For our 11-year anniversary, Farmer Boots and I went to hear Gianna Jessen, the brilliant, captivating, joyful woman who survived a late-term abortion 39 years ago.
“How could you not love me?” she asks winsomely, and the audience agrees. She wins us over easily with her soft voice and infectious laugh. She gives us pieces of her remarkable story: the story of a 2-and-a-half pound baby girl, who was supposed to be born dead, but confounded the abortionists by refusing to die; the story of the toddler who was never supposed to walk or hold up her head, but somehow grew up into a young woman who ran two marathons — marathons in which she finished last, bloody-footed but not beaten.
Gianna tasted the bitterness and rejection of death before she was ever born, and yet she refuses to let any of this define her. She stands strong in her identity as God’s girl. “Don’t mess with me,” she warns us, “My Father runs the world.”
If her story of survival against all odds is remarkable — which it is — it is secondary to the larger story she hints at — the narrative of redemption that we are all invited to be a part of. Just looking at the joy shining out of Gianna’s beautiful face as she tells us how much she loves life, we see how Jesus brings beauty from ashes.
I have seen YouTube clips of Gianna Jessen before. I was familiar with her story, and her engaging manner. I was prepared to laugh and cry, to come away strengthened in my prolife convictions, and inspired in my walk with the Lord.
But what I did not anticipate was the perspective that my chronic illness would give me.
“I have been blessed with the gift of cerebral palsy.” Gianna opened. She spoke of how she had to lean on Jesus for every step — quite literally — and how this literal dependence upon Him creates a closer relationship.
Cerebral palsy was something that I had previously seen as an add-on to Gianna’s main story, an unfortunate fact that she happens to live with. But now, as a person with an invisible disability, I saw her illness as an intrinsic part of who she was, a piece of herself. It shapes her every move, every decision, every day. Very deep down, it is a part of her, not just her body, but her mind and her spirit.
She made the choice to stand here in front of us, unassisted by a mobility device. My previously-healthy self would have been oblivious to the independence represented by this choice.
She may lose her balance a little, but she laughs it off. My newly-disabled self can appreciate the courage that takes.
She flew into town and will fly out again in the space of a day or two, and she is very likely extending her energy to its limit by speaking at this event. That pace, madcap for a person with a chronic illness, takes a determination that I could not have understood before.
After her speech, she excuses herself to sit at a table and greet people from a seated position. This is her way of taking care of herself, and I can see the prudence and respect for herself that she has learned from long experience with a disability.
Our conditions are different, but there are certain commonalities to all disabilities. They place limits on our lives, shrinking our lives down in scope and size. A certain choice may be made, a certain event may be attended, but many other choices and events are thereby eliminated.
For myself, I find myself bound more and more to the home. As the mother of five busy young children, prioritizing their care and education does not leave much energy for outings. This exception for our anniversary was carefully planned for, and it was by no means a certainty that we were going to make it through the whole thing.
But it is not just outings that shrink in frequency and length. Everything shrinks. Our new house has a wonderful big wooded backyard which I will probably never be able to explore with my children. I can’t even make it as far as my husband’s garden without the riding lawn mower. I cannot participate in my family’s life in nearly as full a manner as I want to.
“This is not how I pictured my life to be, exhausted and worn out just from making meals. My dreams and visions and plans for motherhood are all slipping away,” I cried to Brian in a moment of self-pity just the night before. “My life is slipping away!”
But here, sitting in this auditorium listening to Gianna describe her condition as a gift that Jesus gave her in order to help her to depend more fully upon Him, I realize how my condition, too, is a call to rely more fully upon Him.
“How can you, healthy person, tell me what the quality of my life is?” she asks. She speaks about the extreme arrogance of the ableist notion of quality of life. “My life is not slipping away.”
And it is at these words that my eyes, already filled with tears, suddenly overflow. Were these not the very words I whined to my husband just the night before? I sob silently as I realize how incredibly whiny I am, and how Jesus loves and comforts me anyway.
“My life is not slipping away.” My very words were echoed back at me — minus the petulance and self-pity, charged instead with the power and determination of one who is living for the glory of God. And I felt His love for me. I knew that He had put those words in Gianna Jessen’s mouth for me this night.
And isn’t that just like Him? To come and meet me right where I am, in the midst of my peevish discontent, and to offer me no reproach at all, but only love and inspiration, reminding me that I have a purpose, a life and a hope.
“This is what you have,” Gianna said. “Now how are you going to use it?”
At the end of her speech, Gianna outlined an area in her own life which is causing her to feel impatience. And she told us God’s response to her. “Are you willing to give me your whole life, Gianna?”
Again, I felt convicted, and called to give my whole life to the Lord. As much as I congratulate myself for accepting this disability without a lot of kicking and screaming, there are still many areas in which I am fighting Him, trying to hold on to my own visions and dreams for my life.
Am I willing to give him my whole life? Am I, like Gianna, willing to accept this illness as the gift of Ehlers Danlos? Am I willing to see it as a blessing and an opportunity to lean on Him more fully?
Gianna Jessen is enchanting. She is a courageous advocate for the unborn, valiantly speaking unpopular, politically incorrect words to remind us of those we would rather forget. She speaks for the most vulnerable among us, lending her sweet voice to unborn children who cannot speak for themselves. But last night, it was Jesus’ voice that I heard, speaking right to my spirit.
Oh, and by the way, in case you are wondering, yes, I did go up to meet Gianna after the event. I sat in front of her on my walker-seat, because of course I could not have stood up, and I tried to tell her what her words had meant to me. I told her that the very words I had used in self-pity to my husband the day before, Jesus had used to convict and uplift me in her speech tonight.
“What were the words?” she asked.
And, true to form, I could not remember the words! Ha! My God does have a sense of humour! After an hour of sitting upright with a less-than-optimum amount of blood getting to my brain, my aphasia was in full gear. For such a very wordy girl, glorying in verbosity, occasionally bordering on the fustian, (or hadn’t you noticed?), my once-impeccable memory for words has become sadly deficient.
But never mind, I remember them now.
And perhaps the gift of Ehlers Danlos, with a liberal helping of aphasia, is just His way of blessing me with the all-new opportunity to learn to listen more than I speak.
And, listening closely, this is what I hear:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations…
Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.