sample from “Joy in a Foreign Land” by Joan and Ron Denlinger
I am suffocating even though the air conditioner is running. Apart from that sound, the room is still. I hate the night. It’s too quiet. The silence chokes me. My bedroom, which has always been a haven, is now a prison – a torture chamber.
I lie in my bed beside my son, his faint breath kissing my neck. His tiny body is hot, though his lips and nose are cool. His skin is taut; I know he is dying. My five-year- old son is dying and what I fear most is the moment he will leave me, when this room will become a tomb.
I stare into his half-closed eyes. I can still see in them his will to survive. He wants me near him. After four days of watching him fight death, I join him in his battle. I perspire with him. My legs throb with pain. My teeth and jaw ache from the tension. My heart pounds. My breathing is heavy as I struggle for air in this stuffy room.
Ryan stiffens and cries out. “Ron,” I whisper, awakening my husband who is sleeping on the floor beside the bed. He responds immediately, sees Ryan’s misery and stumbles out of the room to alert our friend, Loie, a hospice nurse sleeping in the next room. They arrive back in the room a moment later looking concerned. “Please Loie, he needs another dose of morphine,” I say. She glances at the clock beside our bed and turns to leave to retrieve a suppository from the refrigerator. When she returns, I hold Ryan’s weak head in my arms as she inserts the narcotic. “It’s okay baby. This will help,” I whisper in his ear trying to calm him. I wipe my hand across his sweaty brow. He tenses again, terrified. “We need more air,” I plead, hearing the panic in my own voice. “Ryan and I can’t breathe.” Ron leaves the room and returns with a fan. I feel the cool air blow over us.
I try massaging Ryan’s legs to settle him. Seeing that his mouth is dry, I creep out of bed to get his toothbrush so I can cleanse his teeth and dry cracked tongue with cool water. Loie and Ron sit on the end of the bed waiting while I rub Vaseline on my son’s delicate lips. Ryan’s body stiffens and his pleading dark eyes search for me as I move out of his focus. Lying back down, I place my cheek against his and cradle him in my arms. His body finally begins to relax, and I close my eyes indicating to Loie and Ron that they may go. They settle back to their places – Ron on the floor by our bed, Loie on the living room couch. I reach out and hit the play button of the tape deck, which is resting on the nightstand. The lullaby plays again and gently pushes away the silence. The morphine begins to relax Ryan and his breathing becomes less labored. My fear returns as the dark steals in to encapsulate us.
When I awaken, the morning sun is forcing its way through the Venetian blinds, casting a pattern of bars across my bed. We have been held captive in this room for the last four days, endless days that sag into endless nights. I hear someone stirring in the kitchen. The smell of coffee travels down the hall. Now that the night is over and the darkness has retreated, my body relaxes. Daylight brings with it new strength.
My brother Joe enters the room carrying our other son. My newborn smiles at me. Uncomfortable milk-filled breasts remind me it is time to nourish my son, the one who is filled with health and life. I go to the living room to nurse my baby, enjoying the ability and feeling the reward of providing life and food to a child. He gurgles and smiles at me, unaware of the anguish that has invaded our home.
Ron and Loie move about as though each motion is filled with purpose. We keep our thoughts to ourselves. The sound of a guitar strumming and a mellow voice pulls us all back to the bedroom. Joe is singing to Ryan while our daughter Kari sits quietly in the corner listening. We all gather around them. We listen. We cry. It is Sunday.
Joe completes the song and starts reading the twenty-third Psalm. The words are keys, which open the doors to our well-guarded emotions, allowing them to spill out. We become vulnerable before God and each other. We pray to God to grant rest to Ryan’s body and to have mercy on our son. Ron whispers in Ryan’s ear, “It’s okay to let go, son! Let the angels take you to Jesus.”
The doorbell rings, interrupting these precious moments, causing us to scoop up our emotions and place them again in a protected place within us. Ron’s parents arrive, followed shortly by my parents. The house hums with extra activity. Everyone finds some task to perform, stopping occasionally to take his turn to touch and speak to Ryan. I cradle him in my arms, with Ron holding me.
