A 25-Year Love Story: Ken and Joni Tada, Part 1
About the Guest
On the broadcast today, Joni Tada, an artist and author best-known for her autobiography, Joni, joins her husband, Ken, to talk about their lives as a married couple. Hear Ken tell what first attracted him to Joni, a quadriplegic, and what Joni first noticed about Ken.
Joni Tada joins her husband, Ken, to talk about their lives as a married couple.
A 25-Year Love Story: Ken and Joni Tada, Part 1
Joni: The first year of our life together was pretty rocky, because the reality of this wheelchair and my quadriplegia and my limitations hit both of us square on, and there were many nights when, I'm ashamed to say, I almost aimed for his shins in my wheelchair, I was so angry and frustrated, and I think Ken was as angry as I was that we suddenly found ourselves in this situation where we had to deal with this wheelchair.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, June 28th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We'll learn today how Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband, Ken, got through those early rocky years of marriage and are now celebrating a silver anniversary. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. Do you remember where you were or any of the details about the first time you heard the story of Joni Eareckson, the diving accident she had in the Chesapeake Bay, and her becoming a quadriplegic? Do you remember any of that?
Dennis: You know, I was a big fan of Billy Graham's, so I think, ultimately, when he first featured Joni's story is when …
Bob: Was the movie?
Dennis: … when I heard about it. Joni, when did he first feature your story about your accident?
Joni: Back in 1976, and the book came out, and Dr. Graham invited me to speak at a crusade in Pontiac, Michigan, and the rest is God-blessed history for me. I'm so thankful that I've had a chance to share everything God's been teaching me in this wheelchair these many years.
Dennis: That voice is no stranger to many of our listeners. Joni Eareckson Tada, Joni & Friends is known by many of our listeners. Her husband, Ken, joins us on FamilyLife Today. Ken, welcome to our broadcast.
Ken: Thank you, Dennis.
Dennis: Joni, for those who have never heard your story, can you give us a quick Reader's Digest version? Because today we want to talk about how that accident ultimately not only impacted you but ended up impacting a young man as you two became husband and wife.
But just to set the stage for your marriage, take us back to that diving accident.
Joni: Well, Dennis, I can hardly believe it's – this year will mark 40 years – 40 years ago, I was a teenager. It was a beautiful hot summer day. I went swimming in the Chesapeake Bay, took that dive, broke my neck, crunched my spinal column, and I was floating face down in the water paralyzed and thinking that "This is it." My life was flashing before my eyes, and my lungs were screaming for air. I was just about to drown, my sister pulled me up out of the water just in the nick of time, and they rushed me off to a hospital, and I sank into depression when they told me that I was a quadriplegic, paralyzed, without use of my hands or legs.
That was back in 1967, and I praise God for faithful Christian friends and a supportive family who saw me through some pretty heartbreaking moments.
Dennis: You were how old at the time?
Joni: Seventeen years old. Now, if you do the math, you'll find out real quickly how old I am now, but, Bob, you were introducing my story earlier with the name Joni Eareckson. I haven't heard that in a long time.
Bob: You've been Joni Eareckson Tada for a quarter of a century now?
Joni: Twenty-five years this year marks our wedding anniversary, right, Ken?
Ken: Twenty-five years.
Dennis: What were you doing, Ken, back in 1967?
Ken: Well, in '67, I was still going to college. In 1970, and I started teaching school at a school in Burbank, and not really knowing Joni's story. How it happened for me was that every day going to school, I'd pass by this Christian bookstore, and I saw this poster back then, at least at the time that Joni was making the movie that said "Joni" on it, but, from a distance, she had short hair. So I hate to admit this, but I thought it was a guy.
And when somebody at school, a Christian brother, asked me if I wanted to go hear Joni speak, I thought, "I don't really want to go." I actually saw her that spring at a Young Life banquet that she spoke at, and really thought, "Wow, this woman really has a lot to say," and never thinking that we would ever get together. But little was I to know.
Dennis: Yeah. Any serious loves in your life before Joni?
Joni: I don't want to hear this. I have not heard that part of Ken.
Ken: No serious loves. I think that, just like anybody else, I was dating, but no serious loves. I think that Joni was probably the first person I ever met who was a lot deeper than most, especially spiritually. And there was something there that was different than anything I had experienced before.
Dennis: Was that what turned your head?
Ken: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, you know, Dennis, in the beginning my family couldn't understand what I was doing dating somebody in a wheelchair, and it was a struggle for my mom, probably, more than anybody else. For a time, until she got a chance to meet Joni.
Joni: I will never forget the first time I had dinner with his folks, and I said to his mother, because she was quite distressed at her son dating this quadriplegic, and I looked at her with tears in my eyes, and I said, "Mrs. Tada, if I were you, I'd feel the same way. I'd be a little frightened, too. But I want to show you that I can be a good friend to your son, and I think that Ken and I can be a great asset to the Tada name."
