She begins every morning with a two-hour routine—washing, dressing, exercising. She needs at least seven helpers each week just to meet the day. A quadriplegic for 36 years, Joni Eareckson Tada can do very little for herself—not turn over in bed, not brush her own teeth, not apply makeup. She was 17 when she broke her neck, so most of her life has been spent in this condition, dependent on others for the most basic daily functions.
By the time the rest of world sees her, she looks beautiful, poised, perfectly turned out. Speaking to large audiences, addressing her daily radio show or writing her books, Tada comes across as a warm, self-assured, articulate woman. Her wheelchair is forgotten.
But of course she can never leave it. Pain is a constant companion. So is the knowledge that she lives on borrowed time. A broken bone, collapsed lung, or infection could put her into the hospital for months.
Tada requires two hours to go to bed each night. Since her body will tolerate the strain of sitting up for only so long each day, she needs to be prone by eight o'clock, sleepy or not. (On the road she can't manage that, but she pays a price when she gets home.) She used to find the long, still hours in bed claustrophobic. Now she welcomes the forced rest, using the time for quietness and prayer. In absolute bodily stillness she thinks through the whirlwind of activity that greets her each day.
"Having a disability is a full-time job," emphasizes Judy Butler, Tada's assistant for more than 20 years. If so, then Tada holds down two jobs. Her second job begins each morning when Tada drives in a specially equipped van to Joni and Friends, located in a prosaic office building in Agoura Hills, California. Tada works a highly scheduled day, as she has since she started the organization 25 years ago.
Much of her time she devotes to writing, working side by side with longtime assistant Francie Lorey, who types at Tada's direction. Tada is a serious, dedicated writer, laboring over each phrase. Besides numerous books, she writes all the scripts for her daily radio show, which airs on 850 outlets. (She has produced well over 5,000 shows so far.) Managing Joni and Friends falls to executive vice president Doug Mazza, but Tada has her finger in every aspect of the growing organization. "I have the gift of communication," she says of her contribution. "I am a driven person."
She is also passionate. She loves hymns and will break into heartfelt song in the presence of strangers. In my 30 years of journalism, people have occasionally asked to pray with me, but never to sing. She did twice. We sang all four verses of "A Mighty Fortress." (I stumbled over words; she didn't.) Later, on the phone, we sang "Of the Father's Love Begotten."
Whether impishly playful (as she often is) or marveling over God's sovereignty (as she often does), Tada has only one setting: full speed. Even in private conversation she speaks passionately, stretching to find the perfect, picturesque word. She inspires, and she means to inspire. Yet she will choose to speak at a symposium on stem-cell research over an inspirational conference. "Inspiration is peripheral," she says. "I think it's the wake that you create as you move forward. It's what happens along the way. If it becomes the focus, then I think I'm off target.
"You've been given this day. You don't have a bladder infection. You don't have a lung infection. Your bones are about as dense as an 85-year-old's, but you've made it into your wheelchair without breaking your hip, praise God. These are the things I think about in the morning when I get up—this day that I've got ahead of me."
A Diving Accident
Tada lost sensation in her legs and hands through a diving accident on the Chesapeake Bay. She had just graduated from high school. Vivacious and athletic, she had short, stylish blond hair and a face that loved the camera. This sweet, eager girl, paralyzed for life? And yet, she seemed so hopeful when she spoke of her faith in God and her thankfulness for life. (Never mind that the hopefulness came after a long nightmare of furious despair, when she begged her friends to help her end her life.)
Joni (pronounced Johnny) caught the attention of the media. She appeared on NBC's Today with Barbara Walters. She gave her testimony at a Billy Graham crusade. Her life story became a bestselling book. A movie followed, distributed by the Graham organization. Millions came to know her—the pretty girl who loved horses and broke her neck when she was 17.
