Editor's Note: This is the first part of a three-part series based on a recent interview The Christian Post conducted with Joni Eareckson Tada, and her husband, Ken. The couple reveals candid details about their 30-year marriage, their distress over the condition of Christian marriages today, and their encouragement to the victims of the Boston bombing.
Joni Eareckson Tada, president of TV and radio ministry "Joni and Friends" and a prominent disabilities advocate, became well-known among Christian circles ever since her story of quadriplegia and God's grace was told in her autobiography and subsequent feature film, "Joni." It's the story of how the Maryland native found new life as a renowned painter, and later a voice of encouragement to the disabled all over the world after enduring the crippling diving accident at age 17.
Perhaps less is known about Tada's husband Ken, a retired history teacher, and their married life together. Although Ken Tada is a more visible presence on mission trips, speaking appearances and retreats, both Ken and Joni Eareckson Tada have never written about their marriage until now. The recently published book Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story shares details about their whirlwind courtship, home life together, and their bouts with quadriplegia, chronic pain, and later, cancer.
Part one of their three-part interview is below.
CP: What prompted you to write this story at this time?
Joni Eareckson Tada: Well, Ken and I celebrated 30 years of marriage last year and after 30 years, you begin feel like you've had some experience under your belt and I don't think Ken and I would have dared write about our marriage before that 30-year mark, but three decades, we feel, gave us a solid platform. It gave us at least some degree of authority to speak to the issues of rustling through marriage that involves a severe disability, the depression that sometimes come with that, the day-to-day routines, the 24/7 non-stop, the things that need to be done when you have a disability. And we thought, you know, marriage is in trouble today.
Christian marriages are falling apart and people just don't know to love each other for better or for worse and in sickness and in health. So Ken and I don't presume to be experts but we feel that the many years we've been married has given us a chance to speak into the hearts of couples who wrestle with these kinds of issues.
Ken Tada: The other thing, too, is that from my perspective as a man, as Joni was mentioning, you know I think in a society where we don't take our vows as seriously as we once did that this is really a book for men and it's a story that we want to be able to share as a way to reach out to couples.
Marriages are difficult. As Joni mentioned, they are hard and they become harder every year, but basically we made those vows for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. I think for us, you know, facing cancer it really kind of brought us closer together and so consequently the book was formed.
CP: One of the things I noted is that the book starts with the story of cancer. Why did you choose to start the book that way?
Ken Tada: The cancer journey is an interesting journey for both Joni and I because it was the cancer journey that reignited our marriage and our love for each other. Basically, when I – when we first discovered the deformity and not knowing what it was, set up the mammogram, the one thing that we learned in that early journey of cancer was it's a hurry-up-and-wait situation. We didn't know how bad this was. We didn't even know it was cancer because no one would use the "C" word. They would just say we need to take this next test and it wasn't until several weeks after Joni's actual surgery that we discovered yes, it was cancer and yes, it was a stage three cancer because of the size of the tumor.
And so the cancer journey, during that time everything stopped, we got a chance to talk. We hadn't ever talked before, and the two of us grew closer together during that time – not closer just with each other but also closer to Jesus.
Joni Eareckson Tada: And also we feel that people picking up this book would be interested right away, 'well, how is Joni doing?' Many, many Christians heard about my battle against cancer a couple years ago, and we thought that might be one of the things that the reader would be wanting to know. What about your cancer? What's going on? So that's another reason we started [writing the book] as well.
CP: Ken what was going through your mind when they said cancer?
Ken Tada: When we first saw the deformity in Joni's chest there and we went and got that mammogram the next day, it hit me for the first time. At first, we didn't know what it was. But the possibility [was there], and when Joni did the mammogram they said we're going to need to do an ultrasound ... We looked at the ultrasound as they were doing it and there was this dark mass there. We didn't know it was cancer yet, but it was suspicious – that's the word that they used – and you know it hit me: I may lose my best friend and I just broke down at that point and it was a difficult time personally just because of that knowledge. It took me a while just to get to that realization and then to deal with it and give it to the Lord, and for Joni and I to discuss it. So there was just a closeness that we hadn't discovered before. We always loved each other but we hadn't experienced this before.
CP: Did you have any thoughts about the prognosis being breast cancer – something that attacks one of the physical attributes women identify as part of their femininity?