Dennis: You know, I hadn't thought about this, but your parents, Ken, had to demonstrate some faith.
Ken: Well, my mom was probably the most instrumental parent that I had that made sure that I went to church as a youngster. My dad didn't know Christ, and didn't come to Christ until later in his life after he suffered a stroke. But it was interesting, because as we started to say, my mom was a little hesitant in the beginning, but as she got to know Joni, she also fell in love with her.
You know, it was interesting how – and Joni and I have compared notes over the years, that her mom started to really take more of a liking to me, and my mom took more of a liking to Joni, so I don't know where that comes in, but it seemed like the roles kind of reversed a little bit.
Bob: Joni, let me reel things back for just a second. When you were in that hospital room for the first time realizing that you were – the diagnosis you'd had, you were going to be a quadriplegic – I don't know when it dawned on you, that probably means I will be single all my life. Didn't you think that at some point?
Joni: Sure, I thought that. Most of the people in the hospital, young people like me, paraplegics, quadriplegics, you know, I knew that they weren't dating, and I was 17 years old, and all my hopes were shattered, my dreams were crushed, and I took a deep breath and after working my way up out of some severe depression, good friends counseling me on God's Word helped with that. I finally said, "Well, Lord, obviously, I've got the gift of singleness. I mean, I'm single today, so I must have the gift, so give me the grace to bear up under it in this wheelchair," and just decided that my life could still have meaning and depth – going back to college, getting involved in my church, traveling, sharing my testimony, painting paintings and exhibiting them in galleries on the East Coast.
Those kinds of things gave me a lot of fulfillment, but little did I realize that marriage would be in the forecast for me.
Bob: Was there always in the back of your mind the sense that this loss of prospective relationship was kind of right alongside the loss of the use of your arms and your legs?
Joni: There was a parallel. I really thought – and this was an immature way of looking at my disability – that I couldn't be attractive to anybody. I can't hold a hand, I can't, you know, embrace anyone or give anyone a hug, and who would want to marry me? And so I found solace and comfort and encouragement and help and hope by throwing myself into the arms of Jesus Christ, and He melted away the loneliness and the sitting alone by myself on a Friday night. He took away that pain and replaced it with a growing – boy, how can I put it – a lively intimacy with Him, a joy in being with Him, and as I cultivated the depth of my relationship with Jesus, little did I realize that He was going to take care of breadth, the scope, the influence that my life might have, not only through eventually writing a book but even on this young man's life named Ken Tada.
When I first met Ken in church …
Dennis: Before you get to that, I wanted to ask you were there any other loves in your life either?
Joni: Oh, before my accident, sure. I was dating the captain of the nearby high school football team, and I used to play tennis and hike and ride, and I was very active in sports, but, boy, my quadriplegia changed all of that. Then my life became a lot slower, a lot deeper, spending a lot more time in the Bible, but …
Dennis: Did that relationship with that young man in high school – did the accident terminate your relationship with him or had that already occurred?
Joni: No, it did, and I didn't blame him. I mean, my self-image was so bad, I didn't blame anybody if they didn't want to be around me. My goodness, to spend time with me meant pushing a wheelchair, giving me drinks of water, cutting up my sandwich, emptying my leg bag, transferring me out of my chair into your car and out again. There were a couple of girlfriends who were brave enough to tackle on all that baggage, and we had some fun at the local malls and movie theaters, but there weren't too many young men who would take that on.
Bob: From 1967 until the early 1980s, any men who showed interest and indicated that they might want to date you?
Joni: Boy, I have to scratch my head and think hard about that one, Bob, but I don't think so.
Bob: So when, all of a sudden, here is a guy who is saying, "Would you like to go out to dinner?" What did you think?
Joni: Oh, I was nervous as a cat, and I was 33 years old. I mean, it was not like I was a kid on my first date. I panicked. I got the clutches. I mean, my chest got tight, I got short of breath, and I kept thinking, "This is ridiculous. Come on, I'm 33 years old, I'm a young adult, I shouldn't be nervous."
Dennis: Were you living at home at the time?
Joni: I was living with my sister, J.K., on the farm in Maryland, and had just moved to Southern California, and I was brand-new to that culture and Ken, having grown up in Southern California, for him, I guess looking at me in the wheelchair, he could pick me up easily enough and put me in a car, right, Ken?
Ken: No. The only thing is, I never took anyone out in a wheelchair before. So that was kind of an unusual situation. So I won't say that I was used to the situation, but there was something about Joni that was different, and I wouldn't say that I looked past the wheelchair, because I was being realistic.
Dennis: Did you get some coaching before you went over to pick her up that first night? I mean, going out with a young lady who is in a wheelchair, I mean, there were some logistical issues.
