An Untold Love Story (Part 2) - Ken and Joni Tada

Joni Eareckson Tada remembers a time in her marriage to her husband Ken when both of them were starting to drift farther and farther apart.
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Sufficient Grace
Guests:                      Ken and Joni Tada              
From the series:       An Untold Love Story (Day 2 of 2)
Bob:  Joni Eareckson Tada remembers a time in her marriage to her husband Ken when both of them were starting to drift farther and farther apart.
Joni:  I was fearful that I was making Ken depressed. My disability was depressing my husband. So, I would be very careful to take care of as many routines as I could possibly do before he came home from school so that I would not have to walk on eggshells and ask him to do anything for me because I knew that asking too much of Ken would plummet him into depression. For a long time, it was this strange tap dance that we both played.
Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, May 3rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll hear today what Joni and Ken Tada did when they realized they were drifting apart in marriage. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve been thinking about—I have a son who just proposed to his girlfriend. They’re going to get married soon. I was thinking, “If I could sit them down with anybody, for a little premarital counseling—the couple that could give them the benefits of great experience and theological understanding—
Dennis:  You really had thought of me.
Bob:  Ah-h-h. You were on the list. [Laughter]
Dennis:  I’m kidding you. I know who’s in the studio, Bob.
Bob:  You were underneath our guests today.
Dennis:  Way underneath the guests.
Bob:  I just thought, “Would it be okay if we got some premarital counseling for John and Katie from our guests?” Just let them—they’ve written this book. Tell them about the book that they’ve written.
Dennis:  Well, this book is called Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story. So they need to hear a love story—one that’s gone 30 years, plus.
Bob:  And that has gone through some rocky times.
Dennis:  Some?
Bob:  Yes.
Joni:  A few.
Dennis:  A few, no doubt about it.
Bob:  I just thought, “I wonder what counsel they would give to a couple, just getting started, on the frontend of the journey?”
Dennis:  Well, let’s ask them. Ken and Joni Eareckson Tada join us again on FamilyLife Today. Ken, Joni, welcome back.
Joni:  Absolutely. It’s good to be back.
Ken:  Thanks.
Dennis:  I know Ken would like to teach your son how to fly—
Joni:  Fly fish.
Dennis: —fly fish. I don’t know if Ken ties the flies.
Ken:  Yes, but—
Bob:  Would that help his marriage if he learned how to fly fish?
Ken:  It could, but don’t do it the first year. [Laughter]
Joni:  But you know what I had Ken’s best man tell me on our wedding day? He drew me aside and whispered in my ear, “Let your husband keep his dreams.” I didn’t know what he meant, at the time; but of course, this whole fly fishing thing—about which we joke—it’s really important, I think, for guys to have that space—to have those times of connection with other men. 
Ken:  And Joni’s been my biggest supporter, during that—the whole time—not that I abuse it—but she knows that I need to have time with guys.
Joni:  Oh, yes! You know how you abuse it; don’t you?
Ken:  How?
Joni:  We’re driving down the freeway and he’ll say: “Hey, there’s a Jaguar that just drove by. Joni, can I have a Jaguar?” “No! Of course, not!” Then, of course, that sets me up for—“Oh, then, you’ll give me the fishing reel.” [Laughter] Okay. I know what you’re up to!
Ken:  It took 30 years—but you start high and you aim lower [Laughter]—and asking for a brand-new Jaguar convertible—obviously, I’m not going that direction—but a new fly rod—that would be kind of cool!
Dennis:  Yes, there you go. Let’s go back to Bob’s question here. Let’s put it on the line, here. Let’s go back to your honeymoon to talk about some of the most important lessons you started out your marriage learning.
Ken:  Well, the one lesson we learned is—I think Joni and I have said before—but we had friends who told us to go out and experiment. We decided, “No.”—
Dennis:  Move in with each other.
Joni:  Pretty much.
Ken:  Well, for the weekend.
