Eight years ago, a terrifying incident changed everything for our family. Our almost 11-year-old son, Luke, had a massive grand mal seizure and we discovered that he had epilepsy. And a very unusual type of epilepsy: medication could control his bodily seizures but not the intense, abnormal electrical activity in his brain.
Over the next few years, Jeff and I watched, our hearts breaking, as our son struggled with a brain that was betraying him and medications that drastically slowed his processing speed. He went from being a straight-A student with dreams of becoming a Mechanical Engineer, to having to learn to read again. He worked with Jeff for hours every night to understand homework that his classmates knocked out in thirty minutes. He went from being lighthearted and silly and having lots of friends, to being unable to follow a group conversation. He began to shut down. It was safer to be silent and look socially awkward than to open his mouth and prove he couldn’t keep up. His friends in middle school were kind, but few knew how to handle such a situation. Within a year, he was failing his tests and eating lunch alone.
He rarely complained. But it hurt. There were moments when the dam broke. When he felt stupid and hopeless.
I want to tell you what happened next. Not just because it is a powerful story, but because I’m guessing many of you can relate to the pain of carrying a burden you would never wish to bear. Whether that burden is carried by you, your child, or a close friend or loved one, I want to encourage you that God can use those circumstances in ways you could never imagine.
In Luke’s case, a key turning point came when we saw the movie, Cinderella Man, about a real-life Depression-era champion boxer. James J. Braddock was weak with his left hand but powerful with his right—until he fractured it and could no longer fight. Could no longer work and feed his family. He felt stupid and hopeless. He hid the injury and got work as a manual laborer. Each day he would grit his teeth and do all the work left-handed. Then months later he was offered a token fight with the current title holder. To everyone’s shock, Braddock easily won. All those excruciating months of hard work, compensating for his disability, had made his “weaker” left hand very strong—and made him into a champion.
Jeff told Luke, “Buddy, that is like what you are going through. These hard, hard things are strengthening you in ways you can’t imagine right now. You are having to face things that most people will never face. You are holding up under a burden that would crumble most kids. But you know what? Other kids have their own burdens, that you will never have to face. Everyone has something. But that is what God uses to build our character. This . . . this is building your left hand.”
Luke caught a vision. A vision that is important for anyone in a time of trial: How a hard situation that we would never choose can produce endurance, and character, and ultimately a hope that we would never trade.
So Luke began going to therapy daily to learn how to re-learn everything and develop strategies for the way his brain worked now. He rejected the neurologists’ caution that he might need to leave mainstream school and go to a special high school for kids with major disabilities. He applied to a Christian high school with a special studies program—and when he was rejected (“his disability is too acute”), he promised he would work hard and repeat eighth grade if they would give him a chance. They took that chance.
He spent a second year in eighth grade, applying all the strategies he had learned—and then when it came time for Freshman registration, he said “I want to sign up for Honors classes.” Then, later, “I want to try AP classes.” He knew it would mean triple the time on homework as his peers, but he said “I want to be a Mechanical Engineer. If I am going to get into a top engineering program, this is what I have to do.”
It was definitely hard. It meant very little time for school activities or a job—school was his job, year-round (including every summer). But he persevered.
He also began opening up to his school peers—willing to risk rejection in order to try to be part of group conversation. It was still hard, and he still couldn’t always follow everything that was said—but some kind students saw the heart underneath the effort and included him anyway. He had groups of friends again.
As the years rolled by and college drew closer, there were both victories and setbacks. He received wonderful encouragement from his school and earned almost straight A’s—including in the STEM subjects that were key to being accepted into a good Mechanical Engineering program. Yet despite the highest grades, and six tries at the ACT, his processing speed was always too slow to earn a score high enough to qualify for Georgia’s full-tuition Zell Miller Scholarship. He was downcast for a while . . . but if there is one thing that he has seen, over and over, it is that God is with him in the battle. He knows God will provide.
Whatever your burden is, I pray that you will see those same truths. And that you see not just the challenges, but some amazing milestones you can celebrate.
For me, today . . . I am not even sure if “celebration” is the right word. For I stare at this picture of my son with tears streaming down my face. A young man who had once wondered if he would ever be able to read again, who on Saturday walked across a stage to receive his high school diploma with a host of honors. And who will soon start courses at a respected Mechanical Engineering program.
I am so proud of you, my son. And so grateful to the One who has held you up and built your character through it all. Your dad and sister and I love you so much. And we are in awe of the person you have become. Not just a hard worker, but kind. Not just persevering to do the things you can but trusting God to do what only He can. You have earned those tassels and medals. Not just for all your hard work, but for not losing hope while you did it. You have strengthened your left hand.