But God Looked On Able With Favor
“By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice…by faith he was commend as a righteous man.” (Hebrews 11:4, NIV)
God did not offer to give us a “normal” child in exchange for Joshua. He gave us one in addition to Josh – our youngest son Joel. In comparison to Joshua, Joel’s life may not seem quite so extraordinary – at least not at first glance. But that would miss the mark by a wide margin. It has merely been a different kind of extraordinary.
However, this section of Our Family Album almost never was. Following Josh’s birth, the doctors strongly cautioned us in no uncertain terms that there must not be any other attempts at having children. Given all of the difficulties during the pregnancy with Josh, and all of the problems he had gone through up to that point, it sounded like sound medical advice. It was sound medical advice. It was advice that conventional wisdom indicated we should follow. But God had other plans, and we are so glad He did!
Long before Joel was conceived in the womb, he was conceived in the mind of God. All of Joel’s days were “ordained … written in [God’s] book before one of them came to be.” But of course at the time, we did not know this. So no one was as surprised as Eileen and me when, just over a year after Joshua was born, July 4, 1984 to be exact, we learned that she was pregnant.
On our first visit with the doctors we were told to take a long, hard and serious look at our first son Joshua. With all of the issues he had faced, we should consider very carefully whether we really wanted to continue with this pregnancy. In their opinion, they could as much as guarantee a repeat performance this time around. More than that, they were certain that things would turn out much worse this time around. We were also told to consider Eileen’s fragile health. There could be no guarantees that she would survive the pregnancy. She very nearly did not survive the pregnancy with Joshua. To the doctors, it was clear what should be done. The pregnancy should be aborted, although they were careful to not use that word. To them, it was the simple, expedient and the safe “choice.” It was the wise thing to do. Things were clear to Eileen and me too. As concerned as we were about the odds against a favorable outcome, we knew that the odds were beside the point. This was not some lifeless tissue she was carrying that should be surgically removed. This was a living and growing creation. It was our unborn child. A life that God in His Sovereign will had created. We could not and would not willingly make the “choice” to end that life.
I suppose that the next several months should have been full of dread and foreboding. What the doctors had told us was certainly not encouraging. Nor were our recent experiences with Joshua. When we were expecting Josh we had prayed that all would turn out all right. But it had turned out terribly wrong. We had no assurance that this time would be any different. It was my dad who broke through the uneasiness that everyone initially felt but were afraid to vocalize. “I have a real peace about this,” he said. Remarkably that set the tone for the rest of the pregnancy. The months were not full of doom and gloom. Instead we too felt at peace with the situation. It is not that we were not concerned. We were. But somehow we had a sense of calm that all things would “work together for good.” It was an unnatural peace that quite literally “transcend[ed] all understanding.” Perhaps we should not have expected it to be any different. For Jesus said, “peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” And, because of God’s grace, we were not troubled as one might expect us to be.
Almost from the beginning God rewarded our decision to honor the life He had begun. And to their credit, the doctors that originally counseled abortion did everything they could to prove their predictions wrong. With the help of God, they were successful! Where Eileen’s pregnancy with Josh was one problem followed by another, the pregnancy with Joel was relatively problem free.
And as the old song goes, “my child arrived just the other day; he came to the world in the usual way.” With Josh, the decision was to deliver early because both he and Eileen were in distress and the danger of delaying the birth was greater than the risks of a premature delivery. As a result Joshua came to the world in an unusual way. It could not have been more different with Joel. Eileen was already in the hospital in Maywood, Illinois (Loyola Hospital near Chicago that was about an hour and a half away from our home), even though the doctors estimated a due date that was still about six weeks away. They were being very cautious and keeping close tabs on our baby’s progress and condition in the womb.
I had spent the day with Joshua at my mom and dad’s house celebrating Christmas with my family. It was December 23, 1984. I had just gotten home, fed Josh and put him to bed. This was a more involved and time consuming process than for most toddlers due to his disabilities. Next, it was my turn to get to bed. No sooner had I “just settled in for a long winter’s nap” than the phone rang. It must be Eileen calling to catch up on how the day went, or so I thought. When I asked her how she was doing she casually replied, “oh well, my water broke.” “I’m on my way,” I told her. After hanging up the phone, I got myself and Joshua dressed. My mom and dad’s house was close, so I dropped Josh off with them and headed to Maywood. As it turned out, I beat the obstetrician to the hospital and was able to spend some time with Eileen before they took her to the operating room for the caesarean.