Her celebrity might have ended there. She might have been an inspiring figure who flashed through the media for a season—like innumerable athletes, entertainers, and people afflicted with interesting tragedies. Yet she was always more than that, for those who troubled to notice. She came to public attention not through her accident—such calamities are, after all, distressingly common—but through her art, painstakingly created with a brush or pencil held in her mouth. The paintings and drawings were good in a girlish way—horses and kittens and seascapes—but represented something quite un-girlish. She worked hard at her art. She launched her own company to market it. She had a dogged determination to make something of a shattered life.
Art led to other opportunities, revealing other strengths. Joni, the bestselling book she wrote with Joe Musser, showed surprising levels of thoughtfulness. When the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures made a movie of her life, Tada starred as herself, and did so creditably. Then, responding to innumerable letters pleading for help and counsel, she launched Joni and Friends. She wrote more books—on suffering, on heaven, on how to relate to disabled people—without a ghostwriter's aid. Ronald Reagan named her to a presidential council advising the federal government on disability. She learned to engage in policy debates, and consulted on the draft of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act. Meanwhile she traveled the world, speaking to large audiences in 37 countries, and learning about disabilities across the world.
Tada has reached her mid-50s—her mother's age at the time of Tada's accident. It seems incongruous, almost impossible, that the pretty girl who broke her neck has become a middle-aged activist. As Ken Tada, her husband of 21 years, says, "She's not 17 anymore."
Ken Tada is discussing the ministries of Joni and Friends, from family retreats to having prisoners refurbish wheelchairs. "It has to be God," he says. "Over 2,700 people for our family retreats? That's amazing. People who will pay their way as volunteers, use their vacation time to serve the disabled? People think that's crazy, it will never work. But it's happening. They not only are willing, they come back to do it again and again.
"Twenty thousand wheelchairs for people all around the world. That's amazing. And how would we have gotten them refurbished if not for these prisoners?" Ken adds. "As the ministry has grown, so has Joni. Last year I saw her at a press conference with Chuck Colson on stem-cell research. People saw that she was a balance to Christopher Reeve. She has won respect for her years of Christian service. She travels to Cuba. She goes to Ghana. Joni has become a spokesperson for disabled people all over the world."
Funding cutbacks for disability services, bureaucratic tangles in Medicaid regulations, right-to-die legislation—she knows the details. "It's a schizophrenic society we live in," she says. "It's like, let's pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, let's create equal access, let's reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and then let's also pass a state initiative that allows physicians to give someone with a disability three grams of Phenobarbital if that's his wish. There are too many Jack Kevorkians out there rubbing their hands and wanting to assist you with your death wish… . There's such a huge premise in this society that you're better off dead than disabled. People have such huge fundamental fears of disability."
Last October she traveled to Florida, visiting Terri Schiavo just as her feeding tube was about to be cut off. "I can't explain it, I just had to be there. This was so important to the lives of thousands of Americans with disabilities. I had to be there to stand with the parents and bring as much attention as I could rally to this case, helping people to understand that this is a bias against disability. It's like the Roe v. Wade of the disabled.
"It was very moving to meet with Terri's parents. Our executive vice president, Doug Mazza, has a son who is about as disabled as Terri. He's non-communicative, he's blind, he's deaf, he has a feeding tube, and it was interesting to watch them talk. Several other parents came during the course of the day, parents of children who are also severely disabled. It was quite touching to see them embrace one another. Is my child next? When I get too old to take care of my child, and I have to place my child in an institution, who's to say there won't be some court long after I'm not around to pull my son's feeding tube?
"The media will convey it as an end-of-life story: Why don't you just let her die? That's not the point. She's not terminally ill. She's not brain dead. She's disabled. Like many disabled people, she is unable to tell us what future she'd prefer. She has left nothing saying that she would like to be starved to death. She never signed a legal document. Should we not err on the side of caution, and on the side of life?"
Driving to Where?
