The Word Among Us

Jan/Feb 2015 Issue

Stumbling toward Heaven

My daughter taught me how to love.

By: Hazel Roeder

Stumbling toward Heaven: My daughter taught me how to love. by Hazel Roeder

Her name is Gabrielle, but everybody calls her Gabby. She is fifty years old, and her favorite things are The Muppet Show, nursery rhymes, infant musical toys, and playing patty-cake.

She’s legally blind, uses a wheelchair, is unable to speak, and has severe mental handicaps. She is also my daughter, the third of six children, a pure and gentle soul who brings joy to everyone who meets her.

I have to admit that joy was not always my response to Gabby during her thirty-two years at home with us. There were times when I felt very frustrated at her complete dependence on me. I had to do everything for her: dress her, feed her, brush her teeth, and clean up the endless messes she made—always at inconvenient moments, when I was trying to cook dinner, run errands, or care for the rest of the family. Even though I knew that Gabby was not to blame, there were times when my impatience would lead me to angry outbursts.

But God has such a wonderful way of working out his plan for good! During those challenging years, I was also coming to Jesus in a deeper way, asking him to be the Lord of my life and to renew me in the Holy Spirit. I went to prayer meetings, where I learned to praise God, and to Bible studies, where I fell in love with God’s word. Through all this, I became aware that I needed a change of heart.

Jesus in Disguise. I went to Confession often, and I know God heard my cries for help, but it took quite a long time before I saw a significant breakthrough. The change began when my confessor told me to read the story of Saul’s conversion for my penance. I spent months studying and praying with this passage, thinking about how God’s grace changed Saul from a vicious persecutor to a dedicated apostle.

Saul had watched approvingly as Stephen was stoned to death for bearing witness to Christ (Acts 7:58). Then he set out to capture and imprison as many of Jesus’ disciples as he could find. I wondered what had gone through his mind on the road to Damascus, when he heard Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (9:4)? But then I realized that Jesus was speaking those words to me. I also recalled that Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). It hit me that it wasn’t just Gabby I was taking care of; it was Jesus!

I began trying to treat Gabby the way I hoped I would treat Jesus—with patience, kindness, and compassion. I came to see her not as a burden but as God’s gracious gift to me. But it was a slow journey, with many opportunities to repent and grow along the way.

Stairway to Heaven. One day I was hurrying to get Gabby through her morning routine so that I could be on time for my weekly Bible study. I had bathed and dressed her and needed to get her downstairs for breakfast. Though Gabby’s feet are malformed, she can walk a bit, so this wasn’t usually too difficult. Wearing her heavy leg braces, she’d cling to the stair rail with one arm and to me with the other, and we’d go down step-by-step. But that morning, probably because she sensed my anxiety and haste, Gabby balked.

I started tugging her, but she became frightened and refused to budge. First, I cried. Then I changed my tone and softly reassured her that I would help her. Nothing worked. As the minutes ticked away, I became so agitated that I found myself wanting to slap Gabby or push her down the stairs. The irony of it finally hit me: this Bible-toting mother was angry enough to hurt her innocent daughter in order to get to a Bible study!

Horrified by this realization, I sat Gabby down in a safe place, grabbed a crucifix, and fell on my knees crying. I was so humbled by what the Holy Spirit had shown me about myself. I wasn’t the good person—so much better than others—that I had always considered myself to be. I was a sinner who desperately needed God’s grace.

At the same time, I saw that God’s love is stronger than my sin. I poured out my heart to Jesus, thanking him for taking my sins to the cross so that I could live a life flowing from his resurrection. God comforted me with his presence, and after that day, I found I had a new attitude. Whatever Gabby needed became my number one priority. I was able to give up my agenda and give each day to the Lord, trusting that he would provide.

Stumbling and Trusting. But as we all know, learning to trust the Lord doesn’t happen overnight. Beginning when she was about twenty-nine, Gabby began to have a harder time walking. She would lose her balance and fall, sometimes pulling me down with her. Afraid that one or both of us was going to get hurt, I found myself responding angrily whenever she even stumbled.

I asked the Lord for help with this new challenge, and he showed me something that I had not yet seen: I was angry at him! I was afraid that Gabby would become housebound and that I would be tied down forever. Once again I was drawing the line, saying, “I’ll go only this far and no more.” Once again, I prayed that the Lord would change my heart.

Again, God was faithful. When I brought him my anger, he gave me understanding and deepened my love for Gabby. When the doctor told us that nothing could be done to improve her condition, I was able to accept Gabby as she was and to trust that God would provide every grace and blessing we would ever need. Amazingly, she eventually stopped falling!

So Needy, So Loved. Just as he promised, God has taken good care of Gabby over the years. Today she lives in a home with two other women with handicaps; she enjoys her life, thanks to a wonderful senior day program that organizes many outings and activities. When I visit Gabby and when she joins us for family events, I can see that she is still the same pure and gentle spirit and that she is greatly loved.

God is taking good care of me too. I still read the Bible every morning and know that I will never stop learning and growing! But I will always be especially grateful for the gift of Gabby and for the change of heart God worked in me through her.

Through Gabby, I discovered the joy of serving. I discovered that we are all the same when we stand before God, utterly needy and boundlessly loved. And whenever we turn to him in our distress—empty and needy—Jesus is there. We are so blessed, so undeservedly blessed!

Hazel Roeder lives in Virginia.