Physical and emotional problems can challenge any marriage. But with the help of God and good friends, Ken and Joni Eareckson Tada found the strength to persevere in their marriage.
The Tada marriage is anything but conventional. My husband, Ken, is an athletic high-school coach and history teacher. I am a quadriplegic. After saying “I do” at the altar, my wheelchair nearly ran off the ramp when we started back up the aisle. Thankfully, Ken rescued me. Our wedding rings were barely on our fingers and it was obvious: Our marriage was going to have challenges. Many people wondered whether we had done the right thing, but Ken and I were in love. Plus, we loved Jesus. So we were convinced that with Christ at the center of our life together, we had all we needed to see us through the toughest times. We just didn’t realize how tough times would get.
When I was 17 years old, I broke my neck in a diving accident. Recovery — physical, emotional and spiritual — was a long process. But by the time I met Ken in church 13 years later, I had a new normal and had recently launched the Joni and Friends ministry.
During the first few years of our marriage, even though I had friends to help with my disability needs, the day-to-day demands were beginning to take a toll on Ken: emptying leg bags that collect urine, charging the wheelchair batteries, lifting me in and out of bed, shopping for food and doing dishes. Ken was feeling tremendous pressure from the 24/7 routine, and it was leading to a deep, darkening depression.
One afternoon Ken was especially quiet. I had learned to give him space when I sensed things were getting hard, but his standoffish attitude lasted into the evening. “Please, Ken, tell me what’s wrong,” I begged.
Finally, right before we turned out the lights, he sat on the edge of the bed. “I can’t do this,” he quietly confessed, “I feel so … trapped.” There was a long silence, and then my own frustrations took over. I exploded with, “Well, didn’t you know it was going to be like this? Where was your head when you asked me to marry you?”
There was dead silence. I knew it was an awful thing to say, and I quickly apologized, “Oh, Ken, I’m so sorry; that wasn’t like me … not at all like me to say that.”
But in my heart I knew it was like me.
The big squeeze
I was quickly learning that the rigors of marriage will squeeze to the surface every bit of selfishness that lies hidden in the heart. That night, Ken and I went to bed without speaking. But the next morning I found myself praying with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! … See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). I asked the Lord to show me how I could be a more supportive and understanding wife.
With the help of God and good friends, Ken found the strength to persevere in our marriage. Over the next few years, we did our best to participate in each other’s worlds. I enthusiastically welcomed his students to backyard barbecues, and he happily traveled on ministry trips with me.
Even in the setbacks, Ken was beginning to see that God was using my wheelchair to reveal the not-so-pretty stuff of which he was made, too. He would say, “I was really rude this morning; forgive me for that” or “I’m sorry I ignored your advice.” Confessing sin — not only to God but to each other, as well — was gradually becoming a habit for us.
As the years passed, I noticed some physical changes. I was experiencing more pain, which meant turning more often in the night, repositioning more frequently in my chair and canceling dinner engagements with friends.
One night after Ken had to turn me three extra times, he collapsed in exhaustion on the bed. And once again, I quietly gave him space. He sighed deeply and confessed, “Joni, I am so tired. I just don’t feel like I can do this. I feel so trapped.”
Like that night many years before, there was a long silence. Then I said softly, “Ken, I don’t blame you one bit for feeling trapped, and if I were you, I’d feel exactly the same way. I just want you to know I understand, and I’m going to do everything in my power to support you and help you. I think you’re amazing, and with God’s help, we can do even this.”
Suddenly, an invisible weight seemed to lift from Ken’s shoulders. That moment was a turning point in our marriage. God was showing us that everlasting way talked about in Psalm 139. Somehow, we knew we’d make it — and we’d make it as best friends.
A transforming love
Ken and I have discovered a love that holds on — we’ve learned that the strongest relationships don’t come easy. They’re tested by pain and frustration, and sometimes, they’re pushed to the breaking point — like when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
We wondered, How will we handle all this? After I underwent a mastectomy, Ken and I were in my oncologist’s office, along with our friend Judy, who had been helping for years with my personal care routines. The oncologist began listing every problem I would experience in my upcoming chemotherapy.
When he left the room, I erupted into a flood of tears. “I can’t do this,” I sobbed. “I can’t do this!” Judy got up to hold me, but I felt Ken step in between us. He said tenderly, “I’ll take over from here.” Those words were not lost on me. Was this the same man who years earlier had grown so weary and felt so trapped? No, this was Ken Tada, transformed into Christ’s image(2_Corinthians 3:18).
The countless prayers we prayed over two decades of quadriplegia and pain, and the hours Ken and I both spent memorizing Scripture, prepared us to face cancer with courage. Cancer not only squeezed us, but it also pressed us into a deeper reliance on Jesus. And the more we depended on Him for emotional strength, the more we experienced an intimacy with Him and with each other — a sweet and precious union that we only dreamed about on our wedding day.