Ken Tada: Well, you know it's interesting but this goes back to when Joni and I first married and people have asked me that question in terms of why would you get married to someone who's disabled. This takes a different tack but 1 Samuel 16:7 says 'God doesn't look at the things man looks at; man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.' I've always fallen in love, well, I'd fell in love at the time (this is the beginning of our marriage) with Joni's heart. She is a beautiful woman on the inside as well as on the outside, but I had never met anyone like that: that loved the Lord that much. That's been kind of our go-to as far as keeping focus is having Jesus in our marriage.
Joni Eareckson Tada: I really love that I hear Kenny say that a lot to people – how he fell in love with me because of my heart not because of my bra cup size or what size dress I wear or what my weight is. I mean whether I sit in a wheelchair or walk or run, to Ken that's not the big thing which to me is so awesome because you know men, we have to admit, men are programmed to be very physical and to look at women and physicality. But Ken has always this vision of me that goes a little deep – well not a little deeper, a lot deeper and boy, that really helped tremendously when the surgeons lopped off my breasts and I, for the first time, wheeled into my bathroom and saw myself full length in the mirror. Boy, it really helped me over that hump so quickly and so easily to know that Ken accepted me for who I am on the inside. That was awesome.
CP: What were some things that you did in the time of crisis that made you two come together rather than come apart?
Ken Tada: What I would say, and then Joni can chime in, is that Joni and I found that reading scripture together, reading the Bible truly has been tremendous just in terms of just our marriage. We've done it now for seven years. We're going into our eighth year and we're doing it the last couple of years chronologically. But we look forward to that time in the evening that we can do this together-something that we haven't done before.
The other thing is because of the driving situation, driving to and from work which I wasn't been able to do before, but we use that time or utilize that time to pray and it's a great time of prayer and discussion. So those are two things right there that have been different in these last several years and of course, the reading the Bible was even prior to the cancer treatment.
Joni Eareckson Tada: Back when Ken and I were dealing with my quadriplegia and then dealing with my chronic pain, there was a verse that I read from Jeremiah 12:5 that goes "If you are worn out in this foot race with men, what makes you think that you can race against horses?" and in a way, our dealing with quadriplegia and chronic pain gave us a chance to be in a foot race so to speak. And so, the cancer became our race against horses.
The lessons that were honed and shaped and tested and tried through those times of depression, discouragement through my quadriplegia and my chronic pain, those things prepared us. The principals that we learned, holding fast to Jesus –yikes we need him desperately quick, let's get into God's word – that sense of urgency really held us tremendously cope and deal with cancer because it was a race against horses and we were in it and we were winning it.
CP: What would this book have been like without the cancer chapters? How has cancer changed your story?
Ken Tada: Let me just mention that for me, there was several years ago that (this is before cancer) I was at a men's retreat where the speaker said to us go out and try to hear what God has to say to us. That was very uncomfortable to me because I had not done that before. But I actually went out and this was up in Montana and I went out and I heard God say to me with not an audible voice but in my heart, I mean He just said, "Joni is the most important gift I've given you. You take care of her." I had never heard that before. This was for the first time. I said, well, in my head I was saying, 'I'll do that.' I've done this now for 20 some odd years, what's different?
So, this is before the cancer and then of course when the cancer took place, all of that kind of came back and I realized this is what God was ultimately saying, "You take care of your wife; you take of Joni because she's such a precious gift."
Joni Eareckson Tada: I just love it when he says that. Yes, my goodness, let me slip in here and just say that cancer forced us to face our own mortality. Ken said this earlier, "I might lose my best friend." And when you get a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, suddenly not only does everything just stop, but in a way everything starts. You start thinking about how you want to spend the rest of your days, who in your life is important, what is it that you're doing that you really value, where do you want to invest your time and your energy and your money and your efforts? Cancer is such a wake-up call to remind us how high the cosmic stakes really are and how short and brief and frail life really is. So, I think cancer for us was, as I like to call it, a bruising of a blessing. It was a bruising. I mean it's not fun having a body that's deformed like this, I mean my quadriplegia was a bad enough hit on my feminine image but now, you know, having to wear a prosthesis. But boy it was blessing; it was a bruising of a blessing, but it was a blessing because it helped us face our own mortality.