Disoriented. Muddled. Confused.
After being in a coma for almost two weeks, 32-year-old Beth Walker gradually opened her eyes and gave a slight smile. She felt like she was trudging through a dense fog. She couldn’t talk or walk.
Standing by her bedside was a man she didn’t recognize. The nurses told her, “This is your husband and you have a child.”
Beth heard the words, but she didn’t remember.
Who was the strange man standing by her? How could she have a child? And what was a husband, anyway?
She didn’t remember who she was or why she was in the hospital. She didn’t know the name of the President, the day of the month, or even the year. But she did feel the presence of God. “The first thing I remembered,” she says, “… was being eight years old at the missionary Baptist church, and they sang ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ and I became a Christian.”
Remembering that childhood salvation, Beth Walker knew without a doubt that Jesus was with her. As the Bible says in Deuteronomy 31:8, “The LORD … will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
“It was such a comfort,” she says, “because He wasn’t trying to figure me out or tell me what I was or didn’t know. He knew me.”
Beth couldn’t speak for over two weeks, until her ventilator was removed. Her first words to her husband, Hal, were ones he did not expect: “Did I really like you?”
“Man, my heart stopped,” Hal recalls today. After 12 years of marriage, his wife did not know him.
So much had happened to Hal in less than a month. It began when Beth collapsed on their bedroom floor on October 10, 1994. And now, she says that she doesn’t even know him. Wasn’t he the one who scooped her up in his arms and rushed her to the hospital? Wasn’t he the one who begged God to let her live. Hadn’t he stood by her bedside when the seizures began and held her hand when she looked at him with fear?
It was Hal’s turn to be frozen in worry. What would he do if his wife never remembered him? How would that affect him and their two-year-old daughter, Jordan? How could he be faithful to his wedding vow, to love Beth in sickness … perhaps for the rest of his entire life?
“Everyone told me what a special guy he was”
The doctors had not expected Beth to survive what they diagnosed as viral encephalitis. They explained to Hal that parts of her brain had been destroyed.
Beth’s left side was numb and she couldn’t see well out of her left eye. She couldn’t walk. She had virtually no long-term memory and little short-term memory. The nurses continued to introduce Hal to Beth as her husband, but as soon as he walked out of the room, she forgot.
By December 1994, Beth was taking a few steps, and Hal and Jordan looked vaguely familiar. “I knew this guy [Hal] was committed because he kept showing up,” Beth says. “He was awfully cute. … Everyone told me what a special guy he was.”
The hospital staff decided that Beth needed specialized rehabilitation that it was not equipped to provide. So Beth was discharged before Christmas, agreeing to go through a brain-injury day treatment program.
When Beth first came home for the holidays, Hal’s thoughts traveled back to their years together at John Brown University (Siloam Springs, Ark.) and to the fun they shared together. Beth had been an outstanding volleyball player there; she didn’t know a stranger.
Her friends called her “Bubbly Bouncing Beth.” She was also known as “The Mop.” Hal says she got that nickname by “mopping up the floor”—diving at balls that the opposing team spiked.
Hal became a Christian in 1980 through Beth’s influence. They married in 1982. Beth became a coach at a small Christian school; Hal was a builder. They worked and played hard. “We did rappelling and jumping off cliffs,” Hal says. “We did a lot of white water rafting and canoeing and all kinds of stuff.” And Beth tenderly called him Howie Joe Craig Walker; they shared so many hopes for their future.
But no amount of reminiscing could bring back the “old Beth.”
“She didn't feel she was married”
In early 1995 Beth spent about six months at Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. That’s where she learned to walk without assistance, cook, and clean. The staff repeatedly showed her pictures of her family, hoping that would somehow jar her memory.
Over time she accepted that she had met Hal in high school, got married in college, and had a young daughter. But she could not recall the actual memories.
Beth only weighed 89 pounds when she returned home. “She was scared of me,” Hal says, “because she didn’t know who she was.” To make matters worse, Beth had no sense of direction. Hal put signs around the house to help her navigate. He put arrows on the walls saying, “Bathroom this way” and signs on the cabinets that said, “Place the dishes here.”
Beth complained about the way the house was decorated, and she felt no emotion for Hal. “She didn’t feel like she was married,” Hal says. “We stayed our distance.”
Although Beth had learned to walk without assistance and her vision was no longer blurry, she still could not remember anything about her life. The constant questioning of friends and family just frustrated her. She says that she wanted to tell them: “I don’t know who I am. Just pretend like you don’t know me, because it’s making me feel like you don’t accept me. You want me to be something different—I guess like that girl you knew.”
The Walkers’ friends from Fellowship Evangelical Free Church (Knoxville, Tenn.) rallied around Hal. They came to the house to care for Beth while he was at work. They did this for more than a year. They also bought a freezer for the Walkers and stocked it with casseroles that would last almost 18 months.
Beth spent hours and hours looking at pictures and talking with family and friends. She also read everything about herself that she could, especially her old journals. Eventually, she remembered a few random things—some swimming strokes that she learned in school and getting bitten by a Great Dane as a child. But she still had absolutely no memory of her many years with Hal.
