Many people know what happened after the teenaged Joni Eareckson dove into a shallow lake in 1967 and suffered a spinal cord fracture that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Lying in her hospital bed, she at first begged friends to help her commit suicide-but God changed her heart, as she relates in her best-selling first book, Joni.
Many people do not know that after decades of life without use of arms or legs, and many other published books, Joni Eareckson Tada-she married Ken Tada in 1982-is confronting new challenges. She begins her new book, A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain and God's Sovereignty, with a description of the chronic, "jaw splitting" pain that has plagued her over the last several years-pain so severe that she prays, "Lord, I can't live like this for the rest of my life! At least I don't think I can."
She describes writing her book while "in the fight of my life. I'm in the thick of it, as they say, and honestly have no idea how long this struggle will continue or how and when it will be resolved." But in the book's epilogue, written months after the rest of the manuscript, Joni was able to report, "I'm now enjoying many more good days than bad."
And then, in June, a new diagnosis came: breast cancer.
I talked with Joni last month about what she's currently going through. I started with a question about her daily routine, and she said, "Let's pray, because that's how I always start."
Her energy took me by surprise. I figured that a quadriplegic with chronic pain-and going through chemo-might have a weak voice and be slow of speech. No: She is a fast talker (East Coast roots) and peppers her conversation with informal baby boom expressions like "oh man!" She tells me that she's recovering from pneumonia and has limited lung capacity, something that's particularly dangerous for a quadriplegic. She does breathing exercises, and when I ask what that means she breaks into a hymn: "Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do."
Hymn singing, she says, "Reminds me to fix my mind on Jesus" so as not to "grow weary and lose heart."
Joni says she had been so consumed with her quadriplegia and chronic pain that she never thought about getting cancer and hadn't had a mammogram in nine years. The tumor was big-three inches-and she had a mastectomy. Even though the surgery was successful, the doctors called her cancer Stage 3 and put her on a rigorous schedule of chemotherapy.
She's lost weight and her hair. She describes wig shopping and adds that wearing one is better than looking like Demi Moore in GI Jane. The chemo eats lean muscle and as a quadriplegic she doesn't have lean muscle to spare. So friends she has dubbed "the protein police" or the "protein Nazis" force on her yogurt and other high-protein snacks.
She sees herself in a battle against "powers and principalities that want us to despair" and emotions that "take me down dark, grim paths." She sees God's faithfulness in little things. One night she might awake at 2 a.m. in pain, unable to get comfortable. The next day she is sitting under a shady tree with the breeze blowing, overcome with the day's beauty: "This is what it means that hope never fails. Last night I was ready to throw in the towel and give it up. Today, it's a beautiful day."
The battle requires her active participation. She takes as a theme Hebrews 10:38: "But my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him." Her voice is emphatic: "I do not want to be one of those who shrink back. I don't want to tarnish His name."
Part of her weaponry is a ready supply of Scripture. Since memorizing is hard for me, I ask how she does it. She and Ken are reading through the Bible in a year, as they have for the past six years. She uses the King James Version because it has all the "hooks and barbs" that make its memorization easier. Ken writes the verses on 3 x 5 cards and she sets the verses to music because "I'm a musical kind of person."
She also counts on the prayers and practical assistance of other people, starting with Ken, who regulates her schedule and gets up in the middle of the night to turn her. One friend almost daily sends a card containing a stanza or two from a hymn.
Our conversation took place on a Monday afternoon. Joni had a chemo session scheduled for Thursday. She says the week after the three-hour procedure is hard, but the procedure itself is also difficult. She tries to ward off painful mouth ulcers by chewing on ice before the procedure; during it she maintains energy by nibbling on celery sticks and peanut butter. When the chemo kicks in and she feels awful, she reminds herself that it will pass: "Don't get stuck in this moment." She reads on her iPad-her current book is John Piper's Roots of Endurance-and plays games like Boggle if she needs a break.
She also talks with other patients, weeping with those who weep. She shares "times of terror" while trusting that cancer "can grab us by our spiritual shoulders and give us a good shake." She keeps thinking, "God's up to something big. How can I showcase Him to others?" She knows her life is on display and that others are watching and learning by her response: "I am on this battlefield. How can I glorify God?"
Since people often approach Joni and want to pray for her healing, that's one of the subjects of her new book. She would love to be healed, but recently she told one of those earnest people: "I want to be set free from my laziness and slothful attitudes." The person was focused on her physical healing, but Joni says Christ's focus is our soul. She knows God is not punishing her-Christ took the punishment-but she accepts that she's being disciplined: "What needs to be confessed, uprooted for my sanctification? What is there in me that needs to be exposed and dealt with?"
She concludes, "I'm convinced that the core of Christ's plan is to rescue. We are saved. We are being saved." She fears that we've become so "infected by our culture of comfort" that we've grown comfortable with our sin: "We domesticate it, tame it, and make it our own. . . . It's not pretty. Don't turn your face away."