The day Ben and Candy Carson squeezed in some time to talk to
Marriage Partnership was not just busy, it was crazy. They had scheduled our interview in Chicago just a couple of hours after Ben was interviewed on Good Morning America in New York and Candy had dropped off a son at music lessons in Maryland and just two hours before some radio interviews. After those interviews, Ben was off to Atlanta for more engagements before meeting Candy and their three sons back home in Baltimore, where their days would return to normal.
Of course, the Carsons' "normal" schedule may not sound normal to you. Ben is director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he routinely puts in 16-hour days. And that's before he squeezes in his speaking engagements, board meetings at Yale University and the Kellogg Company and work on his latest book. Meanwhile, Candy is an accomplished concert musician and helps manage the Carson Scholars Fund.
You'd think that when they finally found five minutes free of any demands, they'd just relax, maybe engage in some casual chit-chat. Not so for the Carsons.
"Have you ever played 'Taboo'?" Candy asks before hauling the game cards from her purse. And so, instead of catching their breath before their next appointment, we play the word game. And I use the word "play" with reservations. The Carsons both exude a sense of competitiveness—his more cool, hers more ferocious. I'd never actually felt intimidated playing a game before, but never had I played with two super-smart people who either sat up, leaning toward you or settled back, slyly eyeing you (Candy and Ben, respectively), waiting to catch you "cheating." I lost, I think.
no time to waste
Idle time is foreign to the Carsons' way of life. Candy gets up early, preparing breakfast, packing lunches and making sure their three sons, ages 12, 13 and 15, squeeze in music practice before school. Ben sits down for breakfast, usually taking advantage of the chance to chat with at least one of their sons. Then he leaves for work as their sons head off to school.
"A typical day for me," says the world- renowned neurosurgeon, "would be get to work, do two or three operations after checking on the sickest patients and making rounds. Any free time at all would be a meeting scheduled with somebody from the laboratory or one of my patients. Or I'll have to give a lecture to medical students and then deal with all my physician assistants, who take most of the clinical phone calls and are lined up at the door all the time to tell me about different problems. Then we have to go make rounds and come back and review X-rays. Then I may do a little work on a manuscript."
That would be a manuscript for one of Ben's medical journal articles or for his latest book. He has written three already, including his most recent, Big Picture (Zondervan), co-authored with Gregg Lewis.
Meanwhile, Candy concentrates on the home front. She plays the violin in the Carson family string quartet with her three sons, works with their family's Carson Scholarship Fund and acts as general back-up for her brain-surgeon husband. She takes the kids to their music lessons (in some cases an hour-and-a-half drive each way), makes sure they finish their homework early and cooks dinner. This way, when Ben comes home at eight or nine at night, they can spend time together doing what they love: playing pool, watching movies or playing a board game.
Busy? You could say that. But you'd also have to admit that the Carsons' schedule shames those of us who've whined a time or two about being too busy for quality family time. In fact, they seem to thrive under this hectic pace.
"I think you get used to the schedule," Candy says. "I mean, you just kind of go with the flow, what the Lord puts before you. I get to do my own thing. The kids and I hang out."
Sure, their family weekends and "monthiversary" celebrations have to be scheduled by one of Ben's four secretaries. And no, Candy and the boys don't enjoy as much face time as other wives and children do with their husbands and fathers.
"Of course, I'd like him to be home longer," Candy says. "[But] he's doing what he's got to do."
And since they got married after Ben's second year in medical school, he says, "We have really never known anything else."
right from the beginning
It's hard to believe, but life was even busier for the Carsons just after they married. In those early days, sharing quality time may have meant Ben practicing a mock lobotomy on Candy, but she welcomed any free moments to see her husband.
"If he had five minutes, he would let me know," Candy says. "We lived right across the street from the hospital, so I'd have dinner ready and run it across the street."
During Ben's residency at Johns Hopkins, Candy filled up her "free time" by taking advantage of her status as a university employee (she worked as an editorial assistant for a chemistry professor) and as the wife of a resident to go back to school for free and receive her master's degree in business. It was partly because Ben knew she wouldn't mind the inconveniences of being married to a neurosurgeon that he realized Candy was the woman for him.
"If [while dating] I had picked up on the fact that she was going to be always bent out of shape because I wasn't there," he says, "I would've known that she wasn't the right person."
Friends at Yale, where the Carsons met and earned their bachelor's degrees, cited a different reason for why the two were a perfect match. It wasn't their shared faith in God or their competitive spirits or their love of music.
"It was the corn," Candy says. They both laugh at the same corny jokes. (Brain jokes are particularly popular—anyone with half a brain could figure that out.)
But after they started dating, a decidedly unfunny moment cinched their relationship. While Ben and Candy were driving back to New Haven, Connecticut, on a Yale student-recruiting trip, Ben dozed off at the wheel at close to 90 miles per hour. When the car skidded along on the shoulder of the highway, the vibration woke him up.
"The Pinto veered off the road," Ben writes in his book Gifted Hands (Zondervan), "the headlights streaming into the blackness of a deep ravine. I yanked my foot off the gas pedal, grabbed the steering wheel and fiercely jerked to the left. … Because of my over-correction with the steering wheel, the car went into a crazy spin . …"
Seconds after the car finally stopped in the lane next to the shoulder, a truck zoomed past them. The Carsons were convinced that God had miraculously spared their lives and that he had special plans for them.
the skills to succeed
Those who knew Ben as a child wouldn't have guessed that God had anything special planned for the young boy born poor in inner-city Detroit. Certainly not that he would become famous for separating conjoined twins and performing hemispherectomies (a life-saving procedure in which half of the brain is removed). No one, that is, except his mother, Sonya.
After his father abandoned Ben and his older brother, Curtis, Sonya Carson raised them alone but equipped her sons with the skills to succeed. To improve Curtis and Ben's slipping grades, she limited their television time and made them read two books a week and hand in book reports. At the time the boys resented the extra work, but the emphasis on learning paid off when Yale University came courting Ben. Curtis went on to become an engineer.
The work ethic that his mother instilled has served Ben well. He knows maintaining a marriage takes as much work as anything else. With schedules as harried as theirs, Ben and Candy know that planning time together is essential. Each month, they have two standing dates— so-called monthiversaries. One is on the sixth (they were married on July 6); the other is on the 28th (their lives were spared in that Pinto on November 28). They save these dates every month to thank God for their lives and for each other and to celebrate their blessings.
Ben also credits his ability to switch gears from work to home quickly with helping him spend more quality time with his family.
"The Lord has blessed me with a shut-off valve," he says. "If I worried about all the stuff that was going on all the time I'd be a wreck. I come home and we have dinner and play pool or whatever. I forget about what's going on at work. I may get a call, and I'll answer it and then go back to what I'm doing."
Ben's shut-off valve does have a down side for Candy, however. Ben almost never talks about work at home.
"I would love to hear all that stuff, but I don't bring it up," Candy says. "He's been living it for 12 to 16 hours that day. I don't want to press him!"
She usually hears stories about Ben's operations when she listens to him make speeches, which is partly why his family tries to travel with him as much as possible. But after their Chicago stop-over, Ben is going on alone to finish up a media tour in Atlanta and Candy is heading back to Baltimore to make sure homework gets done and instruments get played.
But just like in their early years, they'll take whatever time they can together. And for now, a late-night call from Atlanta telling her he made it safely will do.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.