Lisa Sexton discusses her experiences with raising her special needs son, Tyler. Lisa and Tyler also share their amazing story of how, with God's help, Tyler was able to overcome his limitations and pursue a medical degree. (Part 1 of 2)
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Lisa Sexton: God has called mothers, especially mothers with kids who have a special need, He has called them to do an incredible, incredible task. And it's our time to say, I will do that. I want to serve the Lord and He has called me to do this.
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John Fuller: A passionate comment from Lisa Sexton. And today we're returning to one of the most responded to programs of 2014 here at Focus on the Family, Lisa sharing the story of raising her son, Tyler, who has some pretty serious challenges with cerebral palsy. This is "Focus on the Family" and your host is Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, what we're about to share is an inspirational conversation about overcoming challenges and the determination you need when you're raising a child who has special needs. And I'm sure there are many moms and dads who are in that situation, who will lean into the radio today and I hope you do. This program received such incredible outpouring from you. We heard thousands of your comments of your own stories of raising children with special needs. One mom named Bree, shared this with us.
Bree: Thank you for this broadcast. It was so amazing and so timely for me. My baby is currently in the NICU. He was born early at 26 weeks and my other son is speech delayed. My heart is broken for my struggling children, but it was so encouraging to hear Tyler's story, that despite his challenges, he grew up to love and serve the Lord. I needed to hear this message today. Thank you so much, Focus on the Family.
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Jim: That comment highlights our desire here at Focus on the family to come alongside you as you parent. And it is our hope that you are encouraged by the testimony you're about to hear. Maybe you've recently received the news that you'll be having a special-needs child or maybe you've been walking this road a long time and some days I'm sure feel like you've come to the end of your rope. Regardless of where you are, there is hope for the future and this story is gonna prove it.
John: Our guests, as I said earlier, are Lisa Sexton and her adult son, Tyler and they've co-authored a book called God Bless These Little Legs. It chronicles living with cerebral palsy and all the surgeries, the challenges, the difficulties and the joys along the way. Let's go ahead and listen.
Jim: Well, let me say, welcome to "Focus on the Family," both Lisa and Tyler.
Tyler Sexton: Well--
Lisa: Thank you.
Tyler: --thank you very much; it's a pleasure to be here.
Lisa: --so happy to be here.
Jim: Lisa, I want to go back. I've got a big smile on my face, 'cause I know what people are about to hear and I'm smiling and it's coming right from the heart. But take us back 27 years, when you were newly married. I believe you weren't married very long. You weren't working on the family yet.
Jim: God does throw us surprises. And tell us what happened 27 years ago.
Lisa: We had not planned to start a family, so it wasn't one of those things where I came home from the doctor and my husband picked me up and twirled me around and said, "We've gonna have a baby," you know. We were devastated. We were too young. We didn't have a savings account. We didn't have things set for children, so we just weren't ready. But of course, we needed to get ready, because there was a little boy on the way.
And at 28 weeks, Tyler was born. And at that time, when he was born, they wheeled him in to our room in an incubator and they said, "We are going to take him to a hospital four hours away and his lungs will collapse when we go up into the helicopter. And if he dies in flight, we'll let you know right away."
Lisa: I could not hold him. They let me put my hand right through a little hole in the side of the incubator and I was allowed to touch his hand for about 30 seconds.
Jim: And that was it--
Lisa: And that was it.
Jim: --in that moment.
Lisa: They whisked him away and he was gone.
Jim: Lisa, talk about that moment. One of our boys struggled when he was born, as well. And there's a lot of fear and there's a lot of apprehension, a lot of tears at that time. Did you have any idea what Tyler was dealing with as a newborn baby boy? And what were you feeling in your heart as a mother?
Lisa: Well, one thing you feel is hopeless and the other thing you feel is guilty, because you just think, what did I do? I didn't want this baby. We weren't prepared for this baby. Maybe I'm not gonna be a good mother. Your mind begins to wander and the devil attacks you right there. I mean, your faith is kind of crumbled. You don't know how to pray.
We got a call from the neonatal unit a few hours later and the doctor told me, he said, "He probably will not make it through the night and I will leave the respirator on, so his body does not get stiff and you can hold him--
Jim: Oh, my goodness.
