Nora Palmer Fox
Nora Palmer Fox was born, raised and attended nursing school in Washington, D.C. Her playground haunts were the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument, Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. She is grateful to have known D.C. “in the good old days.”
In 1960, Nora ventured west to Denver, Colorado where, in a singles’ church group, she met her husband, Denver C. Fox. Nora had never been any further west and Denver had never been any further east.
They became the proud parents of Timothy and Andrew and have been blessed with a remarkable daughter-in-law, Amy Robertson.
Nora loves being around positive people and she enjoys singing and productive work. Her life’s journey has been defined and enlightened by her family. Nora states that she struggles to find hope, retain optimism, overcome fear and come to terms with life’s tragedies, striving to live each moment triumphantly. It is her hope that her experiences will somehow have a meaningful effect on others.
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them and my soul is downcast within me. Lamentations 3:19-20
It was the 1950’s and I was a nursing student and a Christian in search of a mission. Oh, surely God was calling me to minister to hoards of suffering humanity! I imagined myself as Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” beautifully touching, bandaging and wiping the brows of natives in far away countries. Yes, just like Audrey, I would be ever so exhausted, but onward I would trod and maybe even a handsome young doctor would appear next to me (and at that point, I would rid myself of the nun’s garb).
Then it happened. Many young nursing students and I were invited to attend a mission night to hear about the travails of starving and dying folks who badly needed food, shelter and clothing and to hear “the Word.” Nurses were desperately needed. The talk was reinforced by images flashed on a giant screen and I knew — I mean I really, really knew — I was being called to serve. Tears poured forth as I listened to the young preacher explaining the need for us to come forward and devote our life, our Christianity and our nursing skills to folks far across the seas. He warned us that our lives would be fraught with danger and some of us would face torture and death. Even so, without hesitation I went forward, knelt at the rail and promised my life and any gifts I might possess to our Lord, serving Him and doing His will in a far away land.
Time passed. I graduated. The promise faded into a dim, almost imperceptible memory. Looking back, I do believe the experience was a major turning point in my life; I realized our Lord was calling me to serve Him, without hesitation, by walking into unknown fires. It just was not the fire I imagined when I was Audrey Hepburn.
Because of the challenges brought about by the birth and life journey of our children, I often reflect on that mission night. Tim, our firstborn, arrived in 1965, followed by our second son, Andy, in 1967. Andy sustained a brain injury at birth and the years that followed were full of loneliness, exhaustion, illnesses, visits to clinics and “professionals” and a ton of hopelessness.
Often, while sitting in a rocking chair with Andy tightly encased in a blanket, or trying to help him breathe, sleep or recover from the most recent rush to the hospital and dreading the next hapless clinic appointment, I contemplated my “calling.” Did our Lord actually give me two choices and by rejecting the mission field, did I now face this one: an extremely sick child, endless hospitalizations, labels that documented him and our family as hopeless and unrealistic, financial challenges beyond belief, little or no help and certainly almost no affirmation that Andy’s life or our life had meaning? And to top it all off, we were criticized for putting our older son through an “abnormal” life when we should certainly know that we could place Andy in an institution like good parents did.
I knew at those moments, if God had shown me the choices, without hesitation I would gladly jump on a freighter and head toward the far off jungles. I could face the horrors of martyrdom but I could not bear being one of the very few people who saw any worth in Andy or the four of us as a real family. What I did not know during those despairing times was that my reflections would eventually lead me to a crisis of faith: perhaps there was not really a living, loving God — a God I thought I had known since I was a babe.
Anyone growing up with my mother as a role model would find it difficult not to believe in a Lord in whom we could trust. Memories abound of visits to her Kentucky home, sitting on the whitewashed big porches, rocking and singing in the hot humid air. Cardboard fans were passed around as each of us tried to whip away the heat and mosquitoes.
But, oh, such stories and glorious singing! My relatives recalled each family member’s name, either living or long past. Kinfolk became real to my young heart. Most amazing were the recollections of courage and unwavering faith in face of maladies, war and numerous epidemics notorious for wiping out most of the homesteads. I accepted all as fact, never understanding that they, too, had to face the same despair and searching I would face as a young mom.
By the time Andy was born, the kinfolk memories were fading and I was beginning my own personal journey in my own rocking chair with my sick little baby. I had questions, but very few answers.
Is the Church Really a Mirror of Jesus?
