At first glance, the title of the recently published memoir by one of the nation’s best-known evangelical Christian couples seems to be a huge misnomer: “Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story” (Zondervan, 2013). It just doesn’t sound right.
The “Joni & Ken” of the title are the Tadas: Joni Eareckson Tada and Ken Tada, who live in the suburbs of Los Angeles. A Maryland native, Mrs. Tada, became a quadriplegic in 1967 after a diving accident. Mr. Tada, who married Joni in 1982, retired in 2002 after 32 years as a high school physical education teacher.
Between the time of her accident and her wedding, Mrs. Tada became famous in her own right. Shortly after her debilitating accident, she found faith as a born-again Christian. She gave her testimony in an eponymous 1976 book, “Joni,” made into a feature movie three years later. She expressed herself artistically with small paintings, each constructed by holding a paintbrush in her teeth and signed “Joni PTL,” the letters standing for “praise the Lord.”
Mrs. Tada’s charm and grace captivated fellow Christians. She spoke before thousands at Billy Graham crusades, and it’s likely that millions in theaters, churches and other venues viewed her film biography. Her charm also captivated Mr. Tada, and the two married.
At this point, the curtain might close with the phrase, “and they lived happily ever after.” But while in the spotlight for more than three decades thanks to Mrs. Tada’s ministry for disabled people, called Joni and Friends, all was not paradise inside the marriage. In a recent conversation with the Tadas, I learned that far from being a misnomer, their book’s title conveyed a stark reality.
“About a year [into the marriage], I sat on the bed and said I am just feeling trapped,” Mr. Tada recalls telling his wife. Living with a quadriplegic is tiring, he said, because of the “24/7 routine” of caring for her: “It was getting up to go to school each day, and at night Joni would have to be turned,” he recalled. “I would have to get up, take pillows to tuck in under her; it was a nightly routine.”
Mrs. Tada’s immediate reaction was anything but Pollyannaish: “When Ken confessed that, saying how trapped he felt, [I thought], ‘Didn’t you realize this when we first got married?’ It’s like he was blaming me for my disability.” She thought that, she later told me, but she didn’t say it just then.
Instead, Mrs. Tada said, she decided to “take the high road” and empathize with her husband’s feelings: “I told him, ‘If I were you, I would feel exactly the same way. I see how hard it is, I don’t fault you or blame you, I understand you, and I’m going to help you through it,’” she recalled.
That attitude shift made all the difference: “Showing him that I understood and that I wasn’t going to retaliate was a big turning point in our marriage,” Mrs. Tada said. “That’s the kind of thing that draws us closer. When you have those moments, they’re really epiphany moments [that] revolutionizes your degree of intimacy.”
Mr. Tada quickly saw his need to set priorities in the relationship. He said the couple “looked to Jesus as being the focal point in our marriage” and would “pray together every night. We would use prayer to allay a way of arguing.”
He added, “Reading the Bible together was huge.” Such readings, he said, “sustained us during those tired middle years.”
More recent elements of the story have included Mrs. Tada’s 2010 bout with breast cancer and other ailments. Her most recent positron emission tomography scan showed “all is clear,” she said, “so that’s very, very good news.”
The battle certainly caught Mr. Tada’s attention, he said, and he “realized there were many more things that were important on this side of eternity that we hadn’t explored. It caused us to fall in love all over again.”
Today, the couple rejoice in pursuing a joint ministry for their “senior years,” with a concentration on making the church aware of the needs of disabled people and their families.