Lisa: --for the first and last time before you bury him.
Jim: I mean, that is so blunt and so coarse. That's hard to hear.
Lisa: And you wonder. You're always told as a child, don't ask why to God. And I disagree with that. I've learned to say why. Now I don't always get my answer, but it has allowed me to have a relationship with Him. When I'm askin' why, I'm sayin', I need You. You know, it's a tough thing for mother to watch their children go through something, that--
Lisa: --this little tiny, little boy laid up there. And I would watch men and women drop to their knees in the neonatal unit, as they would lose a child and just sob. And you just think, when are we next?
Jim: Just anticipating--
Lisa: You're exhausted.
Jim: --that it could happen. You and your husband, Kevin, you were only married a short period of time at this point. You didn't have years of wisdom as a couple. So often, when this happens to a young couple, they have a child who is born with some difficulty, it can rip the marriage apart. How did you and Kevin manage that? How did you move forward as a married couple with the weight of caring for this child and all of the facets of that? How did you keep it together?
Lisa: I think first of all, we were both believers when we got married. And I think that's really important, because we didn't make a commitment through the good and the rich and all of those things. We made a commitment through the bad, the poor and the sick. And Kevin is a man of honor. And I often say, I get a lot of credit. I got to be the mom who was sitting by the hospital bed and looking like mother of the year through all 16 surgeries and oh, you know, how wonderful.
What you didn't see is my husband going to work every day and making sure that those hospital bills were paid and that the insurance was covered. Every night [he] would walk in tired and spend the night at the hospital. So, I think one way that we really kept out marriage strong and it's not that it hasn't had its ups and downs, is we needed each other.
Lisa: We held onto each other.
Jim: So, you leaned into each other.
Lisa: We had to. We were desperate. Nobody knew how I felt except for him and nobody could understand him except for me. And it was our burden.
Jim: Oh. You moved along over those very difficult months and then at 18 months, when Tyler hit that mark, you learned some difficult news from the diagnosis. What happened?
Lisa: They took a scan of his brain and they called us in and said, "Your son has cerebral palsy." And we said, "What is it?" We had no idea what it was.
Lisa: And they explained that Tyler would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life, that he would be mentally and physically disabled and that he's gonna be very, very tight, spastic and that he would wear braces. He would go through many surgeries and just not to expect a lot from our child.
Jim: When you heard that news for you and Kevin, what was that night like when you got home? What did you talk about as a couple and I would think that environment, you think of your first child. You have all these dreams of what could be and what does that dialogue sound like between a husband and wife?
Lisa: I'll never forget it. Kevin was working second shift at the time, so I took Tyler home by myself. And I closed every blind in my house. I closed every curtain and I mourned--
Lisa: --for about two days.
Jim: Just cried.
Lisa: And what I cried about was, I needed to mourn that I lost the normal baby--
Lisa: --that my life was not gonna be a white picket fence with a pretty house and going to the baseball diamond like we had dreamed. And after those two days, I opened every curtain and I opened my heart. And I went out and got Tyler out of his crib and he sat on my lap and I said, you know, "You are going to be the cutest, sweetest, smartest, most darling little boy with cerebral palsy and I'm gonna be proud of you."
Lisa: And I chose to get up and praise God that day.
Jim: And boy, I'm sorry, I'm choked up, but that tone that you set as mom and I'm sure your husband, Kevin, as well, what a great environment. Tyler, let's bring ya in. We've been talkin' about you (Laughter). It's probably a little uncomfortable to sit here and hear all that, but man, from your earliest memories, take us back. What do you recall about your mom and dad and your home?
Tyler: Oh, man, it's just been incredible and when we retell these stories, every time I still can't believe how good God has been and just how people say no and God says yes. And that's really what it's been. And as a child, I just remember from the beginning, at first I remember my parents were there at every surgery. I knew my mom was always there, 'cause her tears would fall on my face before and after each surgery.
Tyler: They'd wheel me out and I would be waking up and there she would be in some of these difficult times. But then as I got older, one of the things I always applaud my parents for and thank God every day is, that they dared me to dream.
