I recently read a book entitled, “Joni & Ken – An Untold Love Story,” written by Ken and Joni Eareckson Tada with Larry Libby. Ken and Joni’s life together has been anything but normal. As Valentine’s Day is Feb. 14, it is a perfect time to share their story.
On July 30, 1967, Joni (pronounced “Johnny) Eareckson, her sister, and some friends decided to go swimming at a beach in the Chesapeake Bay. There, Joni swam out to a raft and without checking the depth of the water, dove in, but could not surface. Her sister, realizing that Joni was in trouble, swam out to her and kept her head above water so that she could breathe. Joni was taken to Anne Arundel County General Hospital where she was diagnosed with a severe spinal cord injury. She was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
At 17-years-old, Joni was faced with life as a quadriplegic. She would never get married or have children. She would live in a wheelchair, need aides to help her dress, fix her hair, use the bathroom, cut her food, feed her, and put her to bed. Joni was depressed and suicidal. Her faith led her to wonder about God’s purpose in all of this.
Occupational therapy taught her to paint and type with a brush between her teeth. Her artwork was good and people started buying it. By 1976, she produced her autobiography, “Joni: The Unforgettable Story of a Young Woman’s Struggle Against Quadriplegia & Depression.” It became a best seller.
She authored other books, started a foundation called Joni and Friends in 1979 to bring Christian ministry to the disabled and traveled around the world as a speaker, singer, and advocate.
At the age of 32, Joni realized she would probably be single for life. But in 1980, she met Ken Tada, a high school history teacher, and football coach, who attended the same church. He asked her out to dinner. Ken was given a crash course on how to lift Joni in and out of the wheelchair. Dinner went really well until Joni told him that her leg bag needed emptying. They didn’t know whether to use the men’s room or the ladies’ room — what could have been a defining moment ended up in laughter. They went outside, found a tree, and emptied the bag there.
Ken and Joni married on July 3, 1982, and spent their honeymoon in Hawaii. Two of Joni’s assistants traveled with them, stayed at another hotel, and helped teach Ken how to give Joni a bath, dress, exercise, and deal with bathroom issues, among other daily things. “As much as he (Ken) had tried to reason it all through,…he wasn’t prepared for how profound her disability truly was. Actually seeing her so helpless was a shock. It shouldn’t have been, but it was.”
They did a great amount of traveling in the subsequent years with Joni’s work for the disabled. When they returned home, she worked at her office during the day recording her weekly radio program, and Ken returned to teaching and coaching. At one point, he struggled with depression and felt trapped by her paralysis. He did everything around the house plus take care of Joni and hold down a teaching job. They decided that Ken needed breaks so on Saturday afternoons he went fly fishing or visited friends. Joni made sure that he had more time for himself.
In 1997, Joni suddenly developed pain in her left hip. Her normally happy outlook on life disappeared as the pain became worse and the doctors couldn’t do anything to help. It kept on month after month with neither one of them getting much sleep. Ken would nod off at school. “He had known from day one, back when they were fresh-faced kids in their thirties, that living with Joni’s quadriplegia would be difficult. But not this difficult. It had, frankly, pushed him right to the edge. But how could he complain? What was his inconvenience compared to what Joni suffered?”
Ken started attending men’s retreats where he listened to speakers who challenged him and his thinking. One of the speakers asked him what his middle name was. It was Takeshi which means warrior. The meaning of his middle name would help him in the future.
In 2004, Joni was flying to Pennsylvania with an aide. Ken was driving them to the airport when they were in an accident. Everyone appeared unharmed. After getting on the plane, Joni wasn’t feeling well and her leg started swelling. An ambulance met them at the airport and transported her to Anne Arundel County General Hospital which is where she had been taken 37 years ago after her diving accident. This time she had a broken leg.
Later, Ken felt God telling him, “Joni is the most precious gift I have given to you. Take care of her.” Ken became the warrior Joni needed.
Joni was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2010. Ken was afraid of losing Joni and wanted to be with her every minute. It strengthened their relationship. She was declared cancer-free in 2015. Three years later, Joni was diagnosed with a malignant nodule on her chest wall. Radiation treatments were successful.
Today, Joni is 70 years old and Ken is 72. She is the founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, California. Ken is on the board of directors. Joni is the recipient of many awards and has authored over 48 books. They have been married for 37 years.
Life is a journey and faith has made it an exceptional one for the Tadas.