Journey of Encountering- Ashly P. Ash
When I was first asked to share my testimony it was something I felt I had effectively avoided for a long time. But I knew in my heart when I began this blog that God would begin to formulate my story for sharing. I wanted my testimony to not be drama-filled or to convey a message of how Jesus Christ has loved me from the very beginning.
Prior to amputation
I was raised as a small participant in Little Britain Church (about half a mile from my home as a child). The women and men there instilled the truth about Jesus, the Bible, and how simple it is to accept the gift of salvation. I was given such a strong foundation that I do not ever remember a time not having Jesus in my heart and not being saved.
When I was 4 years old I fell on the preschool playground and hit my knee. After two weeks of pain and complaining, bruising and swelling, my Mom (Sandy) took me to the hospital and I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma cancer in my right leg. It was a shock to my parents and family as they realized a tumor had been growing for awhile in my leg. Just a week before I had been happy and running and jumping, suddenly I was facing cancer treatments and amputation. My parents stood up during this time that so many others would have crumpled, and fought for me to stay alive.
The next year was a whirlwind. My parents insisted that I receive treatment at the most well-renowned hospital on the east coast at the time, (1989) Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City. They amputated my right leg and I lived there for most of that year while my mom stayed with me. My father had to maintain his job to cover expenses at home and my one year old little sister stayed with my grandparents throughout each week. During the weekends my Father would take the four and a half hour trek to New York City to relieve my Mother and give her a chance to be with my baby sister while he stayed in the hospital with me. They would again change places on Sunday for yet another long and lonely week of sickness and fear to begin.
Even in the white-walled hospital God was with me. Our community poured out love upon me and my family. There wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t have boxes of cards delivered, fundraisers being planned to help with the bills, thoughts and prayer meetings and prayer chains. Children donated their toys so that I would have projects to fill the boring days spent contained in a hospital bed. We were surrounded by God’s kindness through this!
The amputation surgeon, Dr. Healy, was supposed to remove my leg right above the knee. During the procedure he had a very strong “feeling” and felt led to amputate a lot higher than that. He went with this feeling and I believe that it was God’s own healing hand guiding my Dr. Healy. I ended up being one of very few children without cancer returning and without a second follow-up operation to “get all” of the cancer. Of course when I came of age to understand the implications of my surgeon’s “feeling” I had to grieve and process the anger of this loss. Those extra six inches would have impacted my life beyond measure!
Being only four most people think I should not remember much of what happened. I’m sure that my memories are distorted, as they are all in the mind of a four year old. But I most certainly remember the pain after the amputation being so intense! After one week they took me off of morphine because of the itching and scarring taking place. I believe the standard morphine treatment after amputation at the time was one month before weaning off of it. I cannot even describe the intense pain and was more than a little peeved that no one warned me this was part of the process they described to me at four years old as “we are taking your old leg and giving you a new one”!
At one point as I lay there in such extreme pain I closed my eyes and I remember looking up and seeing a door at the top of a flight of stairs. Everything was black except for vibrant light shining out from around this door. At four years old I felt and knew in my heart that I could go through that door and everything would be ok. I knew that I was being given a choice to leave the world (pain, suffering, hardship) behind and enter a place that held none of those things in my future. As I looked at the door and started towards it I thought about my mom and my dad and how they told me to fight. I didn’t want to leave them there, I didn’t want to “chicken out”. So I chose to come back, I chose to fight through. When I opened my eyes again there I was in my hospital bed dealing with the intense and shooting phantom pains.
During the year that I was in the hospital it is important to remember I was only four years old. During this stage a child is developing many of their perceptions about life and gaining a foundation in family and social networks. Children are sponges during this time. The foundation of life that I was learning at this time was that “life is a battle to be fought”.
I had to fight for my life. Many of my friends around me in the hospital died. One day they would be playing with me and the next day they were dead. I had to learn to fight through physical pain. Due to the chemotherapy and medicine of the 80s I had sores in all orifices from my ears and mouth and nose to urinary tract and I had to learn to fight to eat and swallow, drink, blow my nose, even urinate in pain. When I got my first leg and began learning to walk I had to fight through that. I remember the doctor coming into the room and explaining that as high up as I was amputated I would most likely never walk and I remember laughing inside and saying, “well he doesn’t know me very well!” because I had this spirit to fight through ingrained in me permanently. Boredom, being a highly active four year old contained to a bed and playroom was yet another battle, and I had to watch my parents struggle and battle through every detail of my care as well.
