God Please, Not My Son
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Joe and Cindi FerriniDr. Joe Ferrini practiced dentistry for 41 years and has recently retired. He and Cindi are on self -supporting staff with Cru. Cindi is a speaker and author (Balancing the Active Life, Get it Together, No Regrets, Pause for Prayer). Together they authored Unexpected Journey-When Special Needs Change Our Course. Their new book (12/19/2019) is Love All-Ways: Embracing Marriage Together on the Special Needs Journey. They have been guests on such radio broadcasts as Focus...more
Joe and Cindi Ferrini recall the birth of their son, Joey. First diagnosed with cerebral palsy, they were later devastated to learn Joey was also mentally impaired. The Ferrinis share how they emotionally processed Joey’s disabilities.
God Please, Not My Son
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, June 17th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Having a special needs child can be challenging for any couple/for a family. It can also be challenging for your marriage relationship, as Joe and Cindi Ferrini have learned. We’ll hear more from them about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. It’s always nice to have friends joining us in the studio; isn’t it?
Dave: it is.
Ann: It’s so fun!
Bob: We’ve got some friends/some colleagues, who are joining us today—Joe and Cindi Ferrini. Good to have you guys here.
Cindi: Thank you so much.
Joe: It’s great to be with you. Thank you.
Bob: Joe and Cindi we’ve known for more than a decade. How long have you spoken at Weekend to Remember® getaways?
Joe: Twenty years now.
Bob: You have just completed your final Weekend to Remember; it was number 100?
Joe: Something like that. Yes, that’s close.
Bob: Thanks for your years of service. Listeners need to know—it’s a privilege to get to do what we get to do and speak to—now, it’s been tens of thousands of people you’ve spoken to over the years.
Cindi: Yes, yes.
Bob: We see people come to faith every weekend. It’s a great environment for that.
Ann: It’s exciting to hear that God has a lot more for you to do.
Ann: He’s given you a real vision for things to do in the future.
Ann: We’re going to talk about some of that.
Bob: The vision of the future is really tied to what have been your life circumstances. It’s part of a new book you’ve written called Love All Ways, which combines your story with some guidance for couples, who are parents of special needs kids. You guys had been married for two years when your son Joey was born, right?
Cindi: That’s right.
Bob: And Cindi, there was no indication, before birth or immediately after birth, that there was anything wrong with Joey.
Cindi: No; I had a great pregnancy/a long delivery, but he was beautiful. You looked at him—it was like there was no blemish; he looked so healthy. But as time went on, and he wasn’t lifting his head, and he wasn’t turning over, and he wasn’t able to sit up—my friends who had children of the same age—I was like, “Their kids are doing things that look different than what Joey’s doing.”
Ann: So were you starting to worry?
Joe: For me, personally, being a dentist for 41 years, one of the things we learned in dental school, early on, is that you always want to look into the eyes of your patients to see how they’re doing—if there’s any discomfort or pain. One of the things I got to do, while in dental school at Ohio State, is that I finished my requirements for graduation pretty early on. I chose to work at University Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, doing dentistry for the handicapped kids.
Joe: As I would work on these kids’ teeth, and I would look in their eyes, there was a distinct look there. I mean, once you see that look, I guarantee you’ll never forget that look.
It was about the same time frame Cindi was talking about—probably about four months or so—I remember Joey was crying in the middle of the night. I told Cindi, “Stay in bed; I’ll get Joey tonight.” I scoop him up like a little football, bring him out to the family room; turn the light on. His eyes were closed shut at this point; it’s like three o’clock in the morning.
I put him on the floor; I’m thinking, “If I can just roll him back and forth a few times, I’ll get him tired; and then I’ll just put him back in bed.” As I’m doing that, his eyes are closed shut at this point. At one point in time, he opens his eyes, and there was that look. I remember distinctly picking him up at that point, holding him in my arms, and saying, “Oh, God! Not my son.”
I put him back to bed that night. I cried myself to sleep that night. I did not tell Cindi anything about this. This was not a definitive diagnosis at this point, right? But I saw the look. It was probably a month or two later that the doctor informed us that Joey had cerebral palsy.
Dave: Did you not for that whole month?
Joe: I did not tell her.
Dave: —until it was diagnosed.
Ann: Cindi, you said you were worried anyway.
Cindi: We had some friends, who had been asking some questions—and just watching him with their children—and this/my part, right here, is probably a little bit further down the road than at that four-month point—a friend of mine had talked to my mom and said, “Are you noticing some differences in Joey than the other children?” We had a little party at my mom’s house for Joey’s first birthday. The other one-year-olds were running around. Joey was barely able to sit up straight in a high chair. But you know, as a mom, you just love that baby; so you aren’t thinking—
Ann: —and it’s your first one.