This was the first in a series of major differences between Joshua’s birth and Joel’s. First the nurses informed me that they were bringing our son down to the nursery, not the NICU where Joshua spent most of his first three months. It was now Christmas Eve. The second difference was when I got my first glimpse of Joel. He was in an incubator like Josh, but I noticed right away that he was not on a respirator. To no one in particular I exclaimed out loud, “he’s breathing on his own!” The vital statistics were different too, the third difference. At six pounds two ounces, Joel was a bruiser compared to Joshua’s birth weight of three pounds and eight ounces. I think I half way expected Joel to walk out the hospital instead of being carried. Okay, so maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. Fourth, Joel took to the bottle right away. What a guzzler. Joshua never did learn to eat enough on his own to thrive and was fed through the tube in his stomach until the day that he died. Finally, while Joel did not walk out of the hospital, he (and Eileen) did get to come home on New Years’ day – eight days after his “early” debut. He came to the world in the usual way. As if to add an exclamation point, he was greeted home by a major snowstorm on New Years’ eve. I had to dig out (no snow blower) before I could go get him and Eileen.
The differences continued into his early years. Where Joshua’s progress was marked by milestones he reached late, or never at all, Joel’s growth was either on target or ahead of the curve. A few examples from his early childhood illustrate this only too well. I remember Joshua’s therapists working with him one day to take different shaped objects and place them in the same shaped holes in a plastic ball. This too is a bit of an exaggeration. Joshua would not grasp the objects, in fact he had a tactile aversion that made him spread out his fingers rather than grasp the objects. So the therapists took his hand and used their hands to help (gently force) him to grasp the object. He also could not locate any of the holes in the ball, much less make the correct selection. The therapists moved his hand to the right spot and released their grip to let the object fall into the ball. After a while the therapists went on to another task leaving the ball and the objects on the floor. Joel, always inquisitive, and having just recently learned to crawl made his move to the colorful toys. Grabbing one of the objects he placed it in the correctly shaped hole on his first try.
On another occasion I arrived home late one night from a business trip that had lasted several days. After being dropped off by the driver, I was greeted in our entryway by Eileen. Putting my bags down we began to chat on how our days had been, when I heard the patter of little feet coming down the hallway from the direction of the bedrooms. Joel was still quite young and still slept in a crib. No way was he big enough to get out on his own, even if he could figure out how to do it. I suspected that Eileen had laid him down on our bed, which was low to the ground, until I got home. But no, he was in his crib. Upon hearing my voice, but not seeing me appear in his room quickly enough to suit him, he took matters into his own hands and climbed out of his crib for the first time. Needless to say, Joel got a new bed that weekend.
One final illustration from Joel’s early childhood. His friend Steven had spent the day at our house playing. Sometimes childhood boredom gives way to misguided creativity. Before long they had emptied a bean bag chair all over our family room floor. Eileen could not see what was going on, but sensed some mischief was about. She always had that sixth sense – still does, I cannot get away with anything. She soon had them putting the Styrofoam beans back (as best as they could), sent Steven home and sent Joel to his room until she said he could come out. We had nurses in the home at that time caring for Joshua. Not long after the day nurse left, she returned asking if Eileen had let Joel out of his room. Of course the answer was no. “Well” she said, “I just saw his twin walking down the street towards Steven’s house.” He was only four at the time, but had managed to take the screen out of the window in his room and crawl out. Thank goodness we had a ranch style home. When I got home (we can all remember warnings we got from our moms – “just wait until your father gets home”) I did not know whether to punish him, laugh at him or be proud of him for figuring out how to do that. I think I managed all three, much to Eileen’s dismay.
Joel would go on to do many of the things that Joshua never would. Walk, crawl, run, jump, climb trees, hang upside down from the top cross bar of his swing set (I put this one in for Grandma Brewer), play soccer, football and baseball, attend prom, graduate from high school and college, start a career — live into adulthood. Many of these are things that most parents take for granted. But given the issues we had faced with Josh, we could not just take them for granted. Where Joshua was everything an expectant parent prays their child will not be and was distinguished by the things he “Cain’t” do, Joel was just the opposite. He was the hoped for answer to that prayer, a most miraculous answer to prayer when you consider the predictions that the doctors made. Joel had no handicaps, no developmental delays and no chronic health problems. He was distinguished by the things he was “Able” to do. He was a living, growing testimony to the awesome power of God, not a lingering guilt over a choice to abort a life.
Looking back on that first visit to the doctor when we learned that Eileen was pregnant with Joel, and hearing their gloomy prediction, there is no way we should have expected this. But we serve an awesome God who continually surprises us with a grace and joy that is “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us.” I know that Joel was always meant to be and that we were always meant to be his parents. But I have also often thought that Joel was God’s gift of normalcy to a family that had had its share of things that were not so normal. We thank and praise God often for His grace to us and to Joel. We continue to expect great things from His hand in Joel’s life and I know that it too will go well beyond what we could ever ask for or imagine.
So the section of Our Family Album that might have been left empty is now full of cherished memories. They are memories that are continuing to grow. The report cards with A’s and B’s, student council elections, athletic participation, birthday parties, band concerts, school plays. All of the milestones one expects from a normal childhood. And the list goes on – graduations and career. There has been so much to be proud of, so much to look back on, and so much to still look forward to. So much we would have missed had we followed the wisdom of the world. But, thank God we did not, and Joel’s life is a continual reminder of God’s miraculous power and sufficient grace.