Eighteen Steps

Sometimes coming to Christ is slow but sure.

by Alice Swope

The nightmare was going into phase two. Ed, my 50-year-old husband, was finally going home.

The wheelchair, whishing on the wet pavement, seemed to scream the doctor’s parting words: “Ed has progressed further than we had any right to expect. Do not break your heart, and his, by hoping for any more.”

As I pushed him down the hospital ramp and along the street to the waiting van, I remembered how it all began three months before.

The beginning

The phone had rung early that morning. Sleepily, I had answered and heard the familiar words “Seven-thirty. Up the hill.”

In the jargon of the Southern Pacific Railroad company, I had been told that in an hour Ed was to board the freight train bound for Crescent Lake.

While I made coffee and packed lunches for him and the children, I wondered if this run would take him away overnight.

Vague sounds came from the bedroom where Ed was getting dressed. Usually he wasn’t noisy, but this morning there were bumps and thumps. I heard a shoe being dropped and then the alarm clock hit the floor and began to ring.

“Pick that thing up,” I called. “It’ll wake the kids, and we don’t need them underfoot this early in the morning.”

There was no response; the clock kept on ringing. An apprehension wiped out my irritation as I ran to the bedroom. In the darkness I saw Ed lying in a crumpled heap by the bed. Strange bubblings were coming from somewhere deep in the twisted mass of colorless flesh. The nightmare had begun.


The Southern Pacific maintained a hospital for their employees in San Francisco, so Ed was sent the seven hundred miles from our home in Eugene, Oregon. It was impossible for me to let him go there alone, though the doctors in the local hospital had assured me he would never know whether I had accompanied him or not. They said it was unlikely he would ever recover.

“This stroke was brought on because of that accident on the train, and one who has had a stroke of this magnitude seldom improves,” the doctor had told me.

I could not accept that. We all needed him, even as he now needed me and my prayers.

Prayer of surrender

All through that cold October night, as the train wound its way over the snow-covered mountains, I prayed for Ed’s recovery, for my own peace of mind, and for the strength to make my way around an unfamiliar and frightening city. I prayed for the courage to accept what I could not change. With tears running down my face, I said humbly, “Your will be done.”

In a large corporation hospital, families are viewed as necessary nuisances. Each staff member felt that his job of saving lives was slowed by the presence of families of the sick or injured. I was allowed only brief glimpses of my husband as he lay in his hospital bed in the intensive care unit. Once strong and vigorous, Ed now lay limp, unmoving, existing only because of wires and tubes.


Besides my fear and worry over Ed and the doctors’ refusal to discuss the case with me, I had to find lodging in this big city. I had never been on my own before; a cold fear rode constantly in my stomach. I had to find a cheap place within walking distance of the hospital.

I felt as if God had deserted me. But He hadn’t: I found a nice room in a boarding house just a block from the hospital. A kind and concerned landlord insisted on walking me to the hospital twice a day. “For your protection,” he said.

Turning point

One day I entered Ed’s room to find the doctors standing at the foot of his bed discussing him. He was only partly conscious and had made no movement, no speech, no sign of recognition.

“There’s never going to be any improvement. He’ll always be paralyzed — a vegetable,” one doctor was telling the other.

“I quite concur, doctor. We can do nothing more for him. What do you suggest?”

“Get him a little stronger, then send him home to die.”

I was stunned by their insensitivity. However, I am confident that this was the turning point for Ed. In all his life he could never stand to be told he was incapable of accomplishing a project. I am sure on that day, deep down, some intelligence was awake and resentful.

As if defying the doctors, Ed soon made noticeable improvement. His inner struggle was so strong, I could almost feel it in that room.


Now, three months later, we were almost home, and I was thankful for Ed’s sheer willpower that resulted in partial return of speech and a great improvement over the paralysis. Despite his protestations, in his stumbling, rambling speech, I knew he had not done it alone: He had had God’s help and love.

After we were home, local doctors told Ed he should be satisfied with his life in a wheelchair: “A severe cerebral vascular accident [stroke], even in a fairly young man, means there is no possibility of ever standing on your feet again.”

One aim took over all Ed’s waking moments: Some day, in some way, he would walk the eighteen feet of our living room.

Hearing from God

No one will ever know the work, the frustration, the repeated failures, the days when it all seemed so futile. I spent those days watching my husband fight and was thankful he had overcome all odds to at least live. But that was not enough for him. He had such a deep desire to walk, he could not give up.

One evening, as we sat alone, Ed said to me, in the halting fashion he now used, “Last night, before I went to sleep, I felt as if I were floating from my body, and I stood looking at it from a distance. Then God said to me, ‘Do not wish for death. I’m not ready for you just yet.’ You do believe me, don’t you?” he pleaded.

Ed had always looked with indulgence on my church attendance and considered my prayers as a harmless past-time. Now he was telling me he had talked to God. I felt the desperation in his pleas for understanding.

“I had no idea you were wishing for death,” was all I could manage to answer.

“I didn’t want to be a burden to you and the children, but now I must work even harder to get on my feet. God has decreed it.”

He dropped his head as if thinking and, when he looked up at me, I saw a light in his eyes that had been missing for so long.

“If God thinks enough of me to take the time to chastise me for my weaknesses, can I do less than accept His help in my struggles?”

First steps

One day I came upon Ed as he unsteadily stood in the doorway. How he got out of his wheelchair, I’ll never know. Concern strained the lines around his mouth and, his eyes, filled with anxiety, were focused on the sofa across the room.

“Only eighteen feet,” he muttered. “Today will be the day.”

His right leg lifted and moved slowly forward, then hit the floor with a plop. Somewhere a short circuit in the brain would not let the orders pass through to lift the left leg.

Slowly, painfully, he tugged at his trousers at the knee and pulled his left leg forward. It did not lift from the floor, but only dragged on its side to a forward position.

I wanted to run to him, but I knew this was something he had to do alone. If he failed, he must never know I had witnessed defeat. If he succeeded, he must know he had achieved the victory alone. No, not alone: with God’s help.

Steps of faith

Inch by faltering inch, Ed made his way across the room. At the edge of the sofa, his legs crumpled with the effort and he fell, kneeling in an attitude of prayer. As he raised his hands to his tear-stained, drawn face, he muttered in a slur, “Thank You, God. Thank You for those eighteen steps. Give me the strength for twenty tomorrow.”

I ducked around the corner so he couldn’t see me as he struggled to pull himself onto the sofa. I echoed his prayers, “Thank You, God, for this beginning. Thank You for those eighteen steps.”

I rushed to kneel beside him and hold his face close. “Tomorrow you can conquer the world,” I whispered.

“We will conquer it together,” he gasped. “God held my hand today. Can I do less for Him?”

Ed accepted Christ as his Savior shortly after that. Over time I read the entire Bible to him, and he grew deeply in his faith. He lived a good, solid Christian life for six more years and died professing his strong belief in God and His love.

By watching my husband for thirty-four years, I learned that God doesn’t want any stray sheep. He’ll go to any length — even a stroke — to bring lost lambs into the fold.