Tyler: There were things that if I wanted to be a basketball player, they said sure. You know, you're gonna do it. You're gonna have the nicest shoes you can do and you may not be able to run back and forth, but we're gonna play half court. Or you know, hey, if he wants to try certain things, we're gonna try to make that happen and make it as good as we possibly can and enjoy what we can. And so, they dared me to dream and reach for the moon. And that's really what's been impacted on me my entire life, because it's allowed me to say, you know what? I can do this.
Jim: Oh. And I'm not gonna spoil that. In a minute, we're gonna talk about the rest of your life and where you're at today--
Jim: --because I think it is an amazing God-story--
Jim: --of what's happened. But I don't want to uh--
Jim: --kinda tip my hand to that yet. Lisa, let's talk about that moment. The title of your book, God Bless These Little Legs and what Tyler's expressing there, talk about how you would pray over your boy.
Lisa: A lot of times we would pray as a family and then Tyler and I had a lot of time in the hospital together alone. And when you're in the hospital for 30 days, everybody comes runnin' to see you the first couple and then it's like, oh, no; it's a long stay.
So, we had to learn to kind of do things on our own. And so, we would have prayer times where Tyler really learned at a young age, just to talk to the Lord--
Lisa: --it didn't need to be this beautiful elaborate prayer. It didn't need to be this thing where some people are so intimidated to pray and I used to be. And I'm not anymore, because I'm talkin' to my Father.
Jim: What a great gift. And Tyler, I'm sure even as a boy, you remember that. That perhaps is the most important thing we can teach our children is--
Tyler: Oh, absolutely.
Jim: --to have a relationship with God and to pray to Him.
Tyler: Absolutely and to learn quickly that He does care and that I'm perfect in His sight. And to say that He listens to even the simplest of desires, you know. Sometimes we wonder, does God really care about what's going on today? And I tell you guys, he really does, from the simplest of how['s] the meeting gonna go to a conversation you have to have or whatever it is. He really does and I learned that you can ask Him for the simplest of things and He's gonna answer--
Tyler: --those prayers. And in some ways, you know, for me, it was about, "Lord, can I learn how to clean myself up after I use the bathroom without falling off the toilet?"
Tyler: That was a small miracle and that was an answer to prayer. And so, I learned how to look at these small miracles and ask God for the small things that would end up eventually, leading to bigger things.
Jim: We need to paint that picture, because people are hearing your voice and they're not able to think about or see what you have to live with every day because of your situation. Describe for us, especially as a child, what was occurring physically.
Tyler: Well, I think it's hard to express. I mean there are days, constantly you live in pain. As a child, I would wake up spastic. My legs would quiver. Sometimes my knees would give out. Some days I couldn't get out of bed. I would try, as I learned how to walk and become more independent and having to use a walker and then graduated it up. I would always want try to keep up with the other kids, so I would say, I can do this. I can keep up.
And I wanted to try to portray that I am normal. And you know, everybody's handicapped. Mine the world can see, but we're all struggling with something. And so, that's something that I want people to realize, that though mine is physical, I can do this and be with you as a child. So, I would try to push myself in these ways. And some days, couldn't get out of bed the next day.
Tyler: I used to fall four to six times a day. I broke a lot of my bones from falling, from the knees to the wrist, to the fingers, from falling, having to get back up and a lot of bruises, a lot of broken bones and a lot of tears. You know, I walk with a gait that throws the hips out. The knees touch together. They used to call me a penguin. They used to call me a variety of different names as a child. I was never picked first for any sport. I had to show people that being different didn't mean you didn't need to approach me, as a kid.
And so, it was an interesting component of that. And then of course, you still live in pain, you know, to this day and of course, things have other avenues and things like Gunner, my service dog have learned to help. But there's always days with pain.
John: You're listening to "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and our guests are Lisa and Tyler Sexton. God Bless These Little Legs is the book that they've written that captures this incredible journey that they've been sharing about today. And I'll encourage you to get a CD or a download of this conversation to share with somebody who needs a lifeline and needs some hope, Jim. A lot of parents struggle. A lot of us just struggle in life generally, as Tyler observed. And you can get that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Tyler, let me take you back to something you said, because we all grow up with I think, a degree of a lack of self-confidence um--
Jim: --particularly boys, you talked about sports when you're not picked. Help us feel what that was like. I mean, being called names and being ridiculed at times, how did you get through that as a 6-, 7-, 10-year-old boy, to take those kind of darts and manage it?
