Charlie Wedemeyer is still known as one of the best athletes in the history of Hawaii. For his exploits in football, basketball and baseball, he was named high school athlete of the 1960s in that state. He earned a scholarship to Michigan State University, where he went on to play for the Spartans’ national championship team of 1966.
Charlie married his high school sweetheart, Lucy, and after college they moved to Los Gatos, Calif., where he became a high school teacher and football coach. In 1977 he had just become head coach at Los Gatos High School when he noticed he was having difficulty holding onto a piece of chalk. Then he had trouble buttoning his shirt and tying his shoes.
He thought he was suffering from an old football injury. But it wasn’t. He had somehow contracted Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It causes a progressive loss of control of muscles, and doctors predicted he only had a year to live.
That prognosis began an adventure for Charlie and Lucy that, miraculously, continues today. Charlie is still living, although he cannot breathe or eat on his own. He is also unable to move his arms and legs and cannot speak audibly. But he can move his mouth, and can speak through Lucy, who reads his lips and repeats his jokes. The Wedemeyers maintain a busy speaking schedule, serving the God they met during their ordeal and telling people about the hope they can find in Him.
The Wedemeyer’s story has been told in a Public Broadcasting System documentary and in a television movie. In 2000, Lucy received the Robertson McQuilkin Award, given annually by FamilyLife to someone who has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to his or her marriage.
In the following interview, adapted from FamilyLife Today, Charlie and Lucy talk about their experiences and about the surprising opportunities God has given them.
When a doctor comes and says you have a year to live, I’m sure you go through a process of thinking, “This can’t be true. I’m going to wake up and it will be all over.” Tell us what you talked about at that point.
Charlie: When I left the doctor’s office [on the day I received the diagnosis] I was driving home and I thought that I wouldn’t be able to see my children grow up and would not be with my wife. I started to cry, and in fact I actually drove right through a red light. I had to pull over; I was overcome with emotion.
Lucy: When he got home and came in the door, it was very obvious to me that something was wrong. And when he said that the doctor told him that he had this terminal disease I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t even respond. We just stood there clinging to each other.
I remember kind of being in a state of denial. The next morning when I opened the draperies and I looked outside-it was a gorgeous day-I wanted to know why the birds were singing. Why were people smiling and happy? How can life just go on when we’ve just been hit with a ton of bricks?
Did you wonder, “Where is God in all of this?”
Charlie: It was extremely difficult to have had the talents and abilities that God gave me all those years and not be able to go out in the yard to play with the children and participate in their activities, their sports. It was very devastating to me.
Lucy: I can see now how the Lord helped us in those early days. It was a very slow, methodical process-when Charlie could not longer use his right hand, he’d use his left…when he could no longer walk, he had the wheelchair. It was tough, but he was never willing to give up and I think that’s what strengthened me and buoyed me in trying to keep Charlie going.
Charlie: I will always remember when I saw the physical and the emotional strain I was causing my wife and my children and I said, “Maybe it would be better if I just died.”
Lucy: I took a deep breath and prayed, “God, please tell me what to say. Give me the words.” And I told Charlie, “We would rather have you like this than not have you at all.”
For years, Lucy, you didn’t have nursing help, and there had to have been days when your strength was so low that you were just crying out for something to change. That had to be just unbearable.
Lucy: It was, and I made a pact with myself that I would not cry in front of Charlie. I always wanted to be up. I remember the first time we were putting Charlie in the wheelchair. It was so difficult that I began to have this lump welling up in my throat. I went to the back of the van and I knelt down behind it and I cried out to God, “I cannot do this anymore.”
It was really miraculous, because right then and there, without truly understanding what it was to have a personal relationship with Jesus, the Lord absolutely enveloped me with this wonderful blanket of warmth, of comfort, of this peace that it was going to be okay. It was like this little void in me, in the center of me, was filled. And then really from that day forward the Lord gave me a new resolve that allowed me to go through everything and be calm. It was as if God had said, “This is your mission: to help Charlie, to keep him going, I have bigger plans.” Little did we know!
What has kept you so committed to each other?
Lucy: I think it goes back to the marriage vows-“for better or for worse.” Charlie and I were so blessed so early in our lives. I will never forget all those years being able to watch him as an athlete. As he began to deteriorate and was struggling with just staying alive, how can you abandon someone when you’ve made that commitment?
When a nurse expressed to us the difference that Jesus could make in our lives, finally I had that super strength that really was waiting for me all along. God’s unconditional love for us is reflected in our marriage, in our relationship with our children, and with our families. He has given us more joy today than I know we could have had with Charlie being healthy. We wouldn’t have recognized it.
It’s amazing what it takes to get your attention. Boy, the Lord had to whack us on the side of the head!
Charlie: Our marriage is a reflection of our relationship with God. To think of what He was willing to sacrifice for us, we should be willing to at least sacrifice for our spouse and our families.
What kind of a ministry has God given you?
Lucy: We have realized now that actually Charlie’s ALS is a blessing because God has allowed him to be a voice to share His message of hope and encouragement. If he had been a healthy person he wouldn’t have the impact. And so we go out now sharing that message, and it is because the Lord is not only blessing us with opportunities but we’ve received cards and letters and calls from people who are going through the most difficult, hurtful times. Not necessarily just an illness, not necessarily a marriage situation, but all kinds of difficult traumas, and they can see a light at the end of the tunnel knowing that we have been able to get through what most people would consider a tragedy, and we’re triumphing through it. They see there is hope through the Lord.
Charlie: When we share at prisons I always tell the inmates that before becoming a Christian I felt as though I was a prisoner in my own body, and that I’d been given the death sentence. However, since accepting the Lord I now have the power of the Holy Spirit who gives me the peace and the comfort and the joy and especially the strength not to give up.
Lucy: If you think about it, life is terminal. None of us have any guarantee.
Charlie: It is only a matter of time before God calls any of us home. I am very fortunate because my disease has stabilized and it is only by the grace of God that I am able to move my facial muscles even though I can’t breathe or speak. God has given me that gift to do His work. I must say, since we travel so much all over the country speaking and sharing the Word of God, I am convinced that God has a great sense of humor sending me on a speaking tour when I cannot speak!
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