I sit on the bed propped against pillows feeling as if my body is in intense labor. A battle rages within me. I want release for my son for his sake, and yet I don’t want him to go. I have given him consent to leave and be with Jesus and yet I know by the way my body is clutching him that I am also telling him not to leave me. How can a mother ever give permission for her baby to die? No, I can’t let him go on this last journey since it means going without me.
Our relatives stare in our direction as Ron holds Ryan and me on the bed. Their presence, that has been a comfort, now feels like an invasion as I realize I only have a few more moments with my son. I whisper to Ron to have everyone leave the room. He gets up and shepherds everyone from the room, closing the door behind them. This final good-bye has to be private, between our son and us. I pull Ryan close to my breast. He no longer responds to pain. His breathing is sparse. Ron prays, committing our son’s spirit to God. We play the lullaby tape again. We weep bitterly, our tears falling on his scorched body.
I sense the unseen angels in our quiet room – waiting. Ryan jerks with a long hard seizure. His eyes open, his mouth gasps for air. Then he is gone. I close his eyes and mouth, and then place his warm body in Ron’s arms. He cradles him and tenderly we hug. I am numb.
I walk blindly into the living room to share with the others that Ryan has left. They weep, and then slowly, one by one, they wander back to the bedroom to see for themselves that he indeed is gone. I cover him with a blanket and kiss his cheek. The doctor is on her way to confirm the obvious. I attempt to fill my empty arms with our newborn as I nurse him. My tears will not stop flowing.
We are left to reflect on the meaning of Ryan’s precious life. His was an incredibly hard journey, adding to the difficulty of our own. But we had made it – all of us, together.
I traveled the slippery pavement with a careful gait, my back hunched against March’s cold winds. Though cautious because of my present condition, I was eager to return to our cozy apartment following my first visit to the obstetrician’s office where I had heard the heartbeat of our first child.
The drab weather couldn’t dampen my spirits a bit. Up to this point my pregnancy felt like symptoms of a bad virus. To finally hear the rhythmic beating coming from my slightly bulging stomach was an exhilarating confirmation that I indeed was a mother-to-be!
It was the middle of the afternoon and I still had a few hours before Ron came home from work. Tonight would be another busy evening of leading activities for the youth of our church.
I prepared a cup of steaming herbal tea, took off my wet wraps, curled up in grandmother’s crocheted blanket and settled down in my new rocking chair. The living room was my sanctuary and warm feelings overtook me as I sat rocking. Acknowledging the child within me as a gift from God, I imagined the heavenly Father wrapping His arms around me.
Ron and I adored each other – our two-and-a-half-year marriage was healthy and filled with romance. We both worked and lived in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a place we found charming and adventurous. We enjoyed strolls around town visiting coffee shops and participating in the special events happening in the city.
I had recently cut back my work hours at our local hospital, where I was a registered nurse in the fast-paced intensive care unit. The new schedule allowed me more time to devote to our home. Despite the smaller income, our financial condition remained strong. Ron worked as a full-time salesman. We found ourselves able to live off his income, usually depositing my paychecks into savings in preparation for my upcoming status as a stay-at-home mom.
The floor creaked beneath me as I kept rocking. I finished a mug of tea but continued to reflect on the great life with which God had blessed me. I thought about the chair on which I was seated, a reminder to me of my thoughtful husband. He bought the rocker for me as a celebration of the positive litmus result on the paper of the home pregnancy test.
The album, playing quietly in the background, had come to the end of its last band. I stopped my rocking long enough to lift the needle off the record. As I did, I noticed a pamphlet lying on the coffee table. My happy thoughts quickly left me, replaced with a sick feeling in my stomach, my heart beginning to race. Confronting me was a photograph of an aborted baby.
We had received the pamphlet from a lady who had recently participated in the National March for Life in Washington DC. She spoke to our youth group the previous evening. The large group event, protesting abortion, had made such a profound impression on her that she felt compelled to share with others. Passionately, she urged us to contemplate the statistic of thirteen million babies killed in America since the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
“How could a mother allow that to happen to her baby?” I shuddered as these thoughts besieged my mind. “What circumstances could possibly bring her to the point of making such a choice? God alone should have the right to take a child. That should be left in His hands!” My own hands held my stomach protectively as I rocked harder. “Oh God, don’t let anything take our baby!”