Tyler: You know, it's funny, because I remember one time I came home from school and I told mom one day, I was in art class and was talkin' to a boy. He was askin' me about my legs and these kind of things. And I said, "You know, God made me this way. I have a disability," these kind of things. And I got to tell him about Jesus and I learned at an early age, it's not about me. It's about Jesus.
Tyler: And I remember tellin' mom, I said, "I know why God had me have CP; it's so I could tell other people about Christ."
Tyler: I specifically remember in fourth grade, I was out in a ... in the yard with all the kids doing physical education, right. And so, they make us all do jumping jacks. And I was doin' my jumping jacks and there was a substitute PE teacher there. And all of a sudden, I was doin' my jumping jacks, clumsy attempts as they were. And he shouted out. He said, "Kid, you're in fourth grade. That's the best you can do? Quit clowning around." Well, that was the best--
Jim and John: Hm ... ah.
Tyler: --that I could do.
Jim: And this was your teacher, the substitute.
John: Oh, wow.
Tyler: --teacher. You know, and so, early on I learned how to you know, I didn't eloquently know it as best as I do now, but I learned that I couldn't let my circumstances define my attitude.
Tyler: And so, and that really was what it was. I was gonna have a great day and I learned to count my blessings early. If I couldn't fall, then I couldn't walk. If I didn't get made fun of the way that I'm walking, I wouldn't be walking. So, I've learned to count my blessings. And there are way too many to count. And that's really what it has been for me and it's just been incredible.
John: You're speaking right there to something I'm living presently as a parent, Tyler. I have a special-needs son and you know, around third, fourth grade, he's becoming acutely aware that he's different. And he desperately wants to blend in. And he's asked questions like, "Well, can God heal me?" Did you have those moments? But I mean, what you're talking about is many of us don't ever get.
Tyler: I'm actually very glad you asked. There was a time after actually that moment happened in the park, when they had me do jumping jacks, where I came home and I told my mom I didn't want to be me anymore.
Tyler: I said, I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want cerebral palsy. I don't want to live in pain. I don't want to be made fun of. And all of a sudden, she takes me into my room, sits me on my bed and she starts throwing everything out of my room, from my clothes to my Nintendo. You know, everybody likes an Nintendo, even now, let's be honest.
And so, [she] threw everything out and I just started to cry. The one person that I, you know, trusted more in this world than anything else, she threw it all. And she kept taking, "What can I take away from you?" I said, "I don't know." She kept throwing everything.
And says, "What can't I take away from you?" "I don't know; you've taken everything." She said, "No, I haven't." My room was bare. There was nothin' on the walls, just my sheets on the bed literally. And she said, "What can't I take away from you." I said, "You've taken everything." She said, "No, I haven't." She said, "I can't take who God made you and the spirit He gave you," that I was alive and I was me and I was a blessing.
Tyler: And ever since that moment, it's just really been an incredible adventure. And I've learned early, you know, there's a lot of things. I'd rather walk with a limp in Christ than a strut in the world.
Tyler: I've learned that.
Tyler: And it's kept me humble and I've learned when 80 percent of your back's on a gurney as a child, you learn to trust something greater and it's Jesus Christ is that Something greater for me. And as we talked further, only because of Christ do I sit in front of you for so many reasons.
Jim: Oh, Tyler, I mean, you are bringin' it. I mean, you're--
Tyler: It's just the truth.
Jim: --sayin' exactly what we should all be doing, whether we can walk normally or not.
Jim: Lisa, where did you find the wisdom to come up with something like that as a mother, to say, okay, I've got to draw a spiritual truth here? I mean, what a brilliant way to tell your little boy what he means in God's eyes. I mean, where did you find that wisdom?
Lisa: You know, when you were talkin' about your son, you know, I'm no different than anyone else. I am not smarter. I am not wiser. I'm really not. But the one thing that I believe with all of my heart and when you say, can God heal him, you know, "Daddy, can God heal me?"