My first temptation to chuck my faith in Jesus came only five months after Andy’s birth. We returned to our church and placed Andy in what we thought would be the loving and knowledgeable arms of the hired R.N at church. When we returned, holding Tim’s hand, she thrust Andy at me saying accusingly, “Don’t you know there’s something wrong with this baby? Don’t ever bring him back here again!” As long as I live, I will never forget her words or her angry face. Still to follow were other callous and insensitive statements: “If you had more faith, your son would be healed,” and “You must have sinned to have your son so handicapped.” And so began the hapless process of finding a church willing to accept all four of us as a family and that would even encourage our strengths.
Despair mounted as churches rejected us even when we volunteered to start a Sunday school for Andy. Picture, if you will, someone reaching up to a familiar, warm light. Suddenly, footing begins to give way and body begins to slip into an abyss. The gap grows larger until only clenched fingers remain clinging to any solid ground, the light disappearing rapidly. This frightening, lonely hopelessness was swallowing our spirits.
Time and again I grabbed my Bible to see what we were doing wrong. With very little searching, I found that “church” does not necessarily mean “Christ.” To always judge what Christ would do based on his followers was a fallacy I quickly recognized. My new motto could have been, “The church is not Christ and Christ is not the church.” This revelation only helped me to understand the faults of the church; it did little to lift my spirits or confirm my faith. I just could not climb out of the abyss to the sun.
If we could not be a part of a church family then, I reckoned, our family could be a church. We had our own Sunday devotions and sometimes listened to tapes of a favorite preacher. We made ourselves read scripture and even gave ourselves communion. We continued to lack the fellowship of others but I think, more importantly, the church missed the opportunity of watching God’s plan unfold in our lives which would only have increased the faith of the parishioners.
In the midst of our search for Christian fellowship, we began to use volunteers to help with Andy’s intensive home program. For six years, 70 volunteers a week came into our home to help with Andy’s intensive therapy program, and they brought far more than a willingness to help Andy climb his developmental ladder. They seemed to pour out of neighborhood churches and flood our home with laughter, love, singing and total acceptance. They loved us, and in doing so, they brought “church” to us, in our home. And by knowing us, many began to force their churches to admit the overwhelming evidence that by accepting people and families with disabilities, the church and the faith would grow. In both Colorado and Illinois, volunteers found a place for us in their home church. We felt almost “normal” and secure that both our sons were encouraged to be part and parcel of the church community.
It is a sad truth that the church is not always a mirror of Christ. On earth, we never give up the search for that unique combination of faith, fellowship and acceptance. I now believe we were destined to never stop searching, for by searching we change attitudes — even our own. My husband, Denver, and I currently have a church home. There are some signs of change: here I see a worshiper in a wheelchair, there an altar girl who has Down syndrome and even once in awhile I see a church “marketing” to families and individuals with disabilities. Could it be they are now beginning to realize that they are not just ministering to us but that our lives are extraordinary examples of the living Christ? It seems to me that history proves that the church is not always a mirror of Christ. We — the tired, worn down, tenacious believers — strive onward, pushing the church ever closer to its mission of following Christ. The gap begins to close, we regain our footing, the abyss is beginning to disappear and once again, the light warms us.
Is There A God?
I believe that if the church had immediately and fully accepted us, the question of God’s existence would not have been so paramount in my mind. Very quickly I learned that faith was, and always would be, an integral part of my life. To give up faith and my belief in Christ as my Savior would be like giving up breathing. But reconciling Andy’s and others’ suffering with a loving, personal God, proved to me a mammoth task. I had no plan of action formulated in precise steps to find answers. Perhaps it was memories of those Kentucky kinfolk that forced a fire in me to learn what they seemed to know as truth.
I tried praying – even on my knees. At those rare times when Andy was actually sleeping, my prayer vigil turned into a sound sleep with my head flopped on the sofa and the remainder of my body flailing in every direction. I would be awakened by Andy’s scream or by Tim’s, “Are you okay, mommy?” My, what memories Tim must have of his toddler years.
Out of desperation, I began reading. If a book had no meaning to me, I just put it aside. Catherine Marshall was a favorite author. I underlined her books and read each many times. Over and over I attempted to follow C.S. Lewis’ narratives but his sentences, written like paragraphs, just left me befuddled; but I kept trying. Voila! One day C.S. jumped out at me, spoke to me through his books and I immediately loved him and his insights. Recently, I’ve rediscovered Oswald Chambers and I often use his writings in my devotions.
Reading my Bible proved to be difficult. My emotions ran the gamut of feeling nothing to feeling everything with a horrible passion. Exhaustion, I believe, makes every feeling more intense. At any rate, I began again with new eyes, reading what I thought I knew from years of youthful church attendance. While some passages seemed to have no meaning to me, others seemed to be speaking just to me, as if the writer knew who I was. I red-marked the margins with dates and with my comments and questions. Never in my life have I spent so much time in the Old Testament.
