As a little girl, I was captivated by colors. I loved to get the biggest box possible and read all the titles of each crayon—I would study the differences between garnet, scarlet, maroon and burgundy. My dream was to be a commercial artist. I remember taking a crisp white paper from my dad’s office, and with a black felt-tip pen, learning to draw caricatures.
When I was about 12, I began to have some difficulties with my sight, but they were subtle and I didn’t immediately associate the struggles with vision problems. As my junior high years unfolded, things that most students in my grade could do so easily–like opening the combination locks on their lockers, reading from the chalkboard or catching a ball on the softball field–were becoming really hard for me.
I remember sitting in class and feeling a wave of anxiety when the final bell rang because I had to navigate the crowded hallways. I would constantly run into students, and that was so embarrassing. I couldn’t understand what was happening; no one else seemed so clumsy! It took me forever to realize it was because I couldn’t see the students, and my classmates could see much better than I.
During that confusing time, I was chosen to design and draw the banner that would represent our class on field day, and so I chose to draw a lion. I asked a friend to help, and then I bought a brand new white bedsheet. We spread it out on the gym floor. As I began to sketch, I noticed little black dots all over the sheet, which I assumed were dust particles. I tried to wipe them away but had no success. Then I noticed even darker dots, which I assumed were gnats. I tried to swipe them away but couldn’t. Finally, I told my friend that I thought the sheet would be clean since it was brand new. She said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jennifer. The sheet is clean.” I was confused that I was seeing something on that sheet that she wasn’t.
I’ll never forget the night my mom and I were visiting a friend who lived in an upstairs apartment. I was probably 13 or 14, and as we were walking up in the dark, I was stumbling. My mom asked, “Jennifer, can’t you see the stairs?” I asked her with just as much curiosity, “What do you mean? Can you see the stairs?”
By ninth grade, my eyesight had worsened. The glasses I wore since I was a little girl were no longer compensating for my sight loss. After several visits to the eye doctor, he told my parents and me that there was something wrong and recommended we go to an eye hospital. I had no idea what I was about to discover.
At the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, the doctors told us that I had retinitis pigmentosa, which essentially meant my retinas were deteriorating. The prognosis was total blindness. I don’t remember the exact words that were used that day, but I do remember the word blindness because that’s not a word I expected to hear. My parents and I had the same response: silence. We knew something was wrong with my eyes, but even so, we were shocked.
In the silence of that difficult ride home from the hospital, my mind was racing. I thought, “I’m not going to be able to drive a car. I’m not going to be able to be an artist.” I remember the disappointment of that. And I questioned, “Are boys going to want to date me? How am I going to finish high school? Will I be able to go off to college?” Sitting in the back seat of our family car, I felt my fingertips and wondered if I would have to read Braille someday.
Finally, we arrived home. I went straight to my old upright piano in the living room, and the silence of the hospital and the ride home was broken as I began to play. I had taken a few years of piano lessons and could sight read in simple keys. But on this day I could no longer see the sheet music. Instead, I played by ear for the very first time. The song that filled my living room that day–the song that still fills my heart to this day–is that beloved hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.”
It was a miracle that on that very dark day, God gave me hope and light through the gift of playing by ear. But, the greatest miracle wasn’t that I played “It Is Well With My Soul”; the greatest miracle was that because I was a Christian it really was well with my soul. With such a concise statement God gave new color to my life. Blindness has remained with me; it’s still not well with my circumstance, but God has made it well with my soul.
Learning to live with blindness was difficult, though, because it stripped away my sense of autonomy. I was frustrated by having to be dependent on someone else, so I decided that going off to college after high school would be a radically independent thing to do–until the mid-August day before I was to leave for Palm Beach Atlantic University. Suddenly this notion of independence was terrifying. I called my mom out to the front yard and begged, “Mom, please don’t make me go to college. I don’t know what I was thinking. Who’s going to check my clothes to make sure they match and that they’re pressed? Who’s going to tell me what food is on my plate? How am I going to know there are no cars when I go to cross the busy street in the middle of the campus?”
My mother made me face my fears and keep my commitment to go to college. Later, I realized what a great gift that was because it taught me a lot about faith. I learned that fear is a feeling and faith is a choice. Thankfully, choices can inevitably change feelings.
Within the first two weeks of school, I met Philip Rothschild and I was smitten. His voice smiled and he had broad shoulders! After four years of studying and dating, I graduated from college with a psychology degree and a handsome husband. We’ve been married 20 years and have the same kinds of conflicts, stresses and joys that other couples have, plus we get our own special set. Phil has to drive our two boys to school and ball practices. He has to step in to many areas where moms typically are in charge, such as room inspection and hygiene patrol. And when it comes to communication in our marriage, the nonverbal form isn’t an option. What we say, when we say it and how we say it is crucial. It’s been a real challenge for Phil and me to learn how to be conscientious and concise in our communication in a way that works for both of us.
Being a mom has taught me a depth of love that I didn’t know existed. I pray our boys have seen through my struggle that there is never an excuse for quitting and that nothing happens in our lives that justifies us not being loyally in love with God. I hope they can see that God redeems everything. Not only does He redeem heartache and replace it with something beautiful, but He can take what could have been a source of sorrow and make it a gateway for other people to be encouraged and blessed.
One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that God uses painful circumstances in our lives for good. My hero, Joni Eareckson Tada, who has been in a wheelchair since she was a teenager, makes this point well when she says that God allows what He hates in order to accomplish what He loves. I know that God’s heart is broken when He sees our hearts break. I believe that just as Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus weeps when He sees us cry tears of loss. I’m convinced that God is well acquainted with the sorrow and struggles that I experience. Yet, at the same time, He loves me enough–and this is why I’m so loyal to Him–to let me encounter sorrow, taste bitter emotions, feel loss; and He trusts me to be a good steward of that sorrow. He loves me enough to let me experience that pain so that He can accomplish something He loves–which for me has been a deeper character and a more eternal perspective.
I am convinced that God’s grace has sustained me. If healing were sufficient, God would have provided it. If deliverance were sufficient, God would have delivered me. But He’s allowed me to live with blindness yet live equally with the sufficiency of His grace, and that grace shows up in different ways on different days. But in whatever way it shows up, it has always been truly sufficient. It may never be well with our circumstances, but through God’s grace, it can always be well with our souls.