Emily Dunford

  feature image by    Busath Photography

feature image by Busath Photography

“It’s great for teenagers to have young siblings to help care for,” my wise aunt advised me when I first got married. I admired the way she raised her ten children so I made it my goal to follow her advice. I never imagined how this would come about.

The doctors told me I had a brain tumor in 2006, after the birth of my second child. “It looks benign, but it does need to be removed,” the doctor explained. Part of me was relieved. I now knew the reason for my constant nausea and vomiting. The doctor assured my husband and me that after a short recovery there would be no lasting complications. Somehow we would find care for our newborn and two-year-old boy. Everything would be fine.

Unfortunately, everything was not fine. The tumor proved much more difficult to remove and there were many lasting complications. I awoke from the anesthesia confused and disoriented. I not only couldn’t walk or stand, I couldn’t even sit up. My entire left side was paralyzed and my sense of balance was gone. I couldn’t speak or write. I wasn’t completely blind, but nothing was in focus anymore. Driving was over, along with any semblance of independence.

I used the faith I’d been storing up for the past 27 years and began to move painstakingly forward. The words and examples of my parents, church leaders, and family members, as well as personal spiritual experiences and many daily scripture readings, penetrated my heart. Those words and feelings were strong enough to get through my medication-induced haze and help me not give up.

The days that followed were very heart-wrenching as I wrestled with many difficult questions. How was I going to take care of these children when I couldn’t even take care of myself? What kind of mother could I be? I didn’t have any grand expectations but I assumed that when my children fell off their bikes I would be able to pick them up. I imagined that if they called home sick from school I would be able to get them and bring them home. At that point I used the faith I’d been storing up for the past 27 years and began to move painstakingly forward. The words and examples of my parents, church leaders, and family members, as well as personal spiritual experiences and many daily scripture readings, penetrated my heart. Those words and feelings were strong enough to get through my medication-induced haze and help me not give up. It was step by literal baby step. I began lots of therapy. I felt like a baby in a 27-year-old’s body. After a few months my left side began to move again and my vision progressed. After about six months, I could see well enough to read, albeit slowly.

I realized it wasn’t enough to lean on my previous store of faith. I had to dissect everything I believed before my brain surgery and decide how I would proceed. I decided that I did believe that everything happens for a reason (even brain tumors) and that God is in charge of my life. There was so much I didn’t understand but I knew that God loved me and my family and that had to be enough. I’d always been told by my church teachers to do the best I could and Christ would make up the difference. I clung to those words and they gave me the strength to go on. Over time, as I was humble and willing, I hoped to be given glimpses of understanding why this happened. I made the conscious decision to trust, choose hope, and be positive.

Since then I have fallen many times—both literally and figuratively. I have cried and felt sorry for myself and angrily wondered why this happened to me. But luckily, I never stayed down long enough to hinder my continual journey forward, even if it sometimes feels like I’m clumsily stumbling in the dark.

I certainly had a different perspective as I relearned the same skills that my own babies were learning. For a while, both my son and I were practicing our letters and my daughter and I were both exploring the human voice to learn to speak. I could truly appreciate the vast, life-changing skills they were developing, but I was a little jealous of the extra diaper padding that cushioned the inevitable falls when testing out unsteady, uncoordinated legs.

One day, as my handwriting emerged into the realm of legibility, I self-consciously put a chart for my children on the fridge. A good friend of mine asked if my preschool-aged son had written it. I sheepishly said that no, I had written it. Inside I was thinking “Seriously, a college graduate and a preschooler’s handwriting are getting confused?” It was tragically funny.

In our case it took more than a village to raise our children. Ours consisted of family, friends, neighbors, church members, and most of all, my patient, wonderful husband. He has often had to be father, mother, caregiver, provider, and grieving husband. He wasn’t grieving my death, but many parts of me had died and we were both mourning the loss. Because of others’ efforts, we got to stay together as a family. We’ve been witnesses to the kindnesses and help we’ve constantly been given. I am so grateful. Besides getting to stay together, what parent wouldn’t want their children to grow up in a world surrounded by loving kindness? It has been a very slow, hard journey and even after 12 years I still haven’t arrived at my destination. But, it has also been far from joyless.

I believe the concept from Matthew 7:9, 11 that says,

What man of you is there, if his son ask bread will he give him a stone…If ye then, [being mortal] know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good gifts to those that ask him.

I seemed to have been given many stones. But I knew that God doesn’t give stones. These two ideas seemed contradictory. In order to discover the truth, I became a detective trying to recognize the disguised bread. When I opened myself up and desired to find the bread, God was not stingy in helping me to see the nourishment around me. Just as a blind man’s other senses are sharpened when he loses his sight, I was able to find compensatory blessings. When I couldn’t write notes down quickly enough, I found my memory improved to make up for that. I can’t visit people or bring them dinner by myself anymore. But if I pray God helps me find creative ways to serve. I do everything now so much slower than I used to, but I’ve been blessed to prioritize and know what I should spend my limited time on.

When I couldn’t write notes down quickly enough, I found my memory improved to make up for that. I can’t visit people or bring them dinner by myself anymore. But if I pray God helps me find creative ways to serve.

Many times I had no other choice but to plead to my Heavenly Father to protect my children. When they were young and needed to go somewhere that most parents would take them, I would ask Heavenly Father to accompany them when I physically could not. Miraculously to me, they always came back safe. A few times I glimpsed all the people that love them but have preceded them in death, now working tirelessly to fill in the gaps I had to leave. These guardian angels were part of my personal village.

I was particularly worried about them after we’d received the news that my tumor had returned and I would need more surgery to remove it. Now they were 9 and 7 and were old enough to experience more anxiety and unknowns in our already fragile life. As I was pondering this I felt such peace that they were chosen to be in our family and that not only would they be okay, but that they would bless me. I have seen this often over the years. Being just over five feet tall, my son quickly passed me in height, with my daughter soon to follow. Instead of me helping them out to the car when they were little, they now often have to help me walk to the car. They help me get up when I fall and protect me from speeding cars. It’s all very bittersweet. Recently, my daughter helped me walk around at her middle school orientation, and yesterday she helped me into the school office so I could check her out of her class. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the ironies of these situations. But I know that after we try our hardest, Christ does make up the difference. I have seen it happen many times. I can walk into the future now with a surer stride.

I am not going to have toddlers for my teenagers to help take care of like my aunt advised so many years ago. But on a daily basis they have to have patience and compassion for the frailties and weaknesses they encounter. I never thought that it would mostly be my frailties and weaknesses. God knew that more than anything I would want my children to learn that it’s okay to ask for help, to show patience and love to others, and to do the best with the hand they’re dealt in life. Hopefully from these growing-up years, they will have picked up some lessons about trusting God and choosing faith during our trials. It didn’t turn out the way I’d expected, but I did end up following my aunt’s advice to help teenagers think of someone besides themselves. It wasn’t the plan, but it was enough.


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Emily Dunford

Emily resides in Provo, Utah with her family.