Joni: He won't tell you – he'll tell you this – tell them how many pounds you bench-pressed in order to be confident enough to pick me up out of my wheelchair and put me in your car.
Ken: Well, you know, I was a schoolteacher for 32 years, high school teacher, and I coach football, and during that time, I used to work out with the kids, so the week after – well, back up – I was invited to a surprise birthday party for Joni, and that's where I asked her out for a date.
Dennis: So you asked her out eyeball-to-eyeball then?
Ken: Oh, yeah, we were talking that whole time and found some things that we had in common, and it was just a great evening, and I got up enough courage to invite her out for a date for the next weekend.
Joni: But I warned him that, "Ken, you're going to have to lift me out of this wheelchair and put me in the front seat of your car."
Ken: I knew at least that much. I mean, I wasn't knowledgeable about taking out anybody in a wheelchair, but knew that unless we were going to take somebody else with us on our first date that I was going to have to lift Joni in and out of the car.
So that's when I went to our high school weight room.
Dennis: So you really did work out some?
Ken: Well, I worked out, yeah.
Dennis: Didn't want to drop her.
Ken: But I had set a goal for that week of being able to curl 180 pounds before the end of the week.
Joni: Everybody, I want you all listening to know that I am not 180 pounds, but when he lifted me, I could tell he thought I was very heavy because – show them what you did.
Ken: No, I'm not going to tell them.
Joni: Please, come on.
Ken: No, you're going to embarrass me.
Joni: He lifted me up in his arms and goes hiiiiiiiyeeeeeyah!
Ken: I think she thought she was going out with Bruce Lee.
Joni: I knew then this guy thinks I'm pretty heavy.
Dennis: I want to talk about – and I want both of you to answer this question – what was your greatest fear as you moved toward this relationship. You undoubtedly had to count the cost of building this relationship as every engaged couple should – not all – but should do. What was your greatest fear?
Joni: My greatest fear was that Ken – when he finally would see how life with a quadriplegic was full of challenges, that that would turn him off and turn him away. I mean, we weren't the kind of couple who would go away for a weekend to experiment about this to see if, "Gee, can he really handle all these things?" We weren't going to sin or bend God's standards or anything like that. We wanted to go into this marriage with a lot of questions answered but not having experimented around, if you know what I mean.
We had Christian friends tell us to go do that. They looked at my wheelchair …
Dennis: Were they speaking of experimenting sexually?
Ken: Experimenting sexually and spending time together in an intimate way so we could see what life would be like as a married couple.
Joni: And we couldn't do that. We refused to do that because we knew that would, right there, land a knockout blow to any hopes for a good marriage if we started off that way.
So we remained pure morally, going into our marriage, but I was afraid that once we were married, once the honeymoon was over, he would discover that life with a quadriplegic wasn't all that he thought it might be. It would be too hard for him.
Dennis: And the fear was he would leave emotionally, leave physically?
Joni: Leave emotionally. I knew Ken well enough to know that here is a guy who, once he makes a commitment, is going to stick with it. But I dreaded the idea of, in the future, our lives would do nothing more than run on parallel tracks – him with his life, me with my life, coming home, eating dinner, going about a routine silently, and then going to bed with no connection or interaction. I was so afraid of that.
And I knew that Ken would stay committed, he wouldn't divorce me, but, boy, we might have an unhappy marriage.
Ken: Do we have an unhappy marriage?
Joni: No, we have a great marriage after 25 years, my goodness.
Dennis: Did you talk about that fear before you got married?
Joni: I asked him, I said, "Ken, are you sure that you know what you're getting into? Have I explained that when you go to bed with me, a quadriplegic, it's not going to be like in the movies. It's going to be quite different." And we had to just take a deep breath and trust that God would lead us through those dark alleys and times of questioning.
Dennis: How about you, Ken, what was your greatest fear?
Ken: My greatest fear, I think, was the unknown – I mean, just not knowing a lot of the details. I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Joni. I felt that she was my best friend, but the day-to-day routines, you really can't know that until you're actually there. I don't know how anybody can just – you know, you can't read about it. Some people may try to explain it to you, but unless you're actually doing those day-to-day routines, I don't think you can have a fair assessment of what the situation is like.
Bob: You know, it's interesting, though, I'm sitting here thinking about the things the two of you have talked about, and they're very normal.
Joni: They really are.
Ken: Oh, yeah.
Bob: Talking about fear of abandonment, emotional abandonment, fear of the unknown, talking about adjustments during the first year of marriage. This is common no matter what your circumstance in marriage is.
Ken: That's true. I think, more than anything, we struggled more over the common things in our marriage than we have the disability. We just happen to have a disability in our marriage, and we have to deal with that. That makes it a little bit different.