Cindi: “What could be wrong?” “He’s just a little behind.”
But when the doctor did tell us that he had cerebral palsy, it began to open our eyes to what was going to be. At first, you hear that—and even the neurologist that we would go to—he would say, “He’s behind, but he’ll catch up.” Sometimes you hear those words—and you believe them; you want to believe them—but most likely, they aren’t going to catch up to where your other typically-developing children are.
While Joey has come a long way in his 38 years, he is going to always, obviously, be mentally slow/verbally almost unable to talk. He gets his point across quite well. Six foot four—you can’t miss him; he’s very obvious.
When you think back—when you’re a young mom, you think, “What will it be like?” I remember thinking, “I don’t think I can do this,”—I would’ve never thought that I would do this for 38 years.
Joe: You know, one thing that Cindi just mentioned is that he’s mentally slow, and he is; but that doesn’t go with cerebral palsy all the time.
Bob: I know, in a situation like this, I would imagine your first thought is: “How do we care for?” “How do we provide for?” “How do we help this child?” But later on, it dawns on you, this is not just about Joey and his life. Your whole life has been changed—
Joe: That’s right.
Bob: —by this gift/this hard gift God has given you. That’s going to affect the oneness that the two of you got married to experience, and pursue, and enjoy. When did that dawn on you that: “This is going to have an impact on our marriage”?
Cindi: Any time that you have children, it impacts your marriage. The sleepless nights that I had were no different than any of my friends that had sleepless nights—the illnesses, or things after/you know, they have after their shots, or any of those things—they were all the same. I think we all experience them the same.
But when you begin to see that your child is not making progress, it does affect your marriage; because your way of thinking is no longer: “What’s good for us in this relationship?” A lot of what you do is now on this child. Now, you don’t always need a child-centered marriage; right? But when you have a special needs child, you can’t help for it to be pretty child-centered.
There were the doctors’ appointments, the therapies—speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy; and all of the things that go around those different therapies—doctors, nurses, aides. You get to school—you have IEPs, which are the reports you do at the end of every year to help your child become better the next year—“What are we going to put on his Individual Educational Plan to make him better next year?”
Sometimes you’d see the same thing repeated for four or five or six years in a row. That’s where things begin to be different, where you start to see that: “It’s not going to get better,” and “It’s never going to get better,” and “He is never going to leave this house, short of his death—or someday, our death—because he can’t do it.” It’s not a matter of he can eventually learn—he’s learned a lot—but he’s not going to learn enough to be on his own.
Ann: Was there a grieving to that?—to know that you—
Joe: Every day.
Ann: In what way?
Joe: It’s just that he’s never going to get better. The reality is that it didn’t matter how much I worked; it didn’t matter how much money I made—I can’t help my son.
Bob: You can’t fix this.
Dave: Yes, you can’t fix that.
Joe: That reality was much harder for me to accept. For Cindi, she’s engaged. I have to tell you—I wish I would have gotten engaged a lot quicker, but I was doing my thing—I was going to the office; I was working every day. I thought, “Why wouldn’t I do that?” I saw/that’s what I saw my dad do every day; he worked two or three jobs most of his life. I thought, “Well, I’m contributing to the family here.” Looking back on those years, I realize that what I was having, at the time, was really what we would call a career affair; you know? It was getting me out of the house.
It took awhile for me to engage with Joey. Interestingly enough, the person who was motivational for me to come to that reality was actually Cindi’s father. It was after a time when Joey was in the hospital; we thought he had spinal meningitis. He had grand mal seizures; his record was 37 grand mals in one day.
But as is the case, after awhile, things calm down. A couple weeks later, we decide, “We’re going to go fishing.” My father-in-law and I, we went fishing at his pond. Out of the clear blue, he turns to me and says, “You know, Joe, one of these days you’re going to realize that Joey is a blessing.” I said [emotion in voice]: “You know what? I’m having a hard time really accepting that one; I don’t see it.” Eventually, I saw it. That was a major contributing factor to me finally engaging and being the dad that God called me to be/to be the dad Joey needs me to be. It took awhile.
But it was—interestingly enough, my daughter/my young daughter, at the time, Christina, as I was walking out the door—I remember it was a Monday. I worked 2:00-8:00 on Mondays. They were always at the door, saying goodbye to me/giving me a kiss goodbye. She said this very innocently: “Daddy, will we see you tonight? Or will we see you tomorrow? Or will we see you the day after that?” I said, “I don’t know.”