“We are starting all over again”
For a long time Hal kept waiting for a Hollywood ending to the story—for a miraculous moment when Beth would wake up and remember everything. Eventually he realized that was not going to happen.
At least a dozen people suggested that he divorce Beth, but Hal was determined to stay with her. He was committed to God, and he was convinced he needed to remain true to the vows he had made at their wedding, when he pledged to remain married “in sickness and in health.”
“Couldn’t be easier for me,” Hal says. “I’m a pretty cut and dry guy.”
And when friends would say, “You know, she’s not the same woman you married,” it only reinforced his conviction: “I’m not leaving Beth.”
But he did decide to begin courting his wife again.
Over and over he brought her beautiful pink roses, because pink is her favorite color. And even though Beth couldn’t walk very far, they took short strolls together, hand in hand. “I would try to get her up and dance,” Hal says, “because I knew she liked dancing; we'd kind of dance in the front room.”
His corny sense of humor seemed to help his wife the most. “Jokes were probably the biggest thing,” he says, “ … like, ‘What do you call a cow with no legs? Ground beef.’”
Beth relaxed around Hal. And as she found various things around the house she accepted that he was indeed her husband.
Beth asked Hal if they could renew their wedding vows and he quickly agreed. On August 21, 1997 (their 15th wedding anniversary), Hal re-married the woman he called his second wife. The ceremony was very intimate; there were only eight guests. Five-year-old Jordan was her parents’ ring bearer.
“I remember the feeling I had was the same as the first time,” Hal says. “Because here we go out in the world again … I knew what was going to happen but yet I didn’t … we are starting all over again. ... We were going back to the same house, had the same daughter, but this time I think, ‘She really feels she’s married.’”
“I couldn’t do this on my own”
For the next six years Beth gradually improved. To help her short-term memory, she jotted reminders on calendars and took hundreds of pictures. Hal assumed that her progress would continue. But in 2003, for some unknown reason, it just stopped. That’s when Hal had to come face-to-face with reality: Maybe his wife would never get any better.
Still, through their world of differences, the Walkers have learned a lot about God’s faithfulness. Beth says that she reminds herself that she can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13). “… I’ve realized God never leaves you or forsakes you. … You could be comatose all your life and He's still there.”
Hal agrees. He says that men will come up to him, asking how he can endure living with a wife who can’t really remember. He tells them: “I can't do it by myself. It's Christ.” If they ask him what that means, he tells them. “... when you speak the [wedding] vows those words actually mean something. You can't do it on your own. … Too many times in a marriage it's … ‘I don't feel right. You didn't treat me right.’ … but then when you look at it [situations] from God's perspective, it takes a different direction.”
“So many memories are someone else’s”
An energetic, attractive blonde, Beth refers to herself as “dizzy.” Now, 18 years after recovering from viral encephalitis, she still doesn’t remember her childhood, her first marriage, or the day of her second wedding. She doesn’t remember being in the hospital or the pink roses Hal gave her. She even has difficulty recalling what happened yesterday.
“I couldn't do this on my own,” he says. “I would have been gone a long time ago.”
“Yeah, it's a God thing,” Beth says. “ … There are times we both want to say enough is enough. But we realize that God has gotten us here so far and He's going to take us the rest of the way.”
Although Beth plays tennis competitively, she doesn’t remember who won. She asks her opponent (or doubles partner) at the end of a match, “What’s the score?”
Often Beth will not recognize women she’s met. She says they will come up to her and insist, “Why, we’ve played together, you know me.” There have been many times when she just had to turn away and wipe away her tears.
She says she often feels lost, and she often wonders what she just did. Did she finish what she started yesterday? Has she eaten that twice or worn that twice, or gone past this building for the third time? It’s hard for her to differentiate between what she remembers and what she has been told. “So many memories are someone else’s,” she says. She doesn’t remember any of the nine Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways she and Hal have attended.
“It’s not half as bad as it is for her”
When Hal starts to feel sorry for himself, he thinks of Beth. “Yeah it’s tough and sad for me, but it’s not half as bad as it is for her.” At those times he goes back to Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
Hal says things could be a lot worse, that his wife could also be an invalid or in a wheelchair. But when he sees her cry “because she has tried so hard and failed at something that is so menial, it just kills me.” He knows that her loss of memory is not her fault. “She didn’t get sick on purpose.”
He’s confident that Beth will eventually get her memory back—but perhaps not until she reaches heaven. Regardless of when that occurs, she will know that Howie Joe Craig Walker did not run away from his marriage vows. She will know that he was indeed her one true love … in sickness and in health. And she will know that her husband truly loved her, for their entire married life.
“Most of us fall and collapse at the first grip of pain; we sit down on the threshold of God’s purpose and die away of self-pity, and all so called Christian sympathy will aid us to our death bed. But God will not. He comes with the grip of the pierced hand of His Son, and says, “Enter into fellowship with Me; arise and shine.”
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