Several years ago my wife, Joni, contracted a bad cold, and despite steam treatments, lots of fluids, rest, and Vitamin C, it moved quickly into her chest. After two solid nights of constant coughing and an increasing tightness in her chest, we didn't wait any longer. I rushed her to the hospital—just in time. The emergency room x-rays showed that Joni's lungs were seriously congested.
The next day, tests revealed that both lungs were filling with fluid. Her physician diagnosed Joni with double pneumonia and ordered extra breathing treatments.
Her diagnosis scared us. Quadriplegics like my wife have no chest muscles and limited lung capacity. For them, even normal breathing is a challenge. Many don't live through pneumonia, let alone double pneumonia. The fact that Joni has lived 38 years as a quadriplegic, outlasting life expectancy statistics, alarmed us more. We knew her situation was tenuous.
But Joni was a trooper. She followed doctor's orders, kept up with her medications, and kept coughing, no matter how tired she felt. Those nine days in the hospital were extremely difficult for my wife. And I have to admit, they were difficult for me.
I felt pretty helpless, unable to do much except pound on her back to break up the phlegm or sit her up to press firmly on her abdomen so she could muster a good cough. I stayed at the hospital every night. I slept—if you could call it that—in a chair next to Joni's hospital bed. I had to be there. I should say I wanted to be there. It's not that I didn't trust nurses to help, but Joni couldn't push any buttons and she sure couldn't call out. I wanted to be there so she'd have someone to be her "muscles" whenever she needed help coughing—which was about every 15 minutes. We went through the quick-get-up-to-sit-her-up routine sometimes 25 times a night (the nurses laughed and said they were going to charge me with "wife abuse"). It wasn't easy. For Joni or for me.
One night around 4:00 A.M., I felt almost too weary to go on. I leaned my head on Joni's shoulder as she rested in between coughs. We were both exhausted. All was dark and quiet except for the low rattling in Joni's chest. After a long moment, she whispered, "Is this the for-better-or-for-worse part?" to which I mumbled after another long moment, "No, it's more like the in-sickness-and-in-health part." We chuckled.
It felt good to laugh again. We'd prayed countless times next to her bedside, asking God for bright spirits, but for some reason he chose to use that moment to pour out his grace on us both. And right then, we knew we'd make it. We knew she'd make it. And we knew our marriage was all the stronger for it.
Finally, they released her to go home. We were so relieved to be back in our house. Even though she had to stay away from work for another two weeks, Joni didn't mind. There would be time enough for her to return to Joni and Friends. While she was home recuperating, I found myself checking up on her much more frequently than usual—not because I had to, but because I wanted to. The duty of being a helpful husband was transformed into a delight in sharing her burden. Maybe it was that thing about "compassion" where they say "com" means with and "passion" means suffering. God had stirred a new level of compassion in my heart and I wanted to be with Joni in her suffering.
Joni's better now. We just celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. For all these years, we've shared a great ministry together—holding retreats for families affected by disability here in the States, plus delivering wheelchairs and Bibles to needy disabled people in other parts of the world. We've had a wonderful ministry together. But I have a whole new appreciation for that word together. Joni and I were never more together as a married couple than when we were battling her pneumonia.
I never felt closer to her than when I was wiping her nose or adjusting her breathing mask for the umpteenth time. You'd think that a feeling of togetherness would occur over a candlelight dinner or a romantic vacation. But isn't it just like God to strengthen our unity, deepen our commitment, and breathe fresh romance into our marriage through, well … fighting pneumonia in a hospital?
Fresh romance isn't doing something new and different in bed. It's what happens when a husband shares his wife's burden, or vice-versa. And it beats a candlelight dinner any day.
Joni's facing another birthday soon. It'll mean another year of outliving the quadriplegia-statistics. Her upcoming birthday got us talking about togetherness. I'm stronger when I support and stand beside her, and she's stronger when she's "wheeling close" to me, cheering me on, praying for me, and applauding my efforts. It's a perfect picture of Ephesians 2:22, "And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (italics added).
My wife and I aren't marriage experts. We aren't even experts at doing the disability thing. But we know this: suffering can either drive people apart in a marriage, or it can bind them together. And just as God reveals tender, intimate things when we patiently hold fast to him through our personal suffering, a marriage is tenderized when a couple patiently holds fast to God—and to each other—through hardships. I say this to any husband and wife going through tough times: God always reveals himself to us when we come together, needing him desperately. And when we cling to God out of need, one of the most satisfying fruits of the Holy Spirit—the fruit of patience—can't help but take root in a marriage.
I don't automatically recommend marriage to young disabled couples when "quadriplegia" is in the mix. It's difficult. It requires a lot from any two people. But for those, like Joni and me, who choose it; or for others who experience illness or injury after the wedding vows, God's grace really is sufficient. I guess that's because he's in it "together" with you.
Yes, Joni and I have many more tasks to tackle and more travels to take. Until one of us passes away, we're a team. And patience and suffering have made it that way. We take our lead from the psalmist, David, who wrote, "Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together" (Psalm 34:3, italics added). It's amazing that when we're at our lowest, when we feel as though we can't go on, the Lord always shows up. And Jesus Christ, the Breath of Life, showed up at Joni's hospital bedside every day and every night. And we both—together—drew on his grace. Our marriage is richer and better for it.
I'm looking forward to many more days of life together with my quadriplegic wife. She's a gem! And I can't wait until heaven when we'll see the eternal results of our work as we've exalted his name together!
Ken Tada is director of ministry development for Joni and Friends, where he works with his wife, Joni Eareckson Tada. For more information about Joni and Friends, visit www.joniandfriends.org.
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