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 “Wow, Ashly is amazing” but rather to show how amazing Jesus Christ is as our Savior and first love. Where better to start than the beginning?
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 taught us from the time we were babies about Jesus, about the Bible, and how Jesus loved each one of us. 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. Their small child that was healthy and happy just a week before was about to undergo cancer treatments and amputation.
The next year was a whirlwind. My parents took me to the most famous hospital on the east coast at the time (1989) which was 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 (John) had to maintain his job to cover expenses at home and my one year old little sister (Amanda) 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 and yet another long and lonely week of sickness and fear would begin.
But 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.
I 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.
I believe in my heart that God’s mercy was with me that day in giving me a choice. While in the many years since I have wondered if I made the right choice I am so glad that I did choose to live a full life on earth. Shortly after that (a day or week I have no idea as I was only four and time was so muddled in my mind anyway) I lay there again in such pain staring at the upper left corner of my room. I looked to my right and I saw a man walk into my room dressed in white. The man walked over to the side of the bed, sat down, and held my hand. My mom was watching TV in the other part of the room and I remember just looking at him feeling his hand on mine, and then he got up and slowly left. I knew at four years old that this was Jesus.
At the time I remember hearing them tell me I may “see things” after the operation so I never repeated this to anyone but I knew that what I saw wasn’t just a hallucination. I saw Jesus.
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”.
During that year in the hospital 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. Boredom, being a highly active four year old contained to a bed and playroom was a battle I was forced to fight through as well.
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 I was still viewing life as a battle and seeing battles where there were none.
As I grew up from there I always felt 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 made it appear.
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 God on top of feeling alone I so desperately sought friendships. Of course, that was a point when I feel sunk into a dark pit and joined others that were struggling just the same. I started hanging out with coworkers and 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 badly I treated him or turned 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. 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 rationalizing them. The chaos and the vicious cycles of destruction that are so apparent now were so normal to me and I thrived off of that.
What I didn’t realize during this time was that I was 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 Pam particularly embraced me and loved me during this time in a way that allowed me to really feel the love of God like I had never experienced. 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 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 this 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 truly realize 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 me “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 slowly 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 character judgements about my personal safety and boundaries. I began to relate to situations that I was in and discern them in a neutral way 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!
A year or so into asking Jesus to help me live my life the doctors told me that if I didn’t return to wearing a prosthetic leg (to alleviate some of the stress on my hands from the crutches) I should expect to be mobile only by wheelchair around the age of forty. This was a huge challenge to the things I had been learning and to the fact that I had laid at the Cross any type of reliance on me-myself-and-I. But determined to approach this a new way I turned to prayer. Jesus spoke to me through this time both to my heart and through trusted friends as He guided me forward; leading me in peace to the right prosthetist and the process of getting a prosthetic leg made. I decided that with Jesus I already had a leg up!
In this time I also met Rick and 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 and while we didn’t lose much other than a place to live we had the honor of watching God work that into us purchasing our cute and cozy first home. In 2013 I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes (due to the chemotherapy making my pancreas weaker over the many years since cancer). I had had to completely change my diet and lifestyle around this disease but through this have seen God come through on so many levels of my health and well being that we can hardly call it a detriment!
Even as I write this we are waiting on God to bring us into having a family of our own. He is always moving and always working in our lives! I’ve learned in and through the journey of my life that I really did have an invaluable foundation in the word of God and experienced the true Christ as a child.
I have also learned that formulating the wrong mindsets can really set people back and imprison them. It doesn’t mean they are bad or that they do not believe or even that they aren’t saved but rather it means they are wounded and are lacking the right set of “tools for life’s toolbox”. I don’t judge anyone’s journey or walk because I know that 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. 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!
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!