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A Mom’s Spiritual Growth

The journey of spiritual growth for the dedicated mom of a brain-damaged quadriplegic helps her let go and let God.

Wheelchair

I sat in my dining room, the big table piled with paperwork: hospital forms, insurance claims, coverage statements.

All a medical and legal paper trail for my 20-year-old son Danny, leading back to that day when everything about his life and mine changed forever.

One minute he was joyriding with some friends out on a twisty country road. The next, a quadriplegic and brain-damaged, almost every trace of the strong-willed, energetic, even exasperating boy I loved gone. Or almost.

Danny had been out of the hospital a while now. He used a special wheelchair sized for his six-foot-two frame. Our house bustled with caregivers; a nurse’s aide, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, all seemingly trying to resurrect as much of the old Danny as still might exist inside his broken brain and body.

In fact, it was those caregivers who had me going through all that paperwork that afternoon. They had started saying ominous things. Danny, six weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday the day of the accident, was an adult now, off our insurance and covered by Medicaid.

“We’ll have to discontinue our visits if your son doesn’t show more signs of improvement,” the therapists told me. “Insurance just won’t cover it anymore.”

I told them that I would figure something out, like I’d been doing all my life. Lead, follow or get out of the way—that’s what my husband, Denny, said my motto could be.

I’d had a chaotic childhood—alcoholic parents—and I’d basically raised my­self. Who else could I count on to keep everything under control? Denny complained that he couldn’t do a single chore without me following behind him to do it all over again. Well, I liked the beds made a certain way. Given Danny’s condition, wasn’t it obvious that we needed more order and structure around this house?

Now I needed a solution. I’d kept things going so far by quitting my job to coordinate Danny’s team of caregivers. What would we do without them? More than that, what did they mean, “If your son doesn’t show more signs of improvement”? Were they saying that Danny would never improve? I didn’t want to believe that. All of our efforts couldn’t be for nothing. Surely we could bring him back a little. Surely life wouldn’t go on like this forever.

I concentrated harder on the papers. So little money! So many expenses! Denny pastored a small church and worked full-time for the telephone company. No way could we afford to pay caregivers out of our own pocket. I tried to beat back the despair that began to envelop me, beat it back like I had since I was a kid.

The phone rang.

“Ricki?”

It was Missy, the occupational therapist. Actually, she was more than a therapist. She was my friend, my rock in all the fear and uncertainty of caring for Danny. She’d even started attending our church. I felt that she was destined to be a part of our lives. When she spoke, though, her voice sounded apprehensive.

“Ricki, I have some bad news. The home-health people talked to us today. They told us that they’re not going to pay for any more visits with Danny. They can’t justify it. They say that Danny has reached a plateau.”

Silence on the line. “Ricki?”

I said something, kept her on the phone long enough to get a few more details and thank her. Then I hung up.

Somewhere, from the living room, a television hummed. Danny was in there with his grandmother, Denny’s mom. I thought back over the long, tiring day. Up at seven. Raise the electric bed. Feed Danny through a tube in his stomach. Transfer him to a shower chair and bathe him. Shave and dress him. Wheel him to the porch for speech therapy. More feeding. Recline his wheelchair for rest. Transfer him to the physical therapy equipment. Back to the wheelchair to watch TV.

In an hour or so he would sit with us at dinner. Then we’d transfer him to bed, get him positioned and say goodnight, until we awoke in shifts to give him medication through the night.

Plateau. Such a pretty word for such an unhappy thing, one identical day after another stretching as far as the eye could see.

I stared at the paperwork, trying to focus, trying to keep down something black and suffocating inside me. A solution, a solution. I needed a solution. The panic rose higher.

Pray, Ricki. The day of the accident, a trauma doctor had told us that Danny’s head injury was so severe that he wouldn’t live 24 hours. Denny and I had prayed in the intensive care unit, reaching through a tangle of tubes and wires to place our hands directly over our son’s motionless body. Just save his life, we’d pleaded. That’s all we ask. The vital signs on the monitors had changed almost instantly.