Dave: What was that journey? You said, “I got to the point, where I saw Joey as a blessing.” Can you walk us there a little bit? I’m imagining—if I’m you, Joe—I’m doing exactly the same thing: I am pouring my life into my job, because I need to provide. But I’m also—I don’t like conflict; I don’t like pain—it’s going to be easier for me to stay away from it, in a sense. Sounds like you did a little bit of that.
Joe: Oh, yes.
Dave: I would be struggling with God as well. Where was your faith in this whole thing?—both of you, really.
Cindi: Let me take one step back and say—what he just shared with his heart, and how he felt he wasn’t a part of Joey’s life as much or my life as much as he should’ve been—I didn’t feel that.
Cindi: I felt like, when he was home, he was present at home. He never brought a bunch of stuff home from the office, like folders to sign, and figure out, and everything. He came home, and he was present.
When Christina said to him, “When will I see you next?”—a lot of that had to do with his office hours. They were not 9-5; one day he worked late; one day he went in early; one day he was off. It wasn’t a real set pattern that maybe a younger child would get. The beauty of what she said—for a couple reasons—one, that she felt the openness/the availability to say something like that to us was good. She wasn’t afraid: “What if I say this to my dad or my mom?”
I think that God used that to put him in the right frame of mind, even though I didn’t feel that he wasn’t doing his job. God had to teach him and minister to his heart to be able to do what was right for our family.
Bob: Back to Dave’s question about the journey—from grieving the loss and aware not seeing your son as a blessing—to the point, where you can say, “God has given us a gift.”
Joe: I have to tell you—that during the same time period, I was engaging, if you will, one on one, with God—just shaking my fist at God and saying, “How dare You do this to my son!”
Cindi: It was hard for us too: “We’re good people!” You try to justify: “How could this happen to us?”
Ann: “How could a loving God allow this to happen?”
Cindi: —“allow this to happen”; yes.
Bob: —“to people who are trying to play by the rules.”
Cindi: “…play by the rules.” Coming home one night from an occasion, I said to Joe—I said: “I cannot believe”—I was referring to this one particular family, who had a lot of, let’s just say, interesting/colorful things in their life; and three children, who were bright, beautiful, charming—you know, all the things. I said: “I don’t get it! That happens to them, and look what happens to us!”
He looked at me and said, “Imagine if Joey were in that family.” That moment, I realized what a gift Joey was to us, because he would never have made it in that family. That family had a lot of tragedy; and they wouldn’t have made it with Joey, and Joey wouldn’t have made it with them. Then I began to look at Joey truly as a blessing.
As life goes on, and you see in your child what they’re learning—what little, teeny steps they’re taking—that your other kids could do just because it was the next thing on the list to check off. God just gives it to them: they can stand up and walk, or crawl, or any of those things. Those took—like crawling took Joey 13 steps to learn how to crawl—months, and months, and months, and months of repeated physical therapy to teach him that.
When you see what they do, there’s such an excitement, like: “You did it! You finally figured out the difference between red and black!” Some of those things—I don’t think he said some of his first sentences until—and they were three or four words—until he was 12. As you see those, those become the little blessings—the little things you can hang onto—to say, “God is faithful.”
But it sure was a long time—of being able to see those things—and see that faithfulness in God to give us the endurance and the strength and, really, the right attitude. Not every day do I have the right attitude; I’d like to be saying that I do—but those are the things that add up to see—when you become where we are now, with a child, 38 years old—that you can say, “What a blessing.”
Bob: Whether it’s conscious or sub-conscious, we all start marriage with a dream/a picture in our minds of what our lives will be. Again, it may not be conscious; but we just default: “My life’s going to be okay. We’ll have some kids; we’ll go on vacations,”—you have this picture.
Bob: You guys, by God’s design—early on, you had to adjust your dream—and go, “Our life is going to be very different than the life we imagined.” It’s not the one that, if you’d put ten of them on the shelf and said, “Which one of them do you want to pick?”—this would’ve been the last one you would have picked, right?
Joe: That’s right; that’s right.
Bob: How do you find peace with that?
Joe: As we talk about at our conferences, the importance of understanding God’s blueprint for marriage. I guarantee—on my blueprint was not special needs child; alright? We’re running with this blueprint, that we had this in our minds, based upon our background experiences as to what life is going to be like for us. Then, out comes Joey. We’re realizing that this beautiful blueprint is going to have to get thrown out. We’ve got to start over, right?
We had to pursue a new normal for our lives. Really, that’s another way of saying what I was trying to say earlier, is that it was difficult for me to engage with that new normal as quickly as Cindi was doing. I needed to go there.
Another aspect of my life, that made it difficult for me to accept Joey as he was, was that all my life, sports was an important part of my life. I couldn’t—just give you a visual on this one, alright? When we brought Joey home from the hospital, he was wearing a sleeper from the Ohio State University. [Laughter]
Dave: The Ohio State University.