Joni:  Just to try it out for the weekend—for a couple of weekends.
Dennis:  And the reason is—
Ken:  Because you know, with a disability, it was a little bit different than perhaps with an able-bodied person.
Joni:  Expediency.
Ken:  And just to see whether or not it would fit.
Joni: If this was going to work.
Bob:  See, I hear that story. I just imagine, in my head, you guys going off for a weekend and then you going, “Oh, I guess it’s not going to work.”  “What? Hello!”
Ken:  Where’s the commitment?
Bob:  Yes. How do you break that news to somebody, “I’m out of here because this part doesn’t work.” Well guess what? You may have seasons where that part of your relationship doesn’t work—
Ken:  Exactly.
Joni:  Exactly.
Bob: —and you’d better figure out how to love one another in the midst of those seasons!
Joni:  Absolutely, which is why—even before we got engaged and even during our engagement—there was no experimenting. There was no testing: “Let’s try this out. How’s this going to fly?” We went into our marriage, with our conscience tender and intact, with no violation of our convictions. As Ken has often said, “Of course, it made our honeymoon a little like handicap-awareness week; [Laughter] but that was okay.”
Dennis:  Well, let’s talk about that for a second—what that was like—because you write about it in your book. I wouldn’t ask this question if you hadn’t put this in print; alright?
Ken:  Oh, there’s nothing we wouldn’t discuss. I think we’re pretty well open with everything.
Joni:  I put it delicately in print, though, Dennis—as delicately as I could.
Bob:  And we can stay delicate right here. [Laughter]
Dennis:  That’s the truth, but you’re a quadriplegic—for those who don’t know your story. You had an accident when you were 17 years old. You had a great fear, going into this marriage, that he was going to find out what it meant to care for someone who was so helpless.
Joni:  Okay, well let’s talk about the brass tacks. Ken and I went off on our honeymoon. We took two friends—two girlfriends of mine—who stayed at a different hotel, down the beach—but they would come up during the mornings and evenings and kind of like educate Ken on my routines—not to throw everything at him at once—but just to kind of get his feet wet: “This is what it means for Joni to get up in the morning: bed, bath, exercising her legs, and then those toileting routines.”
Well, I had to do a particular toileting routine in the evening. I don’t know how to say this. Ken had to help carry me to the bathroom. I didn’t make it. When that happened—it’s funny—I choke up, talking about it now, 30 years later. Yet, it’s so long ago and far away—but I was the young girl. I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted my husband to have great illusions of me and: “This is going to be wonderful! Everything is so romantic!”  
Yet, I remember that first night—lying in bed after the lights were out and all was quiet. I fought back the tears: “Oh, God! This man—You are going to have to give him grace. You’re just going to have to. You have to give him grace because I don’t know that even I have the grace. But help him through this, Lord. You can do this! Help him through this!” 
It was a desperate cry of a very young bride, but I’m so glad God answered because things did not get easier in our ensuing life together. There were even greater challenges; but at every turn, I saw God’s grace show up in my husband’s life. That was huge, and that’s growth.
Dennis:  There are times, in every marriage, after the honeymoon—in fact, there are seasons that occur where you move into a bit of a valley. Obviously, your marriage started in one and has continued on in one—but you move into something where there is—you describe in your book as “negotiated spaces” and “demilitarized zones” in your relationship. You guys had a plateau. You kind of had the “Cease fire”—
Joni:  Yes.
Ken:  I think it was those middle years, where Joni was going to the ministry and I was teaching high school. Basically, we were living together but separate lives— parallel lives. Not that our marriage was bad—it’s just I was occupied with what I was doing, as a high school teacher; and Joni was occupied in the ministry. We would travel during the summer. So, there were a lot of connections; but during those school days, I don’t think we spent the kind of time that—
Dennis:  You were teaching at the time.
Ken:  I was teaching high school, yes.
