Identity in Illness

Nine years ago I retired from a career in teaching that I loved. Somehow I’d always pictured myself dying with a piece of chalk still in my hand. The Student Council at AACS gave me the boy and girl statue students to learn in my garden and remind me of the identity I’d wanted since the age of four: teacher.

I transitioned to counseling and directing women’s ministries at our home church — a part-time job supposedly requiring 20 hours per week — or perhaps a few more hours! I did continue to teach high school homeschoolers and  a counseling course at Washington Bible College.

I loved teaching, and the Lord gave me wonderful opportunities to spend 32 years doing what I felt created to do. Like Eric Liddell, who felt God’s pleasure when he ran, I experienced that when I taught.

The illness that changed my direction actually attacked back in 1950 when I, along with thousands of children and adults in the US, contracted polio. As a four-year-old, I spent six months away from my parents, living at Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York for a month and then recovering for another five months at the Helen Hayes Rehab Hospital in Haverstraw, New York.

By God’s grace and contrary to what my parents were initially told, I walked out of the hospital in January, 1951, without the aid of braces or crutches.

For the next 30 years I exercised, swam, limped some, but managed marriage, teaching high school, and chasing two active sons. But somewhere around my 35th birthday, I noticed increasing difficulty climbing stairs. I lived a fast-paced life, but found myself tiring more easily and taking a longer time to recover after physical activity. Still, all my therapists offered the mantra, “Use it or lose it.” So I pressed on. My identity remained bound to my faith and family.

But even before back surgery in 1994 and again in 2007, I had the diagnosis of post polio syndrome. It turns out a better life motto for polio patients would have been “Conserve to preserve.”

Thanks to my husband’s foresight and God’s timing in many things, we could take early retirement in 2008, and move to a mountain cabin out near Deep Creek Lake. We arrived here in time for the winter of 2009, which included 260 inches of snow! We met new people in our small neighborhood and joined a delightful church in Oakland.

On July 16, 2007, my identity enlarged to include the role of Grandma to Austyn Grace Wolfe. Such a joyous identity! But distance separated us by a 10+ hour’s drive to Georgia. I discovered that the distance factor meant an unsteadiness in my new identity. I had a title with little tangible evidence of the new role.

What had God said about my identity in Him? “But now, this is what the LORD says—  he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’” Isaiah 43:1

I find myself returning to passages that anchor my identity in Jesus alone. As days can stretch out before me and find me stretched out in bed, I need the bedrock surety of God’s Word.

Illness drives me into myself. Feeling lousy can make me far too self-absorbed. However, turning off the body is not always possible. So I return to hope as given in Scripture.

“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”                     2 Corinthians 1:21-22

So what identity is emerging in me? For one thing, I yearn for an identity as a woman of prayer. Hard, concentrated work, but praying comes with the bonus of drawing near to God. And He, not I, is the faithful one, granting me a deepening identity as His daughter.

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