As I taught Sunday School a few weeks ago, we talked about the story in John 9 of the Savior’s healing of the man who had been blind from birth for 37 years. Thirty-seven years. What a long time for him to not see the sunsets or sunrises, the faces of his family, and his own hands reaching out to beg for mercy and help from those who walked by. Thirty-seven years to live in darkness, wondering what that thing people called “sight” really was and why he was denied it.
Being a parent of a handicapped daughter, I am used to being intrigued and awed by the stories of the healings of “a man that is called Jesus” (John 9:11). But there was something especially meaningful to me about this healing. My daughter Dawn is 37 years old, so I know how long enduring a 37-year trial is, and it made me ache in compassion for the blind man and rejoice at his veil of darkness being lifted.
And lest readers protest about my use of the word “trial,” I know many, many parents of handicapped children, and I think none would disagree that although there are blessings along the way, the situation is constantly fraught with heartache and difficulty that stretches the limits of your faith and endurance.
And that’s what my next two columns are about—enduring long, seemingly endless trials. Just how do you keep your faith and strength going when there just doesn’t seem to be an end to whatever difficulty you are facing day in and day out for years.
Here are some lessons I have learned on my journey through these particular mists of darkness that I offer as hope and comfort to those of you who are wondering how in the world you will ever endure whatever your seemingly endless trial is. I in no way profess to have achieved all these worthy goals, but as my good daughter-in-law said while waiting tables, while facing a barren job market after her law school graduation, “I’m trying.”
Do not project upon the future the problems you are experiencing today. I learned this through an experience burned into my memory when my daughter was 12. She is not only physically handicapped from cerebral palsy but mentally handicapped also. Her greatest joy at that time was to sit in a special table my daddy had made for her and color pictures with a device strapped to her hand. Other 12-year-old girls were begging their mother to let them wear lip gloss and panty hose; their greatest joys were shopping at the mall and imagining the day they would go to the prom. I cried out and demanded of her father, “Is this what she is going to be doing when she is 16? Will she still want to color when everyone else is going on their first dates?” Subconsciously I was asking, “How will I take that pain? How can I endure this as she gets older and farther and farther behind others her age? This is too much, Heavenly Father. How can I possibly endure it for so many years when I can hardly stand this day’s worth of pain?”
I thought about this years later as my expectations had dulled, and I had come to terms more with the reality of what her life was meant to be. I remembered that day of despair when she was 25 years old and I was begging the recreation therapists at The Virginia Home in Richmond where she then lived to let her color, to beg her to color, to insist she color, even though she often refused from her sheer stubbornness. As important as it had been to me 13 years earlier that she get beyond that childish stage where coloring is enjoyable, the years intervening had taught me that her happiness was more important than age-appropriateness. I had learned somewhat and I’m sure imperfectly about the acceptance of God’s will in my life and tempering my own desires with what He wanted them to be.
For so many years I tried to round off the edges of her square peg to force it into the circular shape into which everyone else’s peg fit. In so many ways, we had tried to fit life around Dawn, hoping that with enough adjustments and explanations, her life would be normal. But it didn’t work that way. I finally had to give up and realize that Dawn had to fit into whatever life she was to have. For this life her edges would always be square; whatever her life was to be had to fit around her square. I couldn’t force her to not want to color at the age of 16, however much I tried. And I finally stopped trying. Coloring at the age of 25 and now even at 37 is just fine for Dawn.
Take only one day at a time. I am so incapable of doing this well and struggle with that challenge every minute of every day. Fears about the future dance in my head, taunting me. At any moment during the day and especially the evening and nighttime hours, I know just the thoughts to think and the feelings to invoke that plunge me instantly to tears and despair about Dawn’s situation. Is she afraid if it storms? Does she wonder why I left her there? Will I die before she does? Who will take care of her then? On and on the parade of pain prances.
When I think about it, I know such thoughts must not come from the Holy Spirit because the Spirit speaks of peace and joy, so I fight them, but each time of fighting them seems just as difficult as the time before. I wonder why after 37 years of dealing with the pain, it just doesn’t stay away. Because she is far away now, I visit Dawn two or three times a month. Each time of going and leaving rips my heart out and forces me to my knees in tears and prayers when I return home, begging for grace of the atonement to dull the pain and give me strength for however more trips there are to do and feel exactly the same thing.
I suspect, but probably won’t know until this life is over, that this process is the real reason, the refiner’s fire, I am alive and am Dawn’s mother.
Among thoughts from which I draw comfort, I believe that I am in good company in finding it difficult to live one day at a time and trust the future to God. For didn’t the Savior say in Matthew 5:34, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things thereof. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And He knows all of us.
I have always wondered about the word “evil” in that scripture, but there is no footnote offering an alternate definition. I must conclude then when my thoughts of the day ahead of me and also those in the future are mainly fear, doubt, and discouragement, I must indeed regard them as evil.
Conquering them, however, is more difficult and a task for which I must continue to rely on the Savior who has suffered my pain so much more intensely than I do.
I know from experience that when I have cried myself out and prayed as fervently as I can, I can stand up, believe that my prayers have been heard, and know He is sharing my burden. I am then prepared to square my shoulders and face the next day with its particular challenges.
Believe that the Lord knows you and knows where you are and what you are going through. I learned this in a lonely hospital room in Richmond, Virginia, where Dawn had been taken very sick three years ago. By the time I threw clothes into a suitcase and drove the almost three hours to get to her, her stomach was dreadfully distended and a tube had been inserted through her nose down to her stomach. She was, however, calm. Five long days later the doctors were still not sure what was wrong with her, except for a urinary tract infection. Although family had visited me over the weekend, I was in my third day of being alone in the hospital room with a very sick child. Those days are the Gethsemanes of every parent. When she finally fell asleep that evening, I stood in front of the window so distraught and looking up at the higher floors of the hospital I tearfully prayed, “It’s me, Heavenly Father. It’s Susan. Do you know where I am? I don’t know what is wrong with Dawn, and I don’t think I can do this anymore.” Then I waited.
I very seldom hear the literal voice of the Spirit, but this time I did. “Call Dr. Collins,” the Spirit said. Dr. Collins was our former bishop, also a urologist, who had moved from Virginia to Utah several years before. Our communication since then had been Christmas cards and visits during wedding receptions in Utah. Of course, I thought, why hadn’t I considered that before? I turned from the window, picked up my laptop, and searched out his number. His wife called him in the middle of a motorcycle class, and he called me during a break.
He assured me that a UTI could cause her symptoms and told me to tell the doctors to get her on IV nutrition, which I didn’t even know existed. His was the voice of calm and authority. I hung up with a feeling of peace and strength, as well as an awareness that Heavenly Father did indeed know where one of His lonely, scared daughters was. I have remembered that experience during lonely moments that have followed.
And since I have probably strained the limits of time and patience people who read my column have, I will continue next month with the rest of the column.
Susan Elzey also writes a humor column—she’s not always so serious—in the Danville (Va.) Register & Bee newspaper. To read her columns, go to www.godanriver.com, scroll to the bottom of the homepage, and do a site search for “Elzey 7XMOM.”