Sleet began pelting the window and I pulled the afghan tightly around me. The living room felt colder. My mind drifted to the story of my mother and the birth of her first child. It took place during the days of the Korean War. I picture her hospital experience as cold, isolated and sterile. During a snowy December day, as the rest of the world prepared to celebrate Christmas, she delivered a full-term son – born dead! They whisked him away and down a long, secluded corridor, without giving mother even a brief glimpse of him. This was my oldest brother.
Slipping the ghastly image under a book, pushing it out of my sight, I prayed, “Oh God, I beg you, if this baby is sick please let him be well enough for me to hold him in my arms and care for him. But if he or she is born healthy, let me never forget ‘who’ blessed me with this child.”
* * *
Ron was elated to learn of the doctor’s good report concerning my pregnancy and that I had heard the baby’s heartbeat. My pregnancy became an exciting adventure for both of us with the increasing reality of the new life within me.
Because my brother died of Spina Bifida, the doctor ordered an ultrasound. The test was negative for any defects. With the first three months behind me, the likelihood of a miscarriage had decreased. Each new step gave us permission to allow our dreams to grow.
I thoroughly loved my nursing career, but the longing to be a mother was even greater. My desire for the role began early in childhood and even until the age of thirteen when I would secretly play with dolls in the attic of my parent’s home. I imagined myself being a mom to a whole household of children.
I never thought I had revealed this strong maternal desire to those around me in my adult years. Apparently, I had. At a baby shower given by my coworkers, I received a gift that affirmed my passion for motherhood. It was a cross-stitched wall hanging with these words: “There is no higher calling in life than raising the children God has trusted to your care.” My coworkers agreed that they knew of no one for whom this saying was more appropriate. I felt honored, especially since I had not yet informed them that my full-time career was going to be in the field of motherhood. I treasured the wall hanging that day, not knowing how much pain this higher calling would later involve. Nor did I have any idea as to how much I would need this daily reminder of my commitment to motherhood.
During shopping trips, Ron and I were quick to notice other babies. As we considered our genetic make-up, we talked about what our child might look like. We imagined at worst, a chubby little girl, face covered with freckles, bright red hair and glasses as thick as coke bottles. We laughed as we enjoyed the prospect, but we were sure that whatever our child looked like, we would have no difficulty loving him or her.
Together we bought maternity clothes. We waded through endless lists of name possibilities. We went for long walks and bike rides to keep me in shape. We attended childbirth classes. We bought books on child raising and spent hours talking about how we might do as parents and what we desired for this baby.
Although we both had college degrees and valued our education, we believed it would be unwise to make academics the highest goal for our child. We decided that what we wanted most for our little one was that they would be a child possessing strength of character and wisdom. If our child had those things, he or she would also gain the knowledge necessary for success in life.
A few weeks before the due date, with most of the preparations complete, we awaited the big day. Along with his responsibilities as youth pastor at our church, Ron worked full-time for an office supply company. One day, while working in the stock room, he received a page from one of his coworkers asking him to come to the sales floor. Near the counter was a group of his coworkers encircling a former employee who came for a visit to introduce her newborn. Although Ron rarely expressed enthusiasm over babies, he felt excitement for the opportunity to meet this infant. Fatherhood was on his mind!
What Ron did not know was that baby Latricia was born with Downs Syndrome. As he approached the huddle of excitement and noticed her condition, his heart sank. Latricia’s mother asked Ron if he wanted to hold the baby. “Sure,” he said, and took her in his arms. Inside he wanted to run from this child. At the very least he felt like saying, “No, I really don’t care to have anything to do with this child, thank you!” Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that the baby he cherished inside me could also be handicapped. The thought overwhelmed him. It distressed him because he absolutely knew that he would never be able to handle having a handicapped child. That was a world in which he had no interest.
The sunrise on October 2, 1986 was beautifully stunning. I knew that it was going to be a wonderful day even though I had been up all night with labor pains. It wouldn’t be much longer until we would be heading back to the hospital – only one block away. The day before I was admitted to the hospital because my contractions were five minutes apart. I had not progressed after being there eight hours, and so, wearing my hospital bracelet, they allowed me to walk home, where I could relax.