Joni:  And I was fearful that I was making Ken depressed. My disability was depressing my husband. So, I would be very careful to take care of as many routines as I could possibly do before he came home from school so that I would not have to walk on eggshells and ask him to do anything for me that might encroach on his emotions because I knew that asking too much of Ken would plummet him into depression. 
For a long time, it was this strange tap dance that we both played—where we had to negotiate these spaces. But through it all—through it all—we both recognized we were doing this, and we didn’t want to live this way. So, we prayed—prayed together and prayed separately— that God would help move us beyond this emotional fog that we were in to help us see the possibilities, in our marriage, that were ahead, on the horizon.
Ken:  I think the other thing that happened during that time, Joni was—especially, this was earlier in our marriage—but because of your notoriety—people would recognize you when we were in public. One of the things that was really hard—that we look back on it now—was we’d go to church. There’d be a line of people, half an hour long, who would want to speak to you. 
I was finding my—if I had a self-image problem, it was healed when I went to school because: “That was my classroom. Those were my students.” When I was in Burbank, those were people who recognized me—not that I needed it—but it was just that self-assurance, that affirmation that I was getting through what I was doing—that I think there was a balance there.
Joni:  But to help move my husband past that: “Let’s go to a different church. Let’s get out of this big church. Let’s go to some small, little church.” So, we started going to a small, very little church, just a few miles from our house. We stopped going to the big mega church, where everybody knew me, just trying to find ways, as a wife, to make it easier and finding that those negotiated spaces became smaller and smaller—to the point where we both were in it together. We weren’t adversarial; we weren’t on parallel tracks anymore. We were on the same track. It took a while to get there, but we did.
Bob:  Did you feel invisible for a long period of time?
Ken:  Boy, that’s a great description of exactly what I was feeling. I mean, people would—we would stand in a crowd. I would stand next to Joni, and nobody would want to talk to me.
Bob:  Yes.
Ken:  But Joni has been so good about bringing me into the conversation. She would stop them and say: “I want to introduce you to my husband. He’s standing right here.” She realized that, from that standpoint, that I needed that—at least, in those early years—that we were a couple. I think, over the years, it’s gotten to the point where there are more people that recognize us as a couple. It hasn’t been an issue. It actually has been kind of a benefit—that I think, for the both us—that we are recognized in a ministry for couples.
Joni:  In those early years, when you were struggling with your self-image, those were the same times I was struggling with my self-image. I would hear him on the phone with all his buddies, talking about all kinds of things that he wouldn’t talk about with me. I’d hear him hang up the phone, saying, “Love ya, Buddy.” It was like, “Ahh! Gee, I don’t hear that tone of voice with me.” I remember being so—
Dennis:  Now, wait a second—
Joni:  No. I felt—
Dennis:  the Joni Eareckson Tada could have a pity party; really?
Joni:  Oh, my goodness! In the early years of my marriage, when I would hear him on the phone with Jan or Pete, I’d be so jealous of his tone of voice with his guy friends. But okay, later on in the marriage, as we’re praying—as I’m seeking God, “How can I get my husband out of depression?” Boing! This light bulb went off in my head. I realized he needs his guy friends. “Don’t be jealous of them, Joni—”
Bob:  Yes.
Joni:  —“Put him in their camp.” So, I began encouraging Ken: “You know, your buddy Jan has been asking you to go fly fishing. Please, really, why don’t you go fly fishing? Get away from the tuna boats—you gaff tuna, blood on the decks—guys with big bellies and cans of beer, cursing, and profanity—get away from that. Go fly fishing. It’s more refined. You’re going to enjoy it.” 
I was the one who kind of pushed him—not so much because I wanted to get him away from the tuna boats—but I knew, that if he was with his Christian guy friends, that it would be invigorating—that he would get a validation, as a man, from other men that would help him and help our marriage. I think that was one of the best moves I made to help you up and out of your depression.
