Twelve years after West Nile Disease, here we stand

I sometimes forget that our four oldest grandchildren never knew their grandfather when he was healthy. Never saw him leap high into the air and toss a ball into a hoop. Never descended into a cave with him, hiked a mountain trail together, or knew him as someone who often laughed until tears rained down his cheeks. He’s rather Puddleglum-ish most days. And yet…

“My numbers are all good,” the Preacher reported, on returning from the doctor’s office. “The doc is really pleased.”

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“That’s great, Hon!” I responded. And it is. In 2007, when West Nile Neurological Disease upended our lives, many expected the worst. But following countless prayers, lifted from around the globe, eleven days in ICU, several days in palliative care, and another almost six months in rehab hospital, relearning everything from his own name to how to sit up, walk, talk and eat with his own hands, Rick returned home.

A walking miracle, many called him. Still do — even though that walking is done with the help of a walker. In the dozen years since (which have included a journey through colon cancer, surgery and chemo) we’ve had innumerable reasons to point back to God as the source of grace and restoration. We are grateful for what remains.

But what remains?

Twelve years later, the long term effects of the virus the mosquito passed on still linger. Though Rick still preaches for absent pastors, works with tools and bakes a mean loaf of bread, he needs long recuperation time. He has never been able to return to work.

Exhaustion remains my husband’s constant companion, along with brain fog (stemming from encephalitis), depression and chronic pain. None of those show up in standard test results. They are real nevertheless, as anyone suffering from an invisible illness can attest.

I live with (dearly love and greatly admire) a very differently-abled husband than the man I married. But instead of focusing on his losses, he forges on, finding meaning and fulfillment in the abilities that remain — and a few new ones he has gained. Woodworking and painting, making soup and baking bread. And he takes an odd sort of satisfaction that, at least on paper, he appears a healthy retiree.

I concluded our 2009 book, West Nile Diary: One Couples Triumph over a Deadly Disease, with these words:

“God is greater than (life’s) pirates. Life may never replace the treasure the villains steal, but faith enables a different perspective: the understanding that, as scripture repeatedly demonstrates, difficult experiences can produce treasure of a different sort.

“Always look for hope. It will rise from unexpected places to lift you. Inhabit it. Listen to its voice. Whatever the outcome of your brokenness, you will laugh again. You will find new beginnings at the blunt end of your experiences — even new treasure to invest in the lives of others. Your soul, reassembled, will reflect loveliness. And you may even fly again.”

If you’re facing a devastating diagnosis, that’s our prayer for you.

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