Ron had received a few hours of sleep during the night, while I spent the time pacing and crawling around the small living room, intently focused on each painful contraction. By lunchtime, I had decided I couldn’t endure the pain any longer. I showered, re-packed my bags and headed out the door. Because it was daylight, I asked Ron to take me by car. Otherwise all our neighbors would notice me stopping to pant through my contractions and I preferred that some surprise would be left for the announcement of the birth.
At the hospital, I experienced those things that are common to every mother who has an uneventful labor and delivery. Kari Jo Denlinger finally arrived at 8:59 PM and, from our point of view, the world was much better for it. She was beautiful – a mother’s dream. She was perfectly pink, completely healthy and she was all ours!
Ron took Kari in his arms, bent down and kissed me, and presented me with this very precious bundle. When the delivery room was free of hospital staff, Ron gathered his little family in his arms. He prayed, thanking the Lord for our priceless new gift and for bringing me safely through a painful childbirth. As I put Kari to my breast to attempt to nurse her, Ron called our families and friends to inform them of our wonderful news.
I sat, still shaking from the chill that had overtaken me after the intense delivery. I snuggled Kari closer to me. I wondered if life could possibly get any better than this. I reflected on a warning given to us by our childbirth instructor: “As you leave the door of your home to go to the hospital, look back and remember that life will never be the same again when you return.” I smiled and whispered to myself, “Yes, life will never be the same. It will be so much sweeter!”
When God joined Joan and I together as husband and wife, our family was established. But God didn’t stop there. He allowed us the privilege of His adding to our family, of our becoming parents, and fulfilling dreams that were dear to us. At the same time God was blessing us, not only with a child, but also in ways we couldn’t fully appreciate at the time. He was preparing us by helping us understand important truths that would serve our family well.
Issues such as “the sanctity of human life” and related topics are often seen as interesting, something to debate, a philosophical curiosity, but something to be quietly placed in the basically irrelevant compartment of “religious” belief. Though impractical and inconsequential in the thinking of many, God made it a priority for us to consider these matters carefully and to understand His perspective on them. It was helpful for the harmony in our marriage to share these beliefs with one another, but there was a more important benefit to both of us holding to these truths.
Jesus described two men who built homes – one on the sand, the other on rock. Each worked equally hard. No doubt they both used good materials, but the one house collapsed when heavy rains came because the foundation, the starting place, was insufficient.
When we began our marriage, we concentrated on building a happy life together, the same kind of dream every other couple has for themselves. Though we didn’t fully understand what it would take to cause that to be a reality, God was gracious in that he directed us to build on the solid foundation of truth. When we began to build, we weren’t thinking about the possibility that heavy rains would come some day. We assumed that ours would be a “they lived happily ever after” kind of story. Life would not be that simple.
We’ve come to understand that:
A successful family builds on the solid foundation of truth.
He spoke reverently, lowering his ten-year-old voice to suggest maturity. The words of his message started off quietly, growing in intensity as he struggled to explain the main point to his captive audience. He knew the criticism would come sharply if he did not finish his sermon on cue.
A hot summer breeze rustled the pages of the song leader’s book as he patiently waited his turn to dominate the pulpit area. Bringing the convicting message to completion, the novice preacher hopped down from the step stool. Wiping his brow and feeling quite satisfied, he took his seat. He had delivered another fine speech to his juvenile congregation. The service ended with a carefully chosen hymn from the preacher’s brother, followed by a bored sigh from a restless little sister. Her brother had coerced her into another “church service” during the long summer vacation of 1968.
Feeling a message burning within him, Ron knew it was time to again gather his siblings on the back porch to participate in a public worship service. Whether the sensation was the Lord’s conviction or from too much macaroni and cheese the night before was of little consequence. When the call came, he needed to respond.
Ron’s passion to speak God’s truth continued as he entered his teen-age years. He eventually led his peers at church in Bible studies and developed an interest in church leadership. A few years out of high school, Ron sensed God leading him to enter Bible College. His minor was pastoral studies, and he assumed he would one day pastor a church. God had taken the amusement of a little boy and directed it toward an ability usable by Him.