Joni: The problems that we experience in marriage – those very challenges that seem overwhelming drive us to Jesus Christ. We can't – it's like the wheelchair is this big elephant in the living room – you can't ignore it, you've got to deal with it. You can't sweep these problems under the carpet and let them build up. They're just too big to sweep under a carpet, so you have to face them head-on and trust that Christ will give you the grace to see you through.
And my husband – I just wish you guys could see that – I mean, away from the microphone, behind closer doors at home at night, when we're getting ready for bed, he's the exact same guy, and he loves Jesus, and that has strengthened his love for me, I'm convinced.
Dennis: And I think just in listening to your story, we have a lot of singles who listen to our broadcast. And they see a lot of love stories on the screen, television, Hollywood, that promotes a certain type of love. The love story that we've begun telling today on FamilyLife Today is of, in my opinion, the gritty stuff of real life, of how Jesus Christ builds a home.
It's been real clear in your story that the reason your marriage is what it is today, the reason it could start out as it did in the midst of two imperfect people, both broken in different ways, is because Jesus Christ brings hope. He shows us how to love, He shows us how to forgive, He shows us how to give grace, He shows us how to care for another person, and He shows us how to repent when we make a mistake, and we don't meet our spouse's expectations, because that happens in marriage. It happens all the time.
Bob: Now, you're talking about some of the foundational issues of marriage. I mean, these are the things that have got to be built in at the beginning, or if they're not build in at the beginning, you've got to re-pour the foundation at some point, because if you're going to build the kind of a marriage that goes to a silver anniversary, that goes the distance, it's got to be built on the right kind of a foundation.
And I think about couples I know who are in the first few months of their marriage this summer. They had a spring wedding or an early summer wedding, and they're, right now, in that foundation-pouring period of a marriage. And, Dennis, you and Barbara wrote a book a number of years ago called "Starting Your Marriage Right," that was designed to help couples deal with these kinds of foundational issue so you can build a healthy marriage on top of that.
We've got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Resource Center. If you know a couple that is recently married, a couple that's in their first year or their first few years of marriage, this would be a great gift to give them. You may want to give it as a wedding gift or as a shower gift in anticipation of an upcoming wedding.
It's got 52 chapters so a couple can read a chapter a week on a date night together and begin to develop that as a habit or a pattern in their marriage and, at the same time, be able to wrestle with some of the issues that come to the surface in the first few years of marriage.
You can go to our website, which is FamilyLife.com, and in the middle of the screen you'll see a red button that says "Go." If you click on that button, it will take you to an area of the site where you can get more information about the book, "Starting Your Marriage Right." There is also information about a book that you and Barbara wrote called "Growing a Spiritually Strong Family," and that would be another kind of a foundational book for couples, especially those couples who didn't grow up in a home where they saw what it means to have a godly home. They're starting from scratch, and they need to know what are the essential elements of a spiritually strong marriage and family relationship?
Again, go to our website, FamilyLife.com, and you'll see a red button in the middle of the screen that says, "Go." If you click that button, it will take you to a portion of the site where you can get more information about resources that are available from us here at FamilyLife to help you strengthen your marriage not just in the early years but throughout your marriage relationship.
You can also call 1-800-FLTODAY for more information; 1-800-358-6439, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY. Someone on our team can answer any questions you have about the resources I've mentioned or let you know other resources that are available to help you with what you may be struggling with in your marriage relationship.
Let me mention here, if I can, that FamilyLife Today is a listener-supported ministry, and I think a lot of you who are regular listeners know that. But we have some folks who are new listeners, and you may not be aware that FamilyLife Today is sponsored by folks like you who listen and who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today through donations, financial contributions, to help keep us on the air in this city and in other cities all across the country.
This month we wanted to let you know if you are able to help us with a donation of any amount, we would like to send you a thank you gift. It's a copy of a brand-new book by Dennis Rainey called, "Interviewing Your Daughter's Date," and this book is designed to help dads with step-by-step counsel on what you can do as your daughters get into the teen years and young men start to pursue them, how you can engage with those young men to make sure that you are protecting your daughter's purity and setting up some appropriate guidelines around what that relationship ought to look like.
We want to send this book to you as our way of saying thanks this month when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount. You can donate online at FamilyLife.com, or you can call to make a donation over the phone at 1-800-FLTODAY. If you're filling out the online donation form, when you get to the keycode box, we want you to type the word "date" into that keycode box so that we'll know to send you a copy of this book as a thank you gift this month.
If you're call 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation just mention that you'd like a copy of Dennis's new book, and we're happy to send it out to you again. It's our way of showing appreciation for your financial support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We do appreciate your partnership with us.
Well, tomorrow Ken and Joni Tada are going to be back with us, and we're going to continue to talk about some of the unique challenges that they experience as a couple in their 25 years of marriage. I hope you can be with us for that conversation as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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