The preface to Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story asks a somewhat rhetorical question about the wedding of Britain’s Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer: “Why did more than 750 million people around the world sit in front of their TVs to watch [it]?” Was it for the fairy-tale spectacle? (Or, as I say, The Dress.) Or because, as coauthor Larry Libby suggests, people wanted to set aside their cynicism to believe that, somewhere, a marriage between a man and a woman in a palace could work and perhaps spread some of its magic to other love stories that had started out so promisingly?
It took more than magic to bring about – much less sustain – the union of Ken Takeshi Tada and Joni Eareckson the following year, though to onlookers (and the happy couple) it might well have seemed to be sprinkled with fairy dust. After all, the pairing of a high school history teacher and coach with a woman who was at 32 an internationally known artist, author and speaker – and who had achieved that distinction through a diving accident that left her a quadriplegic at age 17 – could hardly have seemed more unlikely a pairing than the heir to the British throne and a schoolteacher. But what so memorably marks this couple’s tale, which is still unfolding, is not romance, though their love has attained a level deeper than they imagined on their wedding day. It’s not adventure, for all their visits to places ranging from Dubai to Cuba. It’s not wealth or physical glamour.
But suffering. And how humans respond to it.
“The fact is, we live in a society that doesn’t know what to do with suffering,” Joni remarks in the book’s conclusion. “Suffering, however, isn’t about to go away. And marriage only magnifies it.”
Not to mention transforms it.
From the time her first book, Joni: An Unforgettable Story, was published in 1976, people around the world have been intrigued by the woman who broke her neck diving in the Chesapeake Bay, battled depression and suicidal tendencies, learned to paint with her teeth, and became a sought-after speaker and advocate for the disabled. Who at 32 wasn’t holding out much if any hope for marriage when she spotted her future spouse (or, more accurately, the back of his head) in church during a sermon she couldn’t keep her mind on. How many men would be willing to take on the daily, grinding routines associated with quadriplegia?
But Ken Tada would have to deal with more than that. There was Joni’s celebrity, which at first had left him somewhat star-struck, perhaps more than he realized, and which quickly overshadowed his role as husband. As years went by, the couple began living, to an extent, parallel lives. While there was no talk of separation or divorce, they both knew they weren’t living what they believed a Christian marriage could and should be.
Amazingly, cancer was what turned the tide.
It was a diagnosis that Joni actually welcomed, given the chronic, inexplicable and nearly unendurable pain she’d lived with for months. “Just one more brief battle, and then – freedom!” But the battle was not brief and the freedom was not entry into heaven, but an awakening into a new level of commitment and faith that can only be described as transformative…especially for Ken, who found out exactly what his middle name “Takeshi,” or “warrior,” really meant.
As moving and inspiring as the Tadas story continues to be, underlying it are questions that continue to divide people of faith: does suffering ever come directly from God, or is it merely the unfortunate aftereffect of “living in a fallen world”? Why do some prayers for healing go unanswered? And most of all, how does one keep praising the God who allows such intense pain – much less hold on to hope?
“Ken and I don’t pretend to be experts” on marriage, Joni says, and indeed one of the most illustrative statements in the book comes not from her or Ken, but from Dr. Robert Mounce, former president of Whitworth College in Spokane, WA, married for six decades to wife Jean, with whom he moved in 2010 to an assisted living center where he helped to care for her. Jean was afflicted with severe dementia.
“In a sense, the best life is a life that’s invested in someone else,” the 90-year-old Mounce told journalism student Shelby Mack, who videotaped him for a film project. “It’s not a life that’s invested in yourself…love is placing the welfare of another in front of your own.”
It’s a concept the Tadas illustrate with unflinching honesty in their latest book – and untold numbers of readers will be grateful.
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For further information on Joni and Ken and their remarkable ministry, check out these resources: