By Ken Yates
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book.
ONE YEAR LATER
July 14, 2021. Libby died exactly one year ago today. She was 35 years old. She was my daughter.
My wife, our daughters, and I went to her favorite restaurant for dinner in her memory. The waitress asked if we were celebrating something, and none of us knew exactly how to answer her. I guess for various reasons, we changed the subject and didn’t tell her why we were there. I think part of it was we didn’t want her to feel bad about asking the question. If we told her why we were there, she would have felt uncomfortable.
Another reason we didn’t tell her was that we didn’t know what to say. Were we there to celebrate Libby’s life? Were we there to feel sad about our loss and how much we missed her? But I also think we didn’t tell the waitress why we were there because we as a family wanted to remember Libby in a private way. That evening, however, I went home and began writing this book. I think others need to know some things about her. I feel strongly that some could benefit from learning more about her life.
CALL HER ELISABETH
For those reading this book, perhaps the first thing you need to know about her is that if you had met her, you wouldn’t have called her by the name Libby. It was a family nickname. Her real, given name was Elisabeth. When she was younger, everybody called her Libby. But when she was around twenty, she asked her sisters, her mom, and me if we would no longer call her that. She informed us that it made her sound like a little baby.
I think she may have gotten the idea from one of her favorite movies, Anne of Green Gables. It is the story of a young, orphaned girl whom an elderly brother and sister adopted. Neither of them had ever married and they were childless. They were looking for help on the farm they ran together.
It is a funny movie, in which the girl is known for being very talkative. At one point, she asks her adopted mother if she would do her a favor. Whenever her mother writes Anne’s name, will she make sure she writes it “Ann with an e”? The girl then went on a long explanation about how “Ann” was just so plain, but Ann with an “e” (Anne) was so much more elegant.
Libby was like Anne in the movie. She took a certain amount of pride in that her real name was spelled with an “s” instead of a “z.” She would point out to people that the older Bibles, like the King James Version, spelled it that way. In her mind, Elisabeth was indeed an elegant name, much more so than the name Libby.
The adopted mother in the movie thought that was just silly and told Anne that she found no reason to do what she asked. Ann was a fine and dignified name after all, and it was a practical one.
I find a little bit of comfort in that fictional encounter. In one of many parental mistakes my wife and I made during her life, we told Libby that the family would not start calling her Elisabeth. It wasn’t going to happen. She was always going to be Libby to us. Her mom and I said she would always be our baby, so it didn’t matter one bit that the name Libby made her sound like one.
But we did make a compromise. We told her that we would ask people outside the family to call her Elisabeth from then on. She agreed that this was a workable solution. To our credit, from that time forward, the whole family did indeed introduce her to others as Elisabeth. But we reminded them that we would call her Libby so that they would not get confused. She never said it, but I know that she loved that arrangement.
In keeping with that agreement, I will refer to her as “Elisabeth” as I write this book. After all, whatever readers this book may have will overwhelmingly be non-family members. I am pretty sure Elisabeth would have smiled at this concession on my part.
SHE HAD CEREBRAL PALSY
To understand what will be said about Elisabeth in this book, there is something more important to know about her than what you would have called her. Elisabeth had cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy impacts those who have it in many different ways and with varying levels of severity. It can affect the ability to speak. It can affect different parts of the body. This impact can be mild, profound, and anything in between. The disease often results in various mental disabilities as well. Finally, a person can be afflicted with the disease at birth or at any time during his or her life.
In Elisabeth’s case, she suffered an injury to her brain at birth. She had cerebral palsy her whole life. The most obvious sign that she had the disease was that she lost the vast majority of the use of all four limbs. She would never walk and could only use her arms and hands in very limited ways. It was challenging for her to sit up straight, as cerebral palsy prevented her from having enough strength in the core of her body to do so.
As a result, she was dependent upon others her whole life. She could not care for herself in any way. If somebody prepared it, she could eat with great difficulty certain finger foods. But she could not dress herself, clean herself, go to the bathroom, get in bed, or get up. She never took a step but had to use a wheelchair her whole life. In certain circumstances she could use an electric wheelchair, but most of the time she utilized a manual one that a family member or friend pushed.
Fortunately, cerebral palsy did not affect her voice. Like Anne of Green Gables, she could talk clearly and loved to do so. She would talk about the movies she had seen or the books she had listened to on tape. Stories in the Bible, and even politics, were some of her favorite topics to discuss with others. It was easy to carry on a conversation with her.
In fact, it was so easy that you sometimes forgot that cerebral palsy had left her with certain learning disabilities as well. Elisabeth could only read slowly and with difficulty. Weakness in her eyes contributed to that situation. Things others take for granted—such as figuring out how much change you would get back from a twenty-dollar bill if an item costs ten dollars—were beyond her ability to figure out. She could not carry out the simplest of math problems. The same could be said about things like geography. She could tell you what state she was in but would not be able to show you on a map where that state was located.
NEGOTIATING SOCIAL SITUATIONS
An interesting aspect of her physical and mental disabilities was her sense of humor and her ability to negotiate certain social situations. Often, but not always, Elisabeth would see something as being very serious, even though it would be obvious to others that the person she was talking with was joking or using sarcasm. On many such occasions, the family reminded her that she had no sense of humor. We would have to point out to her that whoever she had been talking to was not serious.
Similarly, Elisabeth would sometimes not know if it was appropriate to say certain things. I will never know how often that happened, but I know there were many times she chose not to say something just to make sure she didn’t say the wrong thing and hurt somebody else. She would never want to hurt somebody’s feelings by saying the wrong thing, and it would have been devastating to her if she did so.
In these social situations, she also didn’t want to appear, in her words, “dumb.” She realized she didn’t sometimes understand the nuance of what was going on and would remain silent to not let others figure out that “secret” of hers. If there were an inside joke that she didn’t understand, she would prefer that others thought she was in on it.
Simply put, my daughter Elisabeth lived a life full of difficulties. Just how hard certain things were for her, those of us without cerebral palsy simply cannot know. I came to realize that the disease caused her to experience pain and discomfort, much of which our family was not aware. She simply lived with such things and accepted that they were part of her life.
On the other hand, there were sad parts of her life that all who knew her could grasp. She would never go on a first date or marry. Even though she said she would have loved to have become a mother, that would never become a reality for her. The college experience would be out of her reach, as would holding a job and eventually becoming an independent adult, striking out in the world on her own. As she saw her sisters, other relatives, and friends experience all these things, I am not entirely sure how she processed her situation. I never heard her express resentment or jealousy over such things.
The fact of the matter was that she knew she would always depend on her family to care for her. While most might look at a situation like that and think how hard that was on the family, it is easy to overlook how hard it was for a person like Elisabeth. It is not an exaggeration to say it was harder for her, even in this area.
For several years Elisabeth attended a summer camp in Missouri called Camp Barnabas. It is a camp for children with a very, very large range of physical and mental disabilities. There are hundreds of children who attend each summer. The camp has a large number of young helpers. Some adults are cabin leaders, with each cabin having around 10 or 12 campers. In addition, each “camper” is assigned at least one of these young helpers, a high school or college student, to assist with all their needs. The campers and their aides participate in all kinds of activities together. The camp’s goal is to provide a summer camp experience where the campers are not excluded from anything they offer. They do things like sliding down a water slide, canoeing, and archery. Elisabeth loved going to the camp because so often in her life her disease prevented her from doing what those around her were doing. (As a side note, I cannot express how much my family and I are grateful to Camp Barnabas.)
One activity the kids like to do is stay awake on their bunks and talk before they sleep each night. This is an opportunity for teenagers with similar experiences to talk to each other. We can perhaps imagine how much more open they are with each other than with those who don’t understand. One year, Elisabeth’s cabin “mom” told me she listened as the kids engaged in this activity. She told me that all of them had something in common. They all said they wished they weren’t such a burden to those who loved them. In other words, these kids were laden with another difficulty that they often didn’t want to share even with those closest to them.
It is heartbreaking to realize that in addition to the obvious difficulties Elisabeth faced, others were not as obvious. For example, through the years, I realized that there were so many things we took for granted that she couldn’t do. If she was uncomfortable in her bed at night, she couldn’t adjust her body to a more comfortable position.
PEOPLE WOULD NOT TALK TO HER
Another area of difficulty for her, that most would not notice, is that she told me that she wished people who didn’t know her would talk to her when they met her. She pointed out that they always talked to me, her mom, or her sisters about her, even though she was right there! She would say, “They see my wheelchair and assume I cannot talk. I think sometimes, especially little kids are afraid of me.” I sometimes wonder how many things like this happened to her, of which I was totally oblivious.
I say all of these things just so that you, the reader, can get a picture of what Elisabeth’s life was like—what she was like. Each person is complex, and she was no different in that regard. However, she lived in our home for thirty-five years, and most people have not had a person with her physical and mental circumstances live with them for such an extended time. Understandably, for most folks, it is difficult to understand what that involves. Unless the reader has some kind of mental picture of these things, the lessons I learned from Elisabeth cannot be shared. She was a living illustration of profound truths. Our family was fortunate enough to have her under our roof for all those years.
But everyone can benefit from her example. And that is the purpose of this book. Most of us cannot relate to the circumstances of Elisabeth’s life. But to some degree, we all currently have difficulties and will live with difficulties. We will experience the loss of loved ones. We will get sick. If we live long enough, almost all of us will need to rely on others. We might lose our livelihoods or businesses. The list goes on and on. Some will have even more difficulties than Elisabeth did. I am convinced that the things I learned from watching her can help all of us go through whatever trials we face both now and in the future.
As I describe certain events in her life, one might be tempted to conclude that I am exaggerating things. I am, after all, a biased father. Dads are often accused of thinking their little girls are perfect and can do no wrong. It would be easy to read the words written here and conclude that I have fallen into that trap when it comes to what I have to say about Elisabeth. In talking about her, however, I want the reader to know I am not as blind as some might conclude.
I will admit that Elisabeth was a hero of mine. My dad was a career soldier and was in the military the whole time I was growing up. I spent almost 30 years in the military myself. As a result, I have met many heroes, and I know what they look like—men and women who are braver and better people than myself.
The Medal of Honor is given in the United States military to the bravest of the brave. For those who don’t know, this medal is the highest honor our nation can give a soldier. It is extremely rare. There are only about 100 recipients of the honor living today. Their stories of bravery and sacrifice are truly awe-inspiring. Most who have received the medal did so at the cost of their own lives in battle, often by saving the lives of others. The honor is so great, it is improper to speak of a Medal of Honor “winner.” They are called “recipients.” This is because what they did is so heroic, a grateful nation gives them this honor through Congress. They have “received” this recognition from the country they served.
When I was in the military, I even had the privilege of working with two Medal of Honor recipients. I have met a few others after I retired. Of all the soldiers I have had the privilege of knowing, they surely stood apart.
But Elisabeth was the greatest hero I ever met.
Oh, I am sure that there are others who were and are greater, but I haven’t been given the honor to live with them for over three decades. I was able to see Elisabeth’s life up close and personal.
With that being said, let me assure you, that I know that Elisabeth was not perfect. Like all of us, she was a sinner. The Apostle Paul perhaps said it best when he wrote in Rom 3:10, “There is none righteous, not even one.” A few verses later, he says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). These words were true of her, just as they are for all of us. The fact that she was my daughter and that she was clearly a better person than I am—a spiritual hero, if you will—does not change what Paul reveals about all of us.
But the lessons from her life are not found in the universal truth that we all sin. They are found someplace else. More accurately, they are found in Someone else. It may sound strange to say about a book whose title is Elisabeth, but when everything has been said, this book is not about my daughter at all. Jesus Christ is the subject of this book. It is about what He did in Elisabeth’s life. The fact that she was a sinner magnifies His power and grace. Her physical difficulties just add to the absolute wonder of who He is and what He has done for her.
I was simply a witness to these things. I am just sharing what I saw in the hope that it can help others. The bottom line is that what Christ did for her, He can do for any of us.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
To understand what Jesus did in Elisabeth, it is best to start at the best thing He did for her.
Even from a young age, Elisabeth loved to hear stories from the New Testament about Jesus. She was well aware of a promise He had made, which is good news for all of us. He repeated this promise on many occasions to many different people.
To a religious man, Christ pointed out, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” Jesus is the Son of God that the Father gave to the world. The Son would die on a cross to pay for the whole world’s sins. As a result, Jesus made a promise: “All who believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
As they talked by a well, He made the same promise to a sexually immoral woman. If she only believed that He had the gift of eternal life to give to her and the ability to give it to her, she too would receive it and possess it forever (John 4:10-14).
To a large group of people listening to Him, Jesus promised the same thing. If they believed in Him for it, they would have eternal life (John 5:24). To another group, He guaranteed that, “the one who believes in Me has eternal life” (John 6:47).
THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
I think Elisabeth’s favorite account in Christ’s life was the conversation He had with a friend of His named Martha. Martha’s brother, Lazarus, had died four days earlier, and Jesus and Martha were standing at the tomb in which he had been buried. Jesus promised this friend of His:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And he who believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
Elisabeth understood exactly what Jesus was saying. He was saying that anybody, including her, who believed in Him for eternal life would receive it from Him.
But she also knew He spoke of a resurrection. If she believed in Him for eternal life, He also promised that her body would rise from the dead one day. He promised that her body, which was ravaged by cerebral palsy, was only a temporary situation. An eternity awaited her, an eternity in which she would live in a different kind of body altogether. A body that was not racked by pain and discomfort. A body that would not require her to depend on others for her every need.
Elisabeth believed what the Apostle Paul would say about this body that she would have one day because of what the Lord had done for and promised her. Paul described our present bodies, as well as what the bodies of believers in Jesus Christ will be like in eternity:
It [our present body] is sown a perishable body [when it goes into the grave], it is raised an imperishable body. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor 15:42-43).
Can you imagine what Elisabeth thought when she believed these words? She knew all too well about a physical body that was “perishable” and wasting away. She knew that her body certainly would not earn any honor on this earth but would cause others to pity her. People would often avoid eye contact with her and often not even speak to her because of that pity. Or perhaps they didn’t talk to her because they thought she was “dumb.” She certainly knew about a body that was full of “weakness,” one that would not even allow her to take care of everyday functions.
But here was the Son of God Himself, telling her that He loved her. He was promising her an eternal existence with Him. And that existence would be one in which she would have an “imperishable” body that was full of “glory” and “power.” In that body, the limitations of cerebral palsy would be a thing of the past.
Many people today hear such promises and are skeptical. There are different reasons for that skepticism. One possible reason for such an attitude can be a feeling of self-sufficiency. If we are well educated, healthy, strong, or perhaps rich, it is often more difficult to think about such things. Why should we look forward to eternity in the kingdom of God and a new body when the present age and our current body are just fine?
In addition, such self-sufficiency might lead one to simply not believe such an offer. After all, would Christ really offer for free a gift that is great? Surely, a person must do something for it? There is no such thing as a free lunch. It stands to reason that eternal life, the greatest gift, cannot be free.
Many even question whether there will be any kind of existence after this life. If there is, the religions of the world are full of people who are convinced they must do works to be part of the eternal kingdom of God.
The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit plays an indispensable role when a person comes to faith in Christ for eternal life. The Spirit convinces the unbeliever of the truth of who Jesus is and the gift He has to give (John 16:7-11). Nobody can come to faith without this work of the Spirit as He reveals this truth—shines a light on that truth— to all who hear the message (John 6:44; 2 Cor 4:4).
But the person hearing may not believe what the Spirit reveals to him or her. The person may be unwilling to believe it (John 5:40). Again, a common reason for this is human pride or self-sufficiency. But here was the first great work of God that I saw Him do in Elisabeth. She did not have any such obstacle. Feelings of self-sufficiency were not a problem for her. She was totally dependent upon others. She knew she was “weak.” When the Spirit of God revealed to her that the greatest Man who ever lived said that she would live with Him forever and that He would give her a glorious body in the Resurrection, she simply believed what she heard. The gift was completely free. As horrible as cerebral palsy was in her life, God used it to help prepare her to receive the
greatest gift in the universe.
Many would describe this kind of faith as a child-like one. And that is exactly what it was. While some would scoff at the simplicity of such a belief, Jesus said that only that kind of faith would result in eternal life. In a well known encounter, some children came to Him. The adults around Him tried to push the kids away. But He took the children in His arms and blessed them. He reminded those around him that it is only with a child-like faith that one can enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:15).
A child does not come to his parent expecting to work for acceptance. He does not think he must work to become the parent’s child. The child is dependent upon the parent and believes what he says. Such is the faith of a child.
Elisabeth never doubted when the Lord said that by faith alone, she would receive eternal life from Him and be His child forever. This is the very definition of a child-like faith.
Her mom homeschooled her for much of her life, and my educated guess is that she first understood and believed when her mom spoke to her about the Lord. Whenever it was, she expressed from a young age the assurance that she would live with the Lord forever. One of the wonderful works of the Spirit in her life is that she maintained that child-like faith her whole life.
Because she had cerebral palsy for 35 years, you could say she was like a child all those years. Like a child, she would always be dependent upon others. That was how she lived her life. From a human perspective, I suppose that it also helped her simply rely upon the Lord to do what He had promised her.
This is one of the areas where the reader might accuse a dad of exaggerating. But I assure you I am not. She never wavered in her faith when it came to knowing where she would spend eternity. She always knew that she would be with the Lord. I am grateful for whatever role her difficulties played in that regard.
Ken Yates is director of GES Missions. He has written a commentary on Hebrews. His book Elisabeth is forthcoming.