When I met Ron, he was already in his junior year of college. My attraction to him was heightened because of his love for the Lord and his intense commitment to the Bible’s teachings. He, like myself, had an interest in missions. I was in nursing school at the time and had every intention of using my medical skills in an under-privileged country following graduation. As our relationship grew, we considered the possibility that God was calling us together to do mission work outside the United States.
After his college graduation, Ron began working as the youth minister at his home church, Paradise Mennonite. A year later, following my graduation from nursing school, we were married. Along with our full-time employment, Ron and I continued to serve as youth leaders for another two years. We loved the challenge of encouraging young people to a deeper relationship with Jesus and assisting them in the change this brought to their lives. Despite this rewarding opportunity, our dream for full-time ministry continued to be a strong desire for both of us.
Two years into our marriage, various circumstances brought us in contact with an organization called Rural Home Missionary Association (RHMA). RHMA’s purpose is to start new churches and to strengthen already existing churches in small-town America. It seemed as if this ministry would satisfy the combination of interests that Ron had in Bible College. Church planting would be a way to achieve the goal of being directly involved in mission work as well as having the opportunity to use his pastoral training. God was fitting together the pieces of our lives and the picture pleased us.
The summer before Kari was born, we had worked through the application process of joining RHMA. As a result, six weeks after her birth, we scheduled a week of candidate school in Illinois with this missions organization. This would give us an opportunity to closely evaluate the mission and for the board of RHMA to interview us. At the end of the week, the personnel committee of RHMA would determine if we were approved to join their mission.
The other piece we had been exploring, in anticipation of being accepted by the mission, was the “where” question of ministry. For various reasons, we both had a strong desire to live and serve in New England. Ron bought a photo tour book of New England. We spent hours poring over it, dreaming of life in that historic and rustic part of the country.
Three months before we were parents, we took a weeklong trip to New England. On Sunday morning, we stopped in a typical eastern Connecticut town, complete with white steepled churches, rural wooded acreage, and friendly folks. We worshiped at a church that RHMA had suggested as a place of possible internship for Ron. Our vacation was everything we had hoped for and more. Again, it was clear that God was guiding us.
We were looking forward to many things – anticipating all the joys of raising our daughter and seeing our dreams for ministry unfolding. Living in New England might soon be a reality for us! Filled with hope, we eagerly entered this new stage in our lives.
Our tiny city apartment fit well with our ministry plans. Our choice of housing was by design because we had no idea where God might lead us. We wanted to stay as movable as possible. As a result, while our friends were moving into new homes and getting established in Lancaster County, we lived in a rundown, old, smelly apartment in the city. They were driving new cars to work as we contented ourselves with our seven-year-old, brown Ford Granada. It often sat for days at a time as I walked the short distance to the hospital and Ron rode his bike five blocks to the downtown retail store. Having been satisfied for two years in our city home and part-time ministry, we were now anticipating the exciting changes that the birth of our daughter and new ministry plans brought.
Kari, at only six weeks old, already grabbed the attention of others. With her dark hair and eyes, peaches-and-cream complexion, slightly upturned nose and puckered lips, she received more than her usual share of compliments. Even men, who I assumed never noticed newborns, would comment on how unusually cute she was. Of course, it delighted us, but with each week that passed, our beautiful baby grew increasingly irritable. The attention lessened.
Kari did not nurse well. Of course, being a first-time mother, I was quick to blame myself. All the advice I had received only confirmed that I was not doing something right. “You need to relax more,” the lady from the Le Leche League implored me. My hospital friends encouraged me to “Have a little wine each day to calm you and Kari.” I patiently listened to each suggestion, applied what I could, but continued to experience one-and-a-half hour feedings as I struggled to nourish my daughter.
She was so irritable and unable to relax even when I cradled her tightly to my breast. The doctor assured me that Kari was gaining weight normally. “Mrs. Denlinger, you just have one fussy baby!” So, I continued spending hours each day feeding her, walking her and swinging her. No matter how productive I was at keeping her quiet during the day, Kari would begin her ear-piercing screams at 4:00 PM each evening. Nothing we tried could satisfy her.
