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Life Turned Upside Down

January 01, 2012

A ten-year-old boy became acquainted with illness and loss, but God brought comfort through a song when life turned upside down.

By Ted Friesen

Life is so quickly gone, and my footsteps I can’t retrace . . . my only hope is Jesus.

That’s the realization that broke through to my soul one warm July night as I listened to a story I had heard many times since childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of a father and mother’s love and devotion to God, and the inner peace they possessed when life itself seemed to turn upside down.

The early 1950s found our family enjoying life in a small southern Oregon town. As a young boy, I anticipated our picnics down by the river and developed a life-long craving for Mom’s hot gingerbread with whipped cream or chocolate cookies right out of the oven. Our front yard with its large lawn became the neighborhood baseball diamond; I still can’t believe there were no broken windows. Whether playing, working together in our large garden, or celebrating holidays with friends, we enjoyed our little family circle.

My siblings—an older brother and two younger sisters—and I were in church with our parents several times a week. Special music in those services often included Mom and Dad singing together, which I loved to hear. One song always impressed me. It was about Noah and the ark, with the main theme being that God designed the ark with only one window. That window was in the top looking out toward the sky. The last phrase of the song gave God’s encouraging promise that “through the upper window, you’ll see Me standing by.” It was a comforting thought to me as a child, although our home and family seemed to have all we ever needed. Life was good, but I remember well the day all this changed.

That day I walked in the front door of our house, a carefree ten-year-old boy, unaware of events that were beginning to unfold. Upon entering the living room, I found my thirty-one-year-old mother seated on the couch with tears streaming down her face as she haltingly spoke on the telephone. As I stood there in childlike wonderment listening to what she was saying, it became a moment frozen in time for me. She was pleading with someone to allow her to stay home with her family and was asking not to be sent away. Soon I learned that a doctor had informed her that tests revealed the presence of tuberculosis in her lungs. She would be required to undergo treatment for an unspecified length of time at a sanitarium some two-hundred-seventy miles away.

Within hours of this verdict, the local Health Department came and nailed large quarantine signs at every door and corner of our house. At this point our close little family started down a path directed by the regulations and persons of the County Health Department. My father was told that our family would be broken up if their instructions were not followed.

During all of this, I watched Mom and Dad keep their integrity with consistent faith in God. Dad was a minister who preached the goodness of God from the pulpit and lived it before us at home. Yet, life was never the same after Mom left. Dad did his best to fill the vacancy and expressed confidence that God would see us through this difficult time, but it seemed there was such a hole in the fabric of life.

That comforting song Mom and Dad used to sing began going through my mind: “The storms will come, but fear not, oh children, I am nigh, and through the upper window, you’ll see Me standing by.”

One particular day I climbed the big walnut tree in our frontyard and was sitting up in the branches, thinking about everything that was going on. Looking out to the west toward Gilbert Creek, that comforting song Mom and Dad used to sing began going through my mind: “The storms will come, but fear not, oh children, I am nigh, and through the upper window, you’ll see Me standing by.” The Lord passed close by that day, interested even in the concerns of a young boy.

After several months, Mom was to be allowed to return home, but only with the Health Department stipulation that we children would live elsewhere because of the contagious nature of the disease. My sisters, who were seven and three years old, went to live with some friends of the family, while my brother and I stayed with another household across town. Living in the same town with Mom and Dad and yet not being able to go home was difficult, to say the least. Beside that, we were separated from some of our siblings. Dad would come by to see us when he could, and we also saw him and our sisters at church.

Then Dad came up with a plan to get the family back together. He and some church friends built a tiny one-bedroom house on the back of the property. We were never allowed to go into the little house because of strict Health Department rules. However, we could stand at the end of the walk by the little white fence and talk to Mom from there. During this time, Dad’s health also began to fail. Diabetes had taken its toll, having gone undetected for years. He was thirty-eight years old.

When three years had gone by, Dad still wanted to get the family together back in the same house. This idea became more and more precious to all of us. Worn down by the stringency of the local Health Department and having some well-loved grandparents in northern California, where it seemed health officials were less meticulous, the decision was made to sell our property and move to that location. With hope renewed, we packed up and left.

For a while, it seemed life would return to some kind of normalcy. Then Mom’s illness took a turn for the worse, and the doctor insisted surgery was the only option. Although the surgery went well, within a short time Mom contracted a staph infection from the hospital. Then we learned of a decision to shut the wing of the hospital where she was. Again, she would have to be sent to a treatment center two hundred miles away.