Why wasn’t God answering my prayers now?

Denny came in, home from work. “What’s wrong?” he asked instantly.

Was it that obvious? “Missy called—” I didn’t finish the sentence. Couldn’t. I sobbed on our great big dining room table, a converted pool table actually, from back in the days when the kids always seemed to have their friends over, before the accident.

I felt Denny’s arm around my shoulders. I sobbed, sobs that seemed to come from my toes. Finally I lifted my head, wondering what kind of mess my face looked. I told Denny what Missy had said. “Oh, Lord, what are we going to do?” I cried.

Denny held me. Like a good pastor, he knew when to let silence do its work. When he finally spoke I was calmer and able to hear. “Ricki,” he said, “I know it doesn’t sound good. But maybe it’s not as bad as it seems. Missy’s not giving up on Danny. No one’s giving up on him. It’s just how the system works. At least they’ve been here long enough to teach us how to do everything. Let’s try not to panic. God’s gotten us this far. I know he’ll get us to whatever we need to do next.”

I sat up, wiping my eyes and trying to let Denny’s words sink in. God’s gotten us this far. How far? I couldn’t help wondering. Not far enough! Not as far as we needed. Not as far as I needed. I was the one who’d be home with Danny all day. I was the one who’d need to keep it all together, keep everything under control.

I stopped and looked into Denny’s eyes. He regarded me calmly, like he always did, almost like he knew the storms my heart generated and knew just as well how to outlast them. Control. What exactly did that mean? What had I spent this past hour—no, my whole life—obsessing over?

I thought back to all of the years I’d tried to shape and direct Danny. From wailing infant to mischievous youngster to rebellious teen, he had made his own way anyway.

What about his recovery? Had all my management of the paperwork and the caregivers changed any of the medical facts? Goodness, I hadn’t even been able to make a dent in the way my husband tucked in the sheets. Instead, all I had succeeded in doing was hurting his feelings.

Who was next on my list to take charge of? God? Dear God, from now on you’ll be taking your orders from me. Love, Ricki. It sounded so ridiculous that I almost laughed out loud.

And yet how true. What I really dreaded was God taking control of me. It was one thing to believe in God—and I had, with my whole heart. It was another thing to surrender to him, to give up everything—my will, even my own son—to his total care.

What might he do? Anything! He might tell me to stop staring at medical forms because Danny’s healing had gone as far as it ever would. He might remind me that I had prayed—that in fact I had already surrendered at Danny’s hospital bedside when I begged for my son’s life, no matter what.

Danny, broken, helpless Danny, was an answer to prayer. A miracle I didn’t understand yet. And just maybe God would show me reserves of strength and courage I never knew I had.

I felt something inside me release, change, like the end of struggle and the beginning of acceptance. A picture came to mind of someone drowning, thrashing so hard that the lifeguard couldn’t get a hold to pull them from the water. I stopped thrashing. I threw my arms around Denny’s neck and held him tight.

A few minutes later we went into the living room. There was Danny, his face so sweet and soft, staring at the television. We sat with him for a while, letting the afternoon change itself to evening. Finally, I got up to fix dinner. Soon it would be time to get Danny ready for bed. We would transfer him and prop him up with pillows. We’d read some Scripture, pray, put on a little music and wish him goodnight. One evening, like so many others.

Today, 21 years later, I marvel at how many such evenings we’ve had. Not long ago someone asked, “Do you ever laugh?” I wanted to say, “Come to my house!” There, anyone can see those blessings God so improbably promised.

Like Missy, who remains a dear friend and a faithful member of our church. Or Connie, another friend we were able to hire as a part-time nurse’s aide, with the help of a government program.

Or our Friday movie nights, when Danny’s older siblings, Christy and Chip, now both married with kids themselves, come over and everyone piles on the living room floor, snuggling up with Danny in the middle to watch a video. I think they’ve stayed nearby in part because of Danny.

He’s kept us close. Taught us how to love. And taught me that sometimes the most transforming change of all is surrender.

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