Ron arrived home from work each night to a frazzled, uptight, frantic wife. I nearly threw our baby daughter in his arms as I headed out the door for a half-hour walk. As I enjoyed the sights and sounds of the city, my anxiety subsided but guilt settled in. “How could a mother get so frustrated with her baby?” Like a puppy with her tail between her legs, I went back home. Nearing the apartment, I heard Kari’s cry, and compassion washed over me. “Oh Kari, how could I desert you? I know you need me.” I opened the door and rescued the screaming child from Ron about the time when he too was ready to storm out the door in utter frustration. Our emotions were becoming less and less synchronized.
Every evening we went about our routine: Cook dinner, perform other housework, process the mail, and watch the local news. If we had any remaining time, we played a game together. Being avid game players before Kari was born, we determined to keep this common interest. Through it all, Kari screamed. By 11:00 she exhausted herself and would fall into a temporary sleep. Quickly we jumped into bed to get the now usual two hours of sleep before her next round of feeding and screaming began. So, it continued through the night – two hours of sleep, two hours of screaming.
After six weeks of this stressful schedule, I was uneasy about our sixteen-hour trek to Illinois for our candidate school. How could I ever handle caring for this baby while attempting to impress this mission organization, let alone survive the trip? I was sure that my fussy baby and my nervousness as a mom would keep us from ever being accepted.
Driving to Illinois seemed impossible because of the amount of time it would take to stop and nurse Kari. We would need at least three days to get there! With our apartment only three blocks from the Lancaster Amtrak station, we opted to take the train. We boarded our sleeper coach early one evening and by morning the next day we had arrived in Chicago. Kari had slept the whole way and so did we! “God, you are simply amazing!” I exclaimed as we exited the train. Ron was ready to purchase an unlimited pass aboard Amtrak – if such a thing was available. The constant swaying motion of the train was just the thing to settle our daughter.
With the trip completed, we still had a full week to conquer. I knew there would be classes to attend, people to meet, interviews to fulfill, and Kari to care for through it all. Still nervous at how we could make this happen, we entered the door of RHMA headquarters. The brightly lit outer office was furnished with a few well-worn chairs.
From behind a counter off to the side, the secretary Jean Miller, greeted us with a smile and a friendly welcome. Then she noticed Kari. Without delay, she came out from behind the counter and enthusiastically threw her arms around us. Snatching Kari from my arms she exclaimed, “Oh how I love newborns! May I keep her for the week?” I was sure she was an angel from heaven. Except for feeding time and nighttime, we didn’t see much of Kari that week.
Before leaving for home, we received our invitation. “Congratulations, Ron & Joan, you have been approved to join RHMA” – Kari included.
There couldn’t have been two happier people returning to the Chicago train terminal that day. On the way, we learned a song on the radio titled, “It’s Amazing What Praising Can Do!” It was a catchy little tune that we picked up right away and sang at the top of our lungs. We had much to celebrate. Our praise to God came naturally from our hearts.
Early in our dating days, Joan and I realized that we had a common interest in missions. That came to light one day as we sat together in the lounge of the Lancaster General Hospital School of Nursing. I had purchased two copies of “My Utmost for His Highest” so that we could share devotional times together. The reading for that day led us to the topic of missionary service. It was then that I learned the reason Joan had begun to study nursing. Through the example and influence of a godly woman in her life when she was eight years old, she became convinced God wanted her to be a missionary nurse. She was now in school preparing to fulfill that call.
A few months prior to that conversation, I had attended Urbana ’81, a mission conference for students. Through that event, God seemed to be tugging at my heart to consider overseas ministry.
In the end, God had us join a mission organization, but closer to home and one that would involve more of the skills of the pastorate for which I had been preparing. As for Joan, she seemed to be quite content with the fact that it was a mission organization we were joining. Now that she was a mom, she was happy enough to put her nursing career on hold.
We were indeed thrilled to begin our new venture as career missionaries. God had taken the dreams of my childhood, mixed them with the dreams of my life partner, and allowed those dreams to be fulfilled in ways satisfying to both of us. Little did we know how much each of our preparations would be needed for God’s greater work through us. Though ultimately it is God who directs our paths, we firmly believe that, as part of the process, it is important to consider that:
A successful family merges the dreams and abilities of each member into a unified vision.
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