I looked on as history seemed to be repeating itself, and found my young heart filled with questions and apprehensions. Although I attempted to adhere to my parents’ teachings and follow their instructions for living right, underneath the mask was a very perplexed young man. I couldn’t understand why God would allow good people to suffer like this. As I look back now, I see that the answers to my questions and fears could have been different if I would have looked to the source of truth, Jesus Christ. But instead I tried to reason things out in my own way.

With the decision made for Mom’s treatment at the distant sanitarium, I was asked to help drive even though I had only recently received my license. We carefully placed our very frail Mother in the back seat of our 1958 Chevrolet. That trip over the mountains along the Trinity River was one of the longest of my life, but after leaving Mom alone with strangers, the trip home seemed even longer.

Traveling over to see Mom was more than Dad could do by himself. At only forty-one years of age, his health and also his eyesight were worsening. For some time his eyes had been so bad that he could not read, but he had continued his preaching. Over the years he had memorized chapters of Scripture so when asked to bring the sermon, he would walk onto the platform with no feeling at all in his feet. He would then open his Bible, recite Scripture from memory, and preach a wonderful sermon. Very few ever knew he wasn’t able to read the text; he didn’t want people to know.

So at sixteen years old, I became the designated driver for Dad while my older brother stayed with our sisters. The long trips over crooked mountain roads turned out to be times of growing companionship between us. Looking back now, I see how God used those occasions to try to give direction to my life. One late night, a phone call came indicating that Mom wasn’t doing well and would someone please come as soon as possible. Dad and I left almost immediately and started over the dark mountain road. Up close to the summit but not yet to the halfway point of our two-hundred-mile trek, we were pulled over by the State Police. The officer informed us that Mom had passed away. She was only thirty-eight years old. That night in our motel room, I saw Dad on his knees in prayer to God with tears running down his face.

Dad never got over losing Mom. Soon after she passed away, his failing eyesight caused the loss of his job. Less than two years after Mom’s death, Dad was gone at forty-four years of age. Through all of this, I never once saw his faith falter.

However, I was not doing so well in my own relationship with God. In my high school years and beyond, I began to focus my eyes on the problems around me rather than on the One who could solve those problems. It wasn’t long before I was trying to guide my own life. I knew what was right and what was wrong, but I let situations, together with a rebellious attitude, rule my thinking.

At the age of nineteen, I married, and with good intentions for the future, my wife and I moved to a larger city. However, there I became lost in the crowd, without any direction or purpose to my life whatsoever. It wasn’t easy to get up every morning, look the world in the face, and admit that I was rebelling against the best Friend a person can know.

One spring night I attended an evangelistic service put on completely by young people. I don’t remember anything that was said, only that I wanted to pray. However, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I left that service, and while sitting in my car in the parking lot, I asked myself over and over, “Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I go forward and pray?”

While I don’t understand why God allows circumstances that seem to us unfair at times, I do understand that in Him a wounded spirit can find a place of restoration.

About three months later on a hot night in July at the Portland camp meeting, I listened to an elderly minister hold out hope to me once again. I realized that this could be my final opportunity to get right with God. Looking back on my past, I had no way of knowing what my future might hold. The minister repeated a phrase that I had heard many times throughout my life, “What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” I knew at that moment that Jesus Christ was the answer to every need in my life, and if I expected to find true peace, my only hope was through Him. I knelt at a place of prayer, and with tears of repentance, gave up to Christ and asked Him to take control of my life. As I prayed, all the guilt and unrest that I’d carried was removed, and my troubled soul found the peace that only Jesus can bring. Out of the ashes of bitterness and a spirit that seemed broken, the Lord picked up the pieces and brought restoration on the inside.

Since that time my life has been filled to overflowing with the reality of knowing Jesus Christ every day that I live. I’ve found the Anchor that holds firm against the tempest of unrest in the troubled times in which we live, and when life’s difficulties seem overwhelming.

Many years have gone by since the crises our family faced in my childhood. One time my brother expressed some familiar feelings when he said, “I’ve prayed to forget,” but questions still remain. Can I explain why good families are sometimes torn apart by the storms of life? I cannot. While I don’t understand why God allows circumstances that seem to us unfair at times, I do understand that in Him a wounded spirit can find a place of restoration. The Psalmist said of the Lord, “He restoreth my soul.” Through the years I’ve found I can go to the Good Shepherd and find hope refreshed. There really is an “upper window” in the “ark of life,” and through prayer and God’s Word, I see Him standing by.

About the author

Ted Friesen is a retired pastor of the Apostolic Faith Church. He and his wife live in Portland, Oregon, where he enjoys writing Gospel songs.