Countering Setbacks by Setting Goals
AN APARTMENT near New York’s LaGuardia Airport is the home of William (Bill) Meiners and his wife, Rose. There Rose, a gracious hostess in her mid-70’s, cheerfully welcomes her visitor. Inside the apartment one cannot help but notice how the cozy living room reflects her sunny disposition. The attractive flower arrangement near the doorway and the colorful paintings on the walls convey a feeling of joy and a zest for life.
Next to the living room is a bright room where Bill, 77 years old, lies in bed, his back propped up by an adjustable mattress. On seeing his visitor, his kind eyes light up and his lips extend into a broad smile. He would love to get up, shake hands, and embrace, but he can’t. Except for his left arm, Bill is paralyzed from his neck down.
Because Bill has faced health problems since he was 26 years old, he is asked what has helped him to cope with illnesses for over half a century. Bill and Rose exchange an amused look. “We don’t know anybody who is ill!” says Rose, as her hearty laughter fills the room. Bill’s eyes twinkle with pleasure; he chuckles and nods his head in agreement. “No one is ill here,” he says haltingly with a throaty voice. Rose and Bill swap more playful remarks, and before long, the room is filled with laughter. Clearly, the love that Bill and Rose felt for each other when they met back in September 1945 is still very much alive. Bill is asked again: “But, seriously, what setbacks have you faced? And what has helped you to cope and to keep a bright outlook on life?” After some gentle prodding, Bill agrees to tell his story. What follows are excerpts from several conversations that Awake! had with Bill and his wife.
In October 1949—three years after marrying Rose and three months after the birth of their daughter, Vicki—Bill was informed that he had a cancerous growth on one of his vocal cords, and the tumor was removed. A few months later, Bill’s doctor notified him of another setback—the cancer had affected the entire larynx. “I was told that if I did not have a laryngectomy—that is, the removal of the entire larynx—I would have only two years to live.”
Bill and Rose were told what the result of this surgery would be. The larynx, or voice box, extends from the root of the tongue to the entrance of the windpipe. Inside the larynx are two vocal cords. When air exhaled from the lungs passes through the cords, they vibrate and produce the sounds of speech. When the larynx is removed, the top of the windpipe is connected to a permanent opening made in the front of the neck. After the surgery, the patient breathes through this opening—but has lost his voice.
“When I heard this explanation, I felt angry,” says Bill. “We had a little daughter, I had a good job, we had high expectations for our life, and now everything I had hoped for went down the drain.” But since a laryngectomy could save his life, Bill agreed to the surgery. “After the operation,” relates Bill, “I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t speak one word. I was mute.” When Rose visited Bill, he could only communicate by writing words on a notepad. It was a painful time. To counter this setback, they had to set new goals.
Speechless and Jobless
The laryngectomy left Bill not only mute but also jobless. He had worked in a machine shop, but now that he could breathe only through the opening in his neck, dust and fumes could endanger his lungs. He needed to find another job. Still unable to speak, he enrolled in a school to learn watchmaking. “It resembled my old job,” says Bill. “I knew how to assemble machine parts, and when making watches, you also put parts together. Only the parts did not weigh 50 pounds!” Right after finishing the school for watchmaking, he found work as a watchmaker. One goal had been reached.
Meanwhile, Bill had also begun attending an esophageal-speech class. In esophageal speech, sound is produced not by the vocal cords but by vibrations in the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. First, one learns to swallow air and force it down into the esophagus. Then, one burps up the air in a controlled manner. As the air escapes, it causes the walls of the esophagus to vibrate. This produces a throaty sound, which can be articulated with one’s mouth and lips to form speech.
“Before, I burped only when I had eaten too much,” says Bill with a smile, “but now I had to learn to burp on and on. At first, I managed to produce only one word at a time, like this: ‘[Inhale, swallow, burp] How [inhale, swallow, burp] are [inhale, swallow, burp] you?’ It wasn’t easy. Then, my teacher told me to drink lots of ginger ale because the fizz would help me burp. So whenever Rose went outside for a walk with Vicki, I drank and burped, drank and burped. I worked hard at it!”
Although some 60 percent of all laryngectomy patients fail to master esophageal speech, Bill progressed. Vicki, by then almost two years old, unwittingly impelled him. Explains Bill: “Vicki would talk to me and then look at me, waiting for an answer. But I couldn’t utter one word in reply. She would talk more, but again no answer. Annoyed, Vicki would turn to my wife and say: ‘Make Daddy talk to me!’ Her words pierced me and made me determined to speak again.” To the joy of Vicki, Rose, and others, Bill succeeded. One more goal reached.
Hit by Another Blow
By the end of 1951, Bill and Rose faced a new dilemma. Doctors, fearing that the cancer would recur, advised Bill to undergo radiation therapy. Bill agreed. When the treatment was over, he was eager to resume life. Little did he realize that another blow to his health was already coming his way!
