We need heroes. People who’ve overcome adversity and led meaningful lives are examples for us. Heroes remind us of our potential and inspire us to live exemplary lives regardless of the odds.
A few weeks ago, my friend Ellen and I took one of our heroes to lunch at Wrightsville Beach. As Judy navigated with her walker, we took the elevator to the main floor and found a perfect spot near a window. The glistening water lapped around the huge yachts docked in full view.
Right away, Judy asked our server his name and made friends with him. She is not shy. With her halted speech she asked for help with her jacket; the server happily laid it over her shoulders. Speech is difficult but it doesn’t deter her from carrying the conversation. She is whole in mind and spirit.
As we enjoyed a delicious lunch on a bright summer day, Ellen and I awkwardly hovered around Judy attempting to help her reach her glass or lift her plate. She let us know that she’d ask us if she needed our assistance. Our hearts were in the right place but I think we were getting on her nerves.
Judy shared her stories with enthusiasm. During 2020 she was seriously injured in a car accident. Months of rehab and doctor visits had her finally up on her feet again. Then, a month later, she took a fall in her home, broke her wrist, and gashed her leg. What a letdown that was. How defeated she must have felt! An infection in her leg and the fractured wrist led to more procedures and trips to experts. The awful pain, difficulty maneuvering in her apartment and the small army of friends required were overwhelming. Throw in eye surgery and a Covid-19 diagnosis, and 2020 was not a good year.
After describing her terrible experiences of the last couple of years, she began to recount all the ways God had been good to her. She loved her doctors and spoke glowingly of them as friends. She became so attached to her physical therapists that since released from care, she visits them whenever possible. I know she brings sunshine into their days.
She told us the ways God provided when she was without resources. One family added her to their cell phone plan and gave her a phone. Another family with five sons adopted her as their grandparent and she was honored to be in one of the son’s weddings.
I felt buoyant inside as I listened to her stories. Accounts of heartfelt gratitude become hope in others’ lives. I wanted to be like her!
Judy was diagnosed with PLS—Primary Lateral Sclerosis— over 30 years ago. Nerve cells in the brain that control movement fail over time. Weakness occurs in limbs and the tongue. A person may feel awkward and struggle with slow movement. Slurred speech and trouble chewing are also common.
Before her diagnosis Judy enjoyed all outdoor activities, including downhill skiing, water skiing and tennis. A strong natural leader, she was a Young Life camp co-director and launched several ministries for adults, including camping programs.
She served organizations as a photographer, and still loves to capture moments with her camera or I-phone.
Even after her diagnosis, she started three other ministries which all involved public speaking. Knowing Judy, she didn’t even worry about the possibility of failure.
The dire diagnosis wasn’t her only huge hurdle. Judy’s childhood was rife with shame and guilt from her mother. Never once was an encouraging word spoken to her. She never heard the three words we rotely say, “I love you”, until her mother, on her deathbed, uttered them. Judy’s friend confronted her mom with the lifelong oversight and she acquiesced.
With a faraway look in her eyes, Judy said, “God is so good to give me many years without the disease progressing as much as was expected. I could be completely disabled now, but I’m not.”
Judy defies the status quo definition of happiness.
We think we’ll be happy when we achieve wealth, health and good relationships.
A couple of problems arise. We have no ultimate control over the events of our lives, good or bad. Secondly, the happiest people in the world are not ones without suffering, but often the ones who’ve overcome the most difficulty. We have only to take a look at the rich and famous to see how miserable many truly are.
But what is happiness really? Can we learn, like Judy, to be happy even while we lack the common criteria?
Judy thanked our server for his care, then she and I headed to the elevator while Ellen went to get the car. As soon as Judy wheeled into the elevator, the door closed without me. I ran down the stairs only to find the lower door closed. Both doors were stuck. I alerted the manager, who called for help, just as Judy dialed the emergency number from inside. I scurried back and forth between floors only to find two closed doors. Finally, after a few minutes, but what seemed an hour, the door opened to a non-flummoxed passenger. Ellen and I were nervous wrecks and Judy had just enjoyed an adventure that would grow in drama each time she passed it on. She had a new story to add to her repertoire. Judy truly loves to laugh; it’s sometimes hard for her to stop after the guffaws begin. This was possibly one of her best days. She was so anxious to let our friend Cynthia in on the fun, she called her from the car.
Her joy overflows; not from pain’s absence, but from Jesus’ presence. I’ve known few people who live such real joy from their faith.
A huge party is being planned for her 80th birthday in January. She seems decades younger. I hope they find a place large enough to hold her friends. She has a lot of them.
Here’s what stands out to me: Judy could be classified as a victim, but when you’re with her, you realize the term fails to apply. She’s chosen to be defined by who she is deep inside rather than by the ills that have come against her. Judy teaches me that I can go through hard life experiences and become better instead of bitter. I can use my own experiences to encourage others. She is a joy-bringer.
I’m privileged to know a hero like Judy. Once in a while people come along who show us a different way; a better way.
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe, or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis