Deciding to Marry a Quadriplegic: Couple Tells Love Story

Disability, depression, cancer challenged, strengthened a 31-year marriage.

May 29, 2013, 5:10 PM

May 30, 2013— -- Ken Tada married Joni Eareckson in 1982 for better, for worse and for all the things that were uniquely her -- including the fact that she was a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.

The couple from Agoura Hill, Calif., now married 31 years, laughs that he had to change her leg bag on their first date at the movies, emptying the urine outside behind a tree.

"What goes in has to come out," said Ken Tada, 66 and a retired high school history teacher. "This part of the date had not been covered."

"People wondered: Here is an able bodied man and disabled woman. What is the attraction, why did they fall in love?" he said. "Those who know her know she has a beautiful heart and is beautiful on the outside. I fell in love with her."

Joni Eareckson Tada, now 63, was a successful disability rights activist, a painter and author of several books. She has been paralyzed since she was 17 and has no movement from her shoulders down, including the use of her hands.

"I was nervous when I met him," she said. "I had lived enough years as a single girl. I was traveling a great deal and enjoyed my freedom. No one had ever asked me out on a date."

Today, the couple chronicles their marital journey, including her battle with breast cancer and his with depression, in a memoir, "Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story."

Only the details of her disability are unique to the Tadas. Theirs is a universal story about the power of faith and communication to strengthen any marriage.

The couple met at a local church during a "boring" sermon. As he tells it, she was sitting behind him, "praying through the back of my head."

"Through a series of coincidences, we kept running into each other and it sparked interesting conversations," he said. "I asked her out for a date."

At the time, he was working as a teacher and coach at a technical school.

"The kids couldn't figure out why I was working out so hard," he said. "But if I took her out, I had to do it myself, lift her in and out of the chair -- like curling 180 pounds." [Though, she hardly weighs that much, he added.]

She had been in a wheelchair since she broke her neck in a diving accident in Maryland when she was 17.

"I hit the bottom and crushed my spinal column," she said. "Years ago, rehab was not as refined as it is now. There was a lot of trial and error, but I am grateful I survived."

During rehabilitation, she learned to type and paint with a brush between her teeth.

"I am amazed what she can do," said her husband. "I thought talent came in the hands."

She began entering her art in local festivals and was interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1974. A publisher who saw her on the "Today Show" asked if she would write a book.

"I said, 'You bet,' and my writing burgeoned from there," she said.

That first book, "Joni," sold more than 4 million copies and was translated into 50 languages. That spawned her evangelical ministry to help others, Joni and Friends.

"I have been blessed with so much good health and a remarkable husband and opportunity to travel, that I want to pass the blessings on to the many millions of people with disabilities -- more than 1 billion in the world.," she said.

The couple dated for less than year before getting engaged.

"I was blown away with this good-looking guy who was strong and handsome and shared the same values and convictions as I," she said. "I readily said yes."

Friends had warned Ken Tada to try going away with her on a weekend first to see if it would work out. But he refused.

"Both of us believed that would not be honoring God," he said.

"There were a lot of unanswered questions on how this would work," she said. "We wanted to rely on God and our mutual core values to see us through the tough times."

After the first few years, the day-to-day caring was difficult for Ken Tada. He had to take off her make-up, and help with routine toileting and turning her in the bed at night because she couldn't do it for herself.

He taught during the day and did all the shopping after work.

"It was a 24/7 routine and we hadn't anticipated it would be so wearing," he said. "It was physically exhausting and mentally challenging."

At one point, he told his wife he "felt trapped" -- and then guilty for those feelings.

Communicating was a "freeing experience," according to the couple, and has continued to be a linchpin throughout their long marriage.

"My response was, 'If I were you, I'd feel exactly same way,'" she said. "'It's not your fault. ... I will be your support and stand with you to get through this.'"

"He was not the enemy, the wheelchair was not the enemy," she said. "The enemy was bigger than that and we were not going to start consuming each other with anger."

They agreed to get additional help.

Sometime in midlife, he was faced with depression.

"At some of the darkest times, if it wasn't for the fact that I believed in God, I wasn't sure I was going to make it," he said.

For the last three years, Joni Tada has been fighting stage 3 breast cancer and her husband has discovered new side of her:

"She is a real warrior and a fighter," he said.

As a result, the couple has grown closer. The couple credits the practice of "affirming one another."

"We strive to be open and honest with each other and solve problems by discussing them, rather than hiding and burying them," she said. "We pray and read the Bible together and I let my husband keep his dreams."

One of those dreams is fly-fishing, and she said she does all she can to encourage it.

"I am his cheerleader," she said.

As for him, "Joni is my biggest supporter," he said. "She is in my corner and my best friend. Not just fly fishing, but she always looks out for my interests and makes me love her that much more."

"I think I have the advantage," he said. "I married my best friend."

Disability has not stood in the way of their physical intimacy, she said -- "but we understand that there is more to romance than what happens below the waist."

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