciate until they're challenged," says Mel. "But it's worth it. I can't imagine my life without Brian."

When Disease Strikes

Sherrill and Linda Babb
Married: June 30, 1963
Hometown: Langhorne, Pennsylvania
Children: 2 daughters, 1 son

It started with a tingling sensation in her feet and legs when she played tennis. Then several years later, Linda Babb was driving when she went blind in one eye. Her physician gave the grave diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

Linda was 34; she and her husband, Sherrill, had been married 13 years.

"We were shattered," says Sherrill. "While I knew her diagnosis was bad news, we really didn't understand what the disease was and how it could strike out of nowhere."

Last June, Sherrill and Linda celebrated their 41st anniversary. Twenty-nine of those years have been lived under the dark shadow of multiple sclerosis (MS).

They've discovered that this progressive degenerative disease specializes in change. Within several weeks of her diagnosis, Linda's entire right side was paralyzed. "We're always facing a new challenge," says Sherrill. "It isn't something you slip into. It pops up unexpectedly."

MS reared its ugly head again on Friday, January 31, 2003—Linda's birthday. Because of her weakened condition, they'd decided to postpone the festivities and eat a quiet candlelight dinner at home.

While they were enjoying their meal, Linda stopped breathing. Sherrill called 911 and attempted unsuccessfully to revive her.

Fortunately, she survived, but has endured a similar episode since. And other problems continue: Linda is confined to a wheelchair and uses a breathing apparatus that doesn't allow her to talk clearly.

"MS affects Linda's body, but not who she is," says Sherrill. "She's still the woman I love." A few weeks ago, he put on a Barry White CD of love songs and they danced—Linda in her wheelchair.

As much as possible Linda travels with Sherrill, whether it's for his work as president of Philadelphia Biblical University, or to his swim meets. (Sherrill began swimming several years ago to build the upper-body strength he needs to physically support Linda.)

"If I ask her to go, she always says yes," says Sherrill.

The travel is work for them, as they have to take a ventilator and all the medical equipment she needs. "Some people may wonder, Isn't that a bit too much? I say, 'No, because she's there with me,'" says Sherrill. "It's worth the extra effort, because we enjoy being together."

It may look as though Sherrill is the one doing all the giving and Linda is doing all the receiving. "That's not it at all," says Sherrill. "Linda is my companion, my friend, my supporter. I'm dependent on her as a source of encouragement. The fact that she travels with me—even when she can't do everything or may not feel completely up to it—shows me she loves me, that she's committed to me.

"Linda's disease has taught us a number of things about loyalty and commitment," says Sherrill. "We've learned that prayer is our primary resource. We've learned that life is fragile. And we've learned that the best way to handle anything is to handle it together. If, through marriage, God makes two people one, then it wasn't just Linda who was diagnosed with the disease. We both were.

"I've always believed that God brought us together. So God's plan is for me to support her and help her.

"God's allowed this to happen to us to bring us closer to each other and to him. And we are. We hope we're modeling to others what will work in their lives. Our loyalty is a legacy to our children."

For more on Brian and Mel Birdwell, read their recent book Refined by Fire (Tyndale), or visit them at Face the Fire Ministries, www.facethefire.org.

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

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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