About one year passed. Then, one day Bill’s fingers felt numb. Next, he could not climb stairs. Soon thereafter, he fell down while walking and could not get back on his feet. Tests revealed that the radiation treatment that Bill had received (which, at the time, was not as accurate as it is today) had damaged his spinal cord. He was informed that his condition would worsen. One doctor even told him that his chances for survival were “not worth a nickel.” Bill and Rose were shattered.
Even so, in an effort to counter this setback, Bill entered a hospital for six months of physical therapy. Although the therapy did not change the course of his physical condition, the hospital stay did change the course of his life—a change that eventually led him to getting to know Jehovah. How did that happen?
Fortified by Understanding the Cause of Setbacks
For those six months, Bill shared a room in a Jewish hospital with 19 paralyzed men—all Orthodox Jews. Every afternoon these men discussed the Bible. Bill, a Baptist churchgoer, just listened. But by the time he left the hospital, he had heard enough to conclude that Almighty God is only one person and that the Trinity doctrine contradicts the Bible. As a result, Bill never went back to his church. Nevertheless, he felt the need for spiritual guidance to cope with life’s setbacks. “I kept on asking God for help,” says Bill, “and my prayers were answered.”
One Saturday in 1953, Roy Douglas, an older man who was once a neighbor and had heard of Bill’s plight, stopped by. Roy, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, asked Bill to study the Bible with him, and Bill agreed. What Bill read in the Bible and in the book “Let God Be True”a opened his eyes. He shared what he learned with Rose, and she joined the study. Recalls Rose: “In church we had been told that sickness was a punishment from God, but our Bible study showed that this was not true. We felt so relieved.” Adds Bill: “Learning from the Bible the cause of all troubles, including my illness, and finding out that a better future will come about helped us to accept my condition.” In 1954, Bill and Rose reached another goal. They were both baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Making More Adjustments
Meanwhile, Bill’s paralysis had spread to the point where he could no longer hold his job. To make ends meet, Bill and Rose reversed roles: Bill stayed home with Vicki, and Rose began to work at the watchmaking company—a job she held for 35 years!
“Taking care of our daughter gave me much joy,” relates Bill. “Little Vicki enjoyed it too. Proudly, she used to tell everyone she met: ‘I take care of Daddy!’ Later, when she went to school, I helped her with her homework, and we often played games. Moreover, I had a fine opportunity to give her Bible instruction.”
Attending Christian meetings at the Kingdom Hall was another source of joy for Bill and his family. It would take him one hour to limp from his home to the Kingdom Hall, but he did not miss meetings. Later, after moving to another part of the city, Bill and Rose bought a small car, and Rose drove the family to the hall. Even though Bill could speak for only short periods of time, he enrolled as a student in the Theocratic Ministry School. Explains Bill: “I wrote out my talk, and another brother delivered it. After the talk, the school overseer counseled me on its content.”
Different ones in the congregation also helped Bill to share regularly in the preaching work. And, not surprising to those observing his devotion, Bill was later appointed as a ministerial servant in the congregation. Then, when his legs gave out and the paralysis engulfed him further, he became confined to his apartment and was eventually bedridden. Could he counter this setback?
A Satisfying Distraction
“Being home all day, I looked for a distraction,” says Bill. “I used to enjoy taking photographs before I became paralyzed. So I thought of trying to paint pictures, even though I had never painted anything in my life. Also, I’m right-handed, but my entire right hand and two fingers of my left hand were paralyzed. Anyway, Rose bought a stack of books on painting techniques. I studied them and set out to paint with my left hand. Lots of my paintings ended up in the incinerator, but eventually I began to learn.”
The fine collection of watercolor paintings that now adorn the apartment of Bill and Rose shows that Bill succeeded beyond his expectations. “About five years ago,” Bill adds, “my left hand began to tremble so much that I had to put down my brush for good, but for many years this hobby gave me much satisfaction.”
A Remaining Goal
Bill recounts: “Over 50 years have now passed since my health problems began. Bible reading still comforts me, especially when I read the Psalms and the book of Job. And I enjoy reading the publications of the Watch Tower Society. I also receive much encouragement when members of our congregation and traveling overseers visit and share uplifting experiences. In addition, a telephone hookup with the Kingdom Hall allows me to listen to the meetings, and I even receive videotapes of convention programs.
“I’m grateful that I have been blessed with a loving wife. Throughout the years, she has been my close companion. Also, our daughter, who now serves Jehovah together with a family of her own, is still a source of much joy. I especially thank Jehovah for helping me to stay close to him. Today, as my body and my voice grow ever weaker, I often think of the apostle Paul’s words: ‘We do not give up, but even if the man we are outside is wasting away, certainly the man we are inside is being renewed from day to day.’ (2 Corinthians 4:16) Yes, to stay spiritually awake as long as I may live—that remains my goal.”
a Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.; now out of print.
[Blurb on page 12]
“After the operation, I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t speak one word. I was mute”
[Picture on page 13]
Bill and Rose today