Ken:  Joni was the instrumental tool for getting me into fly fishing. I really didn’t, at the time, want to go fly fishing. I didn’t want another sport; but she said, “No, you ought to go.” More than the fly fishing, I have a friend—we have a ministry to men. We use fly fishing as kind of like—
Bob:  The bait.
Ken:  —the bait; exactly. It gives guys a chance to get their hearts back.
Bob:  Yes.
Ken:  We talk about all kinds of things. We use John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart, but—
Joni:  But you got your heart back.
Ken:  —but I got my heart back. Joni is a big supporter of what I do there, but one of the things that happened was—a little exercise that we had was go out and try to hear what God had to say to us. The first time I did this, I didn’t hear a thing. Two years later—I can tell you exactly where I was—on a fly fishing trip. A gentleman said, “Take this afternoon and go out and try to hear God’s voice.” That afternoon, I heard God say to me—not in an audible voice—but I heard Him say, “Joni is the most important gift I’ve given you. You take care of her.”
Dennis:  And in your book, you talk about when he came back from that trip. You saw it in his eyes. 
Joni:  Oh, my goodness! He stood in the bedroom and said, “Joni, you’re never going to believe what God said to me.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. rocked back and forth on his heels, and said, “God said that you’re the most precious gift, and I’m to take care of you, and I’m going to do it.” It was like a breath of fresh air had just blown through our bedroom. It was like the fog of depression is lifting—I can see the sun, the clouds. There’s hope. My husband likes me! He wants to take care of me, for the sake of Christ. I began to see all my prayers answered or, at least, beginning to get answers. 
And now—even back then—when his buddies call the house, and I get them on the phone, before I hand it over to Ken: “Jan, God bless you. Sir, I don’t know what you’re doing in my husband’s life. Keep it up. I know you’re memorizing Scripture. I know you’re doing some new Jerry Bridges Bible study together on the phone. Keep it up! I love it. You’re going in the right direction.” I’m thanking Pete, I’m thanking Chris, and I’m thanking Jan—all these guys—that I used to be jealous of—they’re the best because they help my husband be the man that he can be.
Dennis:  And that story occurred—what I want our listeners to hear—21 years into your marriage. 
Bob:  And the next time you go out with Pete, and Jan, and Chris, we’ve got a resource for you to take with you—a Bible study for guys called Stepping Up™, based on Dennis’s book by that title. It’s a video resource, and it’ll spark some great discussion with you and the guys. Okay?
Ken:  Great. Thank you, Bob.
Dennis:  One last story. Joni, this one’s for you. You battled cancer. You went through chemotherapy. In the process of going through that, fell prey to pneumonia. You had a moment, in the midst of that, that was pretty grim. You had your own encounter when God spoke to you. Would you share with our listeners that story? I think that is incredibly powerful.
Joni:  Well, as a quadriplegic, I’m susceptible to things like pneumonia. I have extremely limited lung capacity. I had to be in the hospital for nine or ten days. My husband, bless his heart, made a little cot, out of a couple of plastic chairs. He slept by my bedside. Instead of me having to be intubated, Ken got up every night—would cough me—pound on my chest.
One night, I was so exhausted. I had so flattened out, emotionally. I was crying out to God. I had no physical ability. My lungs were gurgling. I could hardly breathe. I felt like I was drowning. I just didn’t want to have to get my husband up another time. I remember saying, “Lord Jesus, I need You. I need to see You tonight. I just need to feel Your touch. I need to feel Your hand on my head. I need You!” 
I fell into a sleep. Then, when I woke up, with the gurgling and needed to be coughed again, Ken came over to my hospital bedside. As he began to lift me up, I looked at him, wide-eyed, and I said, “You’re Him! Oh my goodness, you’re Him!” Jesus visited me, that night, through my husband. I felt his hand on my forehead, and it was the touch of Jesus. I felt him push on my abdomen, and it was the strength of Jesus. I felt him pound on my back to give me air, and it was Jesus, the Breath of Life. Everything about my husband was Jesus. I said to Ken, “You’re Him! Jesus showed up and you’re Him!” It was such a beautiful revelation of how God can answer prayer—the prayers that are desperate and show up best through them. That was a beautiful moment.