Insurances would max out and the hospital would prepare to discharge me and no longer treat me. My mother would fight for me and against all odds see me continue treatment. The added expense of 2 trips to New York City (4.5 hrs away) and the bills pouring in constantly was something I saw my parents struggle through and push for. The pain of separation and leaving a one year old at home even further ingrained in my small and developing mind: if you want to live life you need to fight.
The spectacles of life to me were colored in the taints of battles to win or lose. What else did I know or have to reference to at only four years of age? This “life is a battle” mentality really was good during this time because the situation called for it and it helped me to survive. The problems came when the situation was over. No longer was everything in life a survival crisis yet I was seeing battles where there were none.
As I grew up from there I always felt a certain closeness to God. My interest was in scripture and I remember my dad reading the bible to me before bed and my mom always asking us what we think Jesus would do in certain situations. Based on what I had seen in my hospital room I never had any doubts that Jesus was real and that he was my savior. I believe I was saved from the time I was a little child but it was in learning to walk out some of the heart-wounds that I had suffered along the way that was a challenge. My life had a certain “do or die” stigma wrapped around it.
When I was 21 I started working full-time job in Nottingham, PA and moved into my very own apartment. I was so excited and was hoping that I could become a true woman of God in this new and fresh place. As time went on though, I realized my battles were following me and were not so easily put off as moving away.
I was so lonely and so alone in a new place with hardly any friends. There were two situations as well that drove me away from God. The first was a pastor that I looked up to that ended up falling into immorality and disgraced; the second was a situation where someone I was close to was shunned. In my heart I knew a loving God wouldn’t treat others that way and it made me angry and question a lot of what I believed and had been taught. Turning from my intimacy with God to a distant touch-and-go relationship with him, on top of feeling alone sent me looking in the wrong places for friends. I started hanging out with people that involved a lot of drinking, drugs, and late nights.
One particular night during this time I remember crying out to God as a last resort about my loneliness. As usual, God was right there no matter how far I kept from him. See there was a guy I worked with and he wanted to start dating me seriously. I knew in my heart he was not “the one” for me but I was so lonely that I didn’t even care. I cried out to God with all my heart that night and the Lord put in my heart that if I waited I would meet the man I was to marry within a year; but if I chose to date this guy that I knew wasn’t for me it would set me back two years. I grieved and cried and then decided the loneliness was too great a burden to carry any longer. I chose the wrong path.
Later I found out that my now husband, Rick, moved into the same apartment complex as my neighbor almost exactly one year from the day I prayed. Yet because I had strayed from my path I didn’t date Rick until two years from the day I prayed. Once again, God was faithful to his word.
While I was on the wrong path, or what I refer to as this path of destruction I found my “life is a battle” attitude immersed me into an entire different sub-culture. Drugs, alcohol, parties, bars, drug dealers, late nights, crazy nights, etc. When I read back over my journal writings of this time period I do not even recognize the person staring back at me through the ink. I can’t imagine making the choices that I made and fathom how in the world I rationalized them! The chaos and the vicious cycles of destruction that are so apparent now were so normal to me then – and I thrived off of the adrenaline.
What I didn’t realize during this time was that I was using drugs for self medicating. The trauma of my past had caused chronic post traumatic stress syndrome and I was at a loss for real life skills taught to most children. My time in the hospital had sheltered me from more than just a physically active childhood, it had sheltered me from gaining crucial life sustaining emotional skills.
I had a few true friends and family that prayed for me during this time and persistently stood by me. They talked to me, prayed for me, and went out of their way to occupy my time to keep me out of trouble. My godmother particularly embraced me and loved me during this time in a way that allowed me to experience the love of God and not just read about it. I accredit my sobriety today to prayers because it was only God that called me out of that place and only God that gave me strength to make changes.
For me, the moment I realized I needed help and something bigger than myself was alongside of the road. I was pulled over by a state policeman for speeding and as I was standing there I realized that I was in deep trouble. I had alcohol and drugs in my system; I had just got some hard drugs out of my car the day before (enough to have put me behind bars for 12 years). Even as I stood there I viewed that serious situation as a battle and the policeman as the “bad guy”! Then suddenly it dawned on me that maybe I was the “bad guy”. Maybe I needed help. Maybe I had been fooling myself all along. If I really did have things under control I wouldn’t be in this situation; maybe my life had spiraled out of control and my real friends and family were right?
Two months later I went for help. Yes, two whole months. Sometimes when we are ready for change it can take time to implement it and come to terms with the fact that we have come to the end of ourselves. My friend that I previously mentioned as “shunned” referred me to a christian life coach and one of the biggest things that I remember about when I started meeting with her was that she told me I didn’t have to change. She said we would work on real life skills and she would provide “tools to keep in my life toolbox”, (or skills) to use on a daily basis to help regulate my emotions and make better choices. She explained that because I was self-medicating and not displaying solely addictive behaviors that I would slowly learn to reach for the new tools instead of the drugs, alcohol, etc.
The process didn’t begin easily and it wasn’t a “cold turkey” recovery but slowly and surely I realized she was right! I began to look at life not as if it was a battle, but as a journey. In my mind I felt like I had lived my whole life up to that point sitting at a table with a board game of battleship in front of me. “Me vs. Everything” was the way I seemed to live and face every single thing that happened to me. With Sharon’s help I decided to mentally pack up that board game of battleship and put it away. It was then that I finally began to relate to things around me in a new way. I began to relate to people and make better judgments about my personal safety and boundaries. I began to relate to situations as far as realizing I was “walking through them” and not fighting through. My whole life changed one day at a time as I changed. This is why one of my favorite quotes from my journal is “Lifestyle changes can be conquered in bits”. It truly was a time of conquering in bits…or nibbles to be more precise!
To be honest, I still get locked up in this mindset of Me vs. Everything battlezone from time to time! It is something that I have to remind myself of on a nearly daily basis! Constantly reviewing each situation and determining whether I am seeing a battlefield where there is none. This is part of growth and change, I believe. Not sudden and total “healing” as it is so often preached, but a conscience awareness of how we are internally motivated and choosing to respond accordingly.
When I met Rick I remember feeling so afraid of the vulnerability that comes with love! He worked a second shift job and two weeks after dating him I invited him to my apartment one night after his shift ended. We sat at my kitchen table and I told him everything bad that he could or may possibly encounter in looking at a life with me. I told him that he should run and run fast! I’ll never forget though the way he looked down at his dirty and calloused hands on the table and then looked with tired eyes straight into mine and said “You aren’t telling me anything I don’t already know. I know what can happen, I have seen it all, I want to be with you.” He assured me that together we could handle any journey that would come no matter what that journey looked like. I knew then and there that he was the man for me!
Since being married we have faced our own set of obstacles. Our apartment caught fire in 2012 , pushing us to buy our first home. Some new diagnoses have come along as long term effects of cancer survival and amputation. We were unable to conceive, and then foster care was a total flunk for us. Insurances flip-flop on whether they will provide a leg for me or not, and I’ve had to give up some of my favorite active hobbies like gardening, canning, walking.
But I have learned that formulating the wrong mindsets can set me back and imprison me. I don’t judge anyone’s journey or walk because I know that each of us, in our own prison of false beliefs, our testimony will always lead us to a place of realizing that we need something bigger than ourselves. That something is and can only be Jesus and the good news he has brought. Our testimony is not what God has done for us but rather what God is doing right now in our lives. My testimony is new every morning just as his mercy is new every morning!
And mercy is not short in abundance in my life. I swim nearly every day and love to cycle, kayak, play the piano, write, read, crochet, and volunteer. We have some beautiful (inside and out) nephews and a niece that God (and their parents!) have graciously shared with us for the joy that only children can bring! Our network of friends has slowly been founded in a new and healthy way, but even that is still under construction. I also have a mobile scooter and wheelchair lift in my Jeep to allow me the freedom that I have not had in many, many years.
God is a living God and while we are called to look back and rejoice over what He has done we must choose to live in a present-future relationship with Him. As I look forward to the next chapter of life I think back on that decision I made in the hospital as a little girl and am so thankful that I chose to live!