Now I saw how the Jews suffered terribly for their undying faith. I read David’s psalms and he often seemed to be crying out to the Lord in anguish. I was not the first one! When I came to the New Testament, I found I never really knew Christ and I began to fall in love with him. I loved his willingness to be among people, to touch, to heal, to teach. I gained strength from his anger and despair at the cross. Even he had felt forsaken.
At the worst times of spiritual void, I continued to cling to what was my faith’s very essence — a living, loving God. I accepted that I would never have answers to the “why’s” of suffering. But I knew beyond a doubt that God is a personal Lord who knows us each by name.
Eventually, I ran across and devoured Victor Frankel’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” His search for meaning occurred while in a Nazi concentration camp, knowing his wife had been exterminated. He poignantly reaches his conclusion: a resounding “yes” to God.
And then, Tim, our oldest son, suffered a severe spinal cord injury on his twenty-first birthday. Our family faced all the despair, loneliness, fatigue and spiritual void we had experienced years before. It seems the search never ends.
In view of all of this, can we say, “There is a God”? Victor Frankel’s resounding “Yes!” pretty much replicates my own conclusion. Without a doubt, I believe there is a loving God who calls each star by name even as He calls each of us by name. Suffering has been and will continue to reside with us while we are in this human body. I no longer try to understand it or explain it. In the depths of despair and sorrow, I have yet to have any epiphanies or lightning bolts but I have felt the presence of the Almighty and that Presence is more powerful than anything we endure now. Yes, yes, yes!
What Have I learned?
It’s okay if you fall asleep while praying. God is giving you a gift.
It’s okay if you get angry with God. He knows what you are feeling and loves you anyway.
It’s okay if you have not yet had that “resounding yes” in your search as long as you keep searching.
It’s okay to change beliefs as your journey with God matures.
It’s okay to express righteous indignation, especially when it concerns the future of your child. God is giving you the strength and the words and He is helping you make the world the way He planned.
It’s okay if you feel discouraged more than you feel “spiritual.” You are human.
It’s okay to believe in hope and to resist phrases like “false hope.”
It’s okay to love your child and family with all your heart, soul, mind and strength even when you know the life span may be brief. You have been given a gift to cherish.
If Given the Choice, Which Mission Would I Choose?
Nora: “So Lord, you say it’s my choice. I am 17 years old and I can choose to face the horrors of the jungles while spreading your word. Doesn’t sound too bad. I can come home on furlough and speak to churches about my adventures. You know how I love to be in front of a group holding a microphone.”
God: “Well Nora, you are forgetting the other choice. You know, the one where you get married to a poor teacher. There’s not much money. You have two sons and one of them is severely brain-injured. The other one has a spinal cord injury on his twenty-first birthday. Would you rather have that and not go to the jungle?”
Nora: “You’ve got to be kidding. I’ll take the first one. Show me where the boat is and I’ll hop aboard with my nursing gear and my Bible. I’m on my way.”
God: “Hold on just a minute, young lady. I didn’t tell you enough about that second choice. The teacher guy may be poor but he can stretch a dollar further than anyone I’ve ever created. And he’s pretty cute, to boot. He loves home and family and he loves me; and he really loves you. Oh, and let me tell you about Tim. He is a blonde, blue-eyed kid who loves friends. He has hundreds of thousands of questions and twice as many ideas. Yes, and then there’s Andy. He has dark hair and brown eyes and he never stops trying. He is kind but he can put up a fight. Let me tell you — when someone wants him to just sit in a chair all day, he just gets up and makes those lazy bums find something worthwhile for him. Did I tell you that Tim and Andy adore each other? Oh, my goodness, time flies and here comes Amy. She’s the young woman Tim meets. She is a knock out in looks; but what I, your God, love about her is that she will not give up on good causes — she is so close to my heart. Oh, she adores Tim and Tim can’t imagine life without her. Well, I guess I should also tell you that even though you get very tired, your family and others like you are responsible for some pretty big changes in the world. You know what I mean? By simply helping each other, you end up helping a bunch of others. Well, anyway, it’s your choice. Are you ready to get on the freighter, my child?”
Nora: “Hold everything! I beg you on bended knee, dear God. Please, please give me that wonderful family and promise you will never ever leave me.”
God: “I promise. Now run along and run your race.”
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion therefore I will wait for him.’” Lamentations 3:21-24 (NIV)