You know, we’ve talked a lot about cancer. We’ve talked a lot about quadriplegia. I’m going to confess to you those things are a cinch compared to the daily grind of pain that I deal with. Through my PET scans—a couple more years, maybe—I’ll be declared cancer-free. Things are looking hopeful. My quadriplegia—I kind of know that route. But boy, the daily grind of pain is so hard. My husband, a couple of weeks ago, did a beautiful thing. Before he saw me head out the door, he could see the look in my eyes that I was going to have a very painful day. He said: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” He quick ran and got a stick-um, and etched on it a big “C”, and put it over my heart—slapped it right over my heart. He said: “There you go, Joni. You’ve got courage, and you’re going to rise to that challenge.” 
I think what I love best about my husband is that he can find the infinitesimally small Christ-like characteristics in my life—he can find them, pick them out, and affirm them. He can water them and nurture them with actions such as he did with that stick-um on my chest. He believes that I can be courageous. I don’t want to disappoint my wonderful husband. I want to be courageous, in Christ, for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. That is, honestly, how I get through the toughest days of my pain.
Dennis:  You both are courageous. Recently, I did a little Bible study in Joshua 1—three places where courage comes from: God’s mission, being obedient to God’s Word, and third, practicing His presence. As I’m watching your lives, as a couple, you’re on mission. You’re on task, as a couple. You’re about the glory of God and running the race to finish it well.
Secondly, you’ve both been obedient. You’ve kept your covenant. You’re not only still married—you love each other. And third, you’re practicing the presence of God, whether it be fly fishing or whether it be flat on your bed, in a hospital room, battling pneumonia. You’re experiencing the presence of God, and you’re bringing a lot of hope to a lot of people. May God’s favor be upon this book and you guys, as you go forward.
Joni:  Thank you, Dennis.
Ken:  Thank you, Dennis and Bob.
Bob:  We love you guys and hope folks will get a copy of your book. It’s called Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story. Thirty years of marriage—as you guys peel back the veneer and show us what real marriage is all about. I hope listeners will go online at to order a copy. Again, the website is Or you can call to request a copy of the book, Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story. Call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”. 
Don’t forget the title of the book—Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story. We’d love to get a copy to you.
Now, I know most of you are excited that summer is almost here—got graduations happening this month and all kinds of activities during the month of May—and then, it’s summertime, just around the corner. I love summertime, too. I love vacations. I love the break you get. I love the warmer weather. But for a ministry, like FamilyLife Today, summer can be a challenging time because a lot of listeners get out of the normal pattern of listening and out of the normal pattern of helping to support the radio program. Donations to the ministry fall off a little bit during the summer.
We had some friends, of the ministry, who came to us, knowing that that happens every summer. They said, “We’d like to help you guys build a little surplus—a cushion before June, and July, and August hit.” They have put together a matching-gift fund of $576,000. They have said, “We’ll match every donation you receive, between now and the end of May, dollar for dollar, until that fund is gone.” 
We appreciate their generosity; but obviously, the only way we can take advantage of their generosity is if listeners, like you, will go to, click the button that says, “I CARE”, and make an online donation. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone. When you do that, your donation will be matched, dollar for dollar, with funds from the matching-gift fund. You will help us get ready for the summer months ahead. So, can we ask you to do that? Go to Click the button that says, “I CARE”, and make a donation; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone. We appreciate your support, and we are always happy to hear from you.
And we hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend. I hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk with Laura Petherbridge about some of the challenges that step-moms face. Ron Deal will be here with us, as well. I hope it works out for you to be here.
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. Have a great weekend. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas. 
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