If Tada succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, what would she see? "The entire paradigm of the American church would shift. I love the bride of Christ, but there are an awful lot of Emily Post picture-perfect churches out there. Ministry is messy. God plops people with disabilities in the midst of a congregation—a hand grenade that blows apart the picture-perfectness of these churches. So what will the church do? How do they embrace these people?
"The 'uncomely parts' are critical to the life of the body," Tada says, referring to 1 Corinthians 12. "We want the church to see some of these disenfranchised folks as the 'indispensable parts of the body.'"
She reads Jesus' Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24) with startling literalness. "Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame," the Master says. The World Health Organization reports that fully 10 percent of the world's population is disabled. Tada wants churches to go out and bring them in. She looks at the disabled as a people group needing the gospel.
Equally, people with disabilities are a gift to the church, helping Christians to stop running from suffering. Wherever she speaks, Tada tells her audience there are no accidents in God's economy. He permits suffering to enter our lives in order to drive us to himself. When churches engage with disabled people, they have to come to terms with such severe mercies.
That happened to Tada. She spent two years in the hospital, stabilizing her injury and then doing rehabilitation. Life seemed very bleak. When friends declined to help with suicide, she tried to kill herself by thrashing her neck violently from side to side. She took up smoking. She tried to lose herself in mental fantasies. In occupational therapy, learning to draw with a pen in her mouth, she worked at covering a paper in black ink. "It reflected an hour's worth of angry, crisscrossed black lines obliterating any vestige of white," she wrote in The God I Love. "And that expressed my state of mind perfectly. In fact, if you looked closely, the little scuffs revealed a pattern: chaos."
During that bleak period, a friend introduced her to Steve Estes, a gangly high-school student three years younger than Joni. He was an enthusiastic Christian, utterly transfixed by the Bible. They began to study together, her need and his confidence creating a tremendous sense of exploration. She came to the classically Reformed belief that her injury was an expression of God's love. To put it simply, Scripture taught Tada that her soul was infinitely more important than her body.
"I was heading down a path of self-destruction," Tada explains. "I was checking out a birth-control clinic to get some pills, because I knew I'd be sleeping with my boyfriend in college. Somewhere in that mess of emotions and regrets and falterings and failings, while making a sham of my Christian faith, somewhere in the desperation I said, 'God, rescue me.' And he did. I believe my accident was a direct answer.
"Some people might want to say indirect, but I lean toward that old adage that God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. I think that he removed his hand ever so slightly and allowed me to make that"—her voice stops at the word.
I tell her that many people, on hearing that, would exclaim "How dare you?" Tada's answer is to recall asking Steve Estes those same questions shortly after her accident. "How could you say that this is God's will? How in the world can you say this accident was God's will?
"Steve thought for a moment, and he said, 'Let me answer that question by asking you a question. Do you believe that when Jesus died on the cross, that was God's will?'
"Then Steve added, 'Well, think about it for a minute, because Jesus was handed over for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Drunken soldiers pulled his beard out, then beat him mercilessly in that back room. The mob screamed, "Crucify him." How can that be God's will? Torture, injustice, murder, treason. How could any of that be God's will?' And he had me. Because I know that God the Father's plan was for his Son to go to the cross."
Tada awakens every day to the most tangible argument against God's loving control. But she tries to live the strongest possible argument in its favor.
By nature, say her sisters, she was daring, focused and competitive, the youngest of four girls in a strong family. Her father was a wrestler on the 1932 Olympic team, a storyteller, a painter, and a craftsman, always busy with his hands. Tada was named for him and takes after him. "I always think that if she had an interest in politics she would be President," says sister Linda, "because she never stops pushing."
Paralysis left no room for part-time faith in God. She learned to cling to God, and found that he was enough. The last sentence of The God I Love says it clearly: "There are more important things in life than walking."
Lonely for Heaven
I ask Tada if she feels lonely. At first she seems not to understand. Perhaps the question seems absurd. She is happily married to Ken Tada, and spends her life surrounded by family and friends. A small army of helpers accompanies her almost everywhere.
