February 14, 2014, by Todd Neva
Larissa met Ian in college in 2005. They dated and quickly fell in love. A year later they were planning to get engaged when Ian was in a car accident. With a brain injury, disabled, Ian wasn’t able to propose. Larissa stuck with him, anyhow, loving him in sickness even before the vows could be made. Four years later, they made official what was already in their hearts, and with the approval of a judge that it was in Ian’s best interests, they were married in 2010.
Ken met Joni at church in 1980. Ken knew of Joni, and he befriended her. She was a celebrity of sorts, having written a book and starred in a movie about her life. She had been a quadriplegic since 1967 when she was in a diving accident at age 17. They became friends, and then fell in love. Ken saw Joni for who she was: a courageous, compassionate Christ follower. Joni saw Ken for who he was: a man more concerned about giving of himself than taking for himself. They were married in 1982.
On this Valentine’s Day, my heart is warmed by these stories. Cupid’s arrow pierced the hearts of people who had every reason to put up a shield of self-interest. I have the greatest respect for these people, Larissa and Ken, for seeing a disabled person as a full person, and then willingly choosing to love and care for that person.
Kristin met me in 2002. We dated, fell in love, and got engaged. When we married in 2003, I was healthy. We made our vows to love “in sickness,” never imagining I would end up disabled.
Disability changes marriage. Illness, job loss, or the death of a child can change marriage. Traumatic events can draw people closer or they can tear them apart.
I still cannot get out of my mind a conversation I had with a male colleague ten years ago.
“You’re getting a divorce?” I confirmed, not sure I heard it correctly.
“Yeah, that’s why I can’t be at the meeting. I need to be in Oklahoma next week to sign papers.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m the one who wants a divorce. She had a stroke and is in a nursing home.”
I never looked at him the same way again.
Contrast that to my love, Kristin. She stood beside me when I got sick and there was never a doubt in my mind that she would be with me to the end. And in some ways my disability has drawn Kristin and me closer together.
Our marriage is hard, make no mistake about it, but it is also sweet. We have a lot of time together, and I know her better now than I ever have. Rather than us each having our own lives, and then sharing stories at the end of the day, we are part of each other’s daily lives. We have more inside jokes. We laugh together.
Our marriage is different now. I don’t rub Kristin’s back. I don’t help clean the house. I don’t do house projects. Although I can make threats when Isaac disobeys, Kristin needs to physically put him in timeout. Kristin carries the load of managing the house, and she helps me bathe and get dressed. It’s humbling.
Yesterday, I asked Kristin to set up the ramps and drive my electric wheelchair into the back of the minivan. I wanted my electric wheelchair at church that night for a few hours. It’s hard to get in and out of chairs, and I want to be self-directed. I’m nervous walking, afraid that I will fall.
At the risk of being late, kids already in the van, me sitting in my electric wheelchair in the garage, waiting on Kristin as she tried to extend the ramps, I was already anxious. The ramps were stuck; Kristin couldn’t get them set up. I was frustrated. “Ugggh!” a groan arose from deep inside me. I tried to find my happy place, “It can’t be helped. Let’s go.”
Kristin drove the wheelchair into the house and then returned to help me into the passenger seat. She got in the van. “Should I get your manual wheelchair?”
I griped, “I hate—hate, hate, hate—my manual wheelchair!” I wasn’t all the way back into my happy place yet.
Kristin looked crushed.
“You shouldn’t say hate, Dad,” Isaac reminded me of the lessons we taught him. “Say you don’t like your manual wheelchair.”
“You’re right, Isaac. Thanks for reminding me. Kristin, I’m not mad at you. I’m just frustrated with the situation.”
Sitting quiet until we were a few miles down the road, I called back to the kids, “I’m sorry I got so upset. Even dads get frustrated sometimes.”
There is so much out of my control. Give it to God. All I can choose is my response.
We had a nice conversation on the way to church. I had productive meetings and Kristin and the kids had a good time at AWANA club. We had lots to talk about when we got home. It was a good night.
The judge who approved Larissa and Ian’s marriage license said it best, “You two exemplify what love is all about. I believe that marriage will not only benefit you both but our community, and hope that everyone in this city could see your love for one another.”
Love is messy. Marriage is hard work as we make day-in and day-out decisions to connect with, care for, and affirm one another. But it’s worth it and it’s good.
Happy Valentine’s Day,
You can read more about Joni and Ken in their book, Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story, Zondervan, 2013.