Joe: That’s right; that’s right. Thank you. [Laughter] He was wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. [Laughter] And we had an autographed Cleveland Browns football stuffed in the corner of his crib. You can imagine I had some pretty big dreams for my son.
Dave: There’s no fans like the Cleveland fans; there really isn’t.
Joe: There really isn’t. [Laughter]
Cindi: —because there’s always tomorrow. [Laughter]
Dave: That’s right.
Joe: Exactly. That’s the image, and that was part of my blueprint I was running with at this point; right? I began to realize that the reality is that I’m never going to see my son play sports. I’m never going to play catch with my son. That was difficult. Even to this day, I can’t play catch with him.
I can tell you one of the highlights of Joey growing up. I think he was about ten or twelve. I brought him to a Cleveland Indians game—I take that back—he was about 20. We’re sitting in the right field bleachers. About the seventh inning, the announcement comes over the speaker and says, “After the game, children will be able to run the bases,” at Cleveland Stadium. I’m just closing my eyes, thinking, “Oh, boy; I hope he did not hear that.” [Laughter]
Cindi: You have to remember—he is six foot four—and children are going to be running the bases.
Joe: Right; this is like for four- and five-year-olds, right? I closed my eyes, and I get this tap on my shoulder. [Laughter] He says—I look at him; I said, “Yes?”—he says, “Me run too.” I said, “Okay.” So after the game, we all go down there. Here’s Joey, six foot; and they’ve got these four- and five-year-olds there. [Laughter] I’ve got to tell you—when he got/when we were at first base—when we got to run from first, to second, and third; and that was it; alright?
It was our turn. When the guy said, “Go!”—I mean, Joey—he was off! He was off and running with this thing. I’m behind him, because I’m afraid he’s going to fall. He hit second, and he just hit it perfectly; and he just kept on running. I’m dying laughing, over here, behind him. When he gets to third base, he raises his hands up, like he just hit the home run—you know, ninth inning of the seventh game—just won the World Series.
I’m walking off the field with Joey; and I’m thinking to myself, “My son just got to play at Cleveland State.” [Laughter] I thought, “Man, it’s not going to get any better than this.” That was a big turning point for me, as well, because I realized that he’s never going to go into my world. He’s never going to enter into those things I thought was on my blueprint.
Bob: I think that’s true for our marriage too. We have a plan—a dream/a vision—for our marriage; and there are things that are going to come along in your life/in your marriage that are going to be different than you expected. We have to get to a point, where we can believe, honestly, that God’s plan is better than our plan.
Ann: —or our dream.
Bob: That’s right. That’s hard to do sometimes because our dream was pretty glorious.
Ann: [Laughter] It was!
Bob: But God says, “There’s a way that seems right to a man,”—but what does it go on to say?—“the end is death.”
Dave: —“the end is death.”
Bob: For us to embrace that God knows what He’s doing/that His ways are perfect—that even in challenge and suffering, these “light and momentary afflictions,” which is what the Bible calls them—“are producing in you an eternal weight of glory.” God’s at work in the midst of the tragedy. What we have to do is align ourselves with God’s purposes. When it comes to marriage, in the midst of this, we’ve got to make sure that marriage continues to be the priority that, by God’s design, it ought to be.
I would hope every parent, who has a special needs child, would get a copy of your book, Love All Ways: Embracing Marriage Together on the Special Needs Journey. I would say this, too—if you know someone, and they’ve got a special needs child—this is a great book to give as a gift to that couple. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; we’ve got copies of Joe and Cindi’s book available there.
They’ve written another book called Unexpected Journey about caring for those with special needs. We’ve got both of those books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. If you’d like either or both of Joe and Cindi Ferrini’s books about raising special needs kids or maintaining a marriage with special needs kids at home, you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is the number—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
The challenges we’ve talked about today—of keeping your marriage strong when you’ve got a special needs child—really, all of us face challenges and pressures. Especially in the last few months, we’ve all been experiencing the cultural challenges and pressures in our world that keep us from doing a good job of loving one another—they distract us; they take us away from that.
That’s one of the reasons why we are making available this week, for our listeners, copies of two books—100 Ways to Love Your Husband; 100 Ways to Love Your Wife—by Matt and Lisa Jacobson. Their books are our gift to you when you reach out to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation. You can do it online, or you can call to donate at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” to make a donation over the phone.
Tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation about how you build a strong marriage when, in your family, there is a child who has special needs. That means a lot of attention and a lot of extra energy is going in that direction. Joe and Cindi Ferrini will be back with us tomorrow. I hope you can be back with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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