"I struggle with loneliness when we go to a friend's house for dinner. Last night we went to a friend's house and the whole party has to stop because Joni is here. Let's go outside and see Ken unfold the ramp. Isn't that great? Where'd you get that ramp? Can't I just quietly come in the front door, slip into the side room, take off my coat and get a drink, listen and … ?
"Dinner's getting ready and I can't go into the kitchen to help with hors d'oeuvres or get the drinks. I'm a clumsy roadblock to everyone in the kitchen. And I don't often fit, watching ESPN with the guys.
"I feel lonely when people look at me, and I can't talk to them because they must tell me what an inspiration I am, and oh I read your book, and oh I love you and you're so great. I just want to talk to people."
Finally, as Tada searches for loneliness in her busy, peopled world, she hits on the heart of it. "I feel lonely when I think about heaven," she says in a small voice. "I'm lonely for the resolution of all things, for the restitution, for the denouement. I have a hard time with disabilities, especially in the children. They break your heart." She pauses, and then says barely audibly, "Lord Jesus, come quickly."
During her years in the hospital Tada listened to Joni Mitchell's haunting music of pain and escape. Those songs still reach her at a deep emotional level, so much so that she rarely allows herself to play them. "Part of my Christian growth is grabbing my thoughts by the scruffs of their necks and jerking them in line. I will not allow my thoughts to take me down these dark roads."
She says it with ferocious intensity. Tada's writings are filled with the doubts and fears prompted by suffering. She never shies away from revealing vulnerability. Her favorite chapter in The God I Love tells of her mother's final decline. It is not an easy chapter. Tada's mother did not recognize her but kept a vacant, hostile stare. Repeated efforts failed to charm her into a smile. Tada recalls a friend's words about his own mother's painful death: "Maybe death is supposed to be hard. Maybe it's supposed to be a taste of hell." That prompts Tada to pray, Oh, thank you, thank you for this wheelchair! By tasting hell in this life, I've been driven to think seriously about what faces me in the next. This paralysis is my greatest mercy."
For all the practical issues that disabilities raise—issues of access and services, for example—the key issue is meaning. What is life for? Day after day the question recurs for Tada. She answers it by clinging to heaven, probing it, longing for it, and jerking her thoughts into its light. Heaven has pulled her out of herself, and into the lives of other sufferers. Heaven has made Tada an activist.
As she travels the globe, she encounters people in conditions almost unimaginable to Americans, with disabilities or not. She describes meeting mothers so desperate they have thrown their own disabled babies into the creek. Remembering the meeting, she says in amazement, "I cannot believe that I can do something about that. What a privilege to be able to do something!"
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More about Joni Eareckson Tada is available on the Joni and Friends web site.
Other Christianity Today articles about Joni Eareckson Tada include:
Doubt and Meaning | Joni Eareckson Tada's poignant memoir probes God's use of suffering. (Aug. 18, 2003)
The Threat of Biotech | Joni Eareckson Tada responds to Christopher Reeve and others. (March 28, 2003)
Undaunted | Bioethics challenges are huge. But so is God. (July 31, 2002)
Christianity Today's Life Ethics archive and sister publication Books & Culture's Science Pages have more perspective on bioethics, including:
The Techno Sapiens Are Coming | When God fashioned man and woman, he called his creation very good. Transhumanists say that, by manipulating our bodies with microscopic tools, we can do better. Are we ready for the great debate? (Dec. 19, 2003)
Define 'Better' | One person's improvement is another person's degeneration. (Dec. 19, 2003)
Reprieve for Brain-Damaged Woman | But Christian activists say the fight to protect the disabled is far from over. (Nov. 25, 2003)
Souls on Ice | The costs of in vitro fertilization are moral and spiritual—not just financial. (June 24, 2003)
400,000 and Counting | Christians recoil at the explosive growth of frozen human embryos. (June 24, 2003)
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