Lisa: I believe that in a snap of a finger, God could've healed Tyler--
Lisa: --in His power. But I believe in His wisdom He chose not to, because I wouldn't be who I am today. And Tyler wouldn't be who he is. We wouldn't be the family that we are. We wouldn't be close. We wouldn't be as connected to the Lord.
Lisa: Sometimes I think we get into legalism instead of relationship.
Lisa: And so, for me, the wisdom was that God didn't heal Tyler and that we chose to be able to walk this journey with him.
John: As he was sharing that story, you were back there. I mean, your memory was vivid. I was watching your reaction as he talked about that. Was that just God sayin', here's what I want you to do? Did that just happen? I mean, how did you figure out-
Lisa: Well, you--
John: --that it would be good to empty the room right here?
Lisa: You feel awful doing these things. But you know, when Tyler was 5-year-old, his physical therapist, who had earned the right to give me advice and to tell me when I was wrong--she was with us for years--she made a deal with me. And she said, "This little boy, who walks with a little walker ..." and the walker would kinda go behind him and it was on wheels. And Tyler began to walk and he had his braces on. And she said, "Lisa, if I can get him to where he can lean down and pick up an Easter egg, we'll tie a basket to his walker and it is time for you to take him out of a bubble and take him to the park and let him be with normal kids."
Lisa: And when you talk about wisdom, it wasn't always my wisdom. It was other people praying for us, giving me advice, telling me, encouraging me. And so, Michele began to explain to me that he needed to be with kids his own age. You gotta get him out of the bubble.
So, sure enough, Tyler worked really hard. He wanted to go to the Easter egg hunt. So, she got great therapy out of him. And you have to remember, it took months to be able to do this. It wasn't just one day teaching him. It was therapy after therapy.
So, one afternoon we went to North City Park and I lined my child up with all the others. And our daughter, Emily was all dressed for Easter and they had matching outfits and the gun went off. And all the kids began to run and there was my little boy, hobbling down a beautiful grassy field all by himself way back.
And I was mad. I had sunglasses on and I was angry and I thought, you people have so much advice for me. You tell me all these things to do, but I'm the one that's gonna take this little boy home with no eggs and explain to him why he's different.
And I caught up with Tyler and my eyes were filled with tears. And I looked down and I went to tell him how sorry I am. And he looked up at me and Tyler would talk real "Dutchy" when he was little. And he said, "Look at all the eggs in my Easter basket." And I said, "Oh, my word. How did you get all of those?" He said, "Oh, the kids are runnin' so fast that the eggs are poppin' out of their baskets and I'm pickin' 'em up." (Laughter)
That day in the park I knelt down and this is what the Holy Spirit told me without a doubt in my mind, He said, "You give this little boy to me and his basket will be full of blessings"--
Lisa: --"so many they won't fit. You have to turn him over to Me. It's not about takin' him out of a bubble for ... to be with other kids. It's takin' him out of a bubble so that I can use this little boy in the way I need to use him."
Jim: My goodness.
Lisa: And I got up from that day in the park and I thought, I will do my best to not take this little boy and put him in a bubble ever again, that God had a special plan and purpose for him. And I think that's where the wisdom came from, where I knew that He had something different.
Jim: Lisa, what you're expressing there again is not just common to a parent of a special-needs child. I think many of us as parents, want to protect and keep our children safe at all costs, to the point that we don't let them live and we don't let them experience failure. And therefore, we don't let them in some ways, experience God's salvation in their circumstances. And I think what you're sayin' there is so profound, not just again, for the parent of a special-needs child, but for all of us as parents.
We need to come back next time to tell the rest of the story, 'cause we want to hear more about Dr. Tyler Sexton.
John: It's so easy to see why this message resonated so much, Jim, with our listeners when we first aired it.
Jim: John, every day here at Focus on the Family, our goal is to put an arm around you who are really in a struggle, whatever that might be. It's marriage; it's parenting. It's something related to the family. That is absolutely why we are here. We have caring Christian counselors who are available to walk through that difficult situation, provide resources for you to provide guidance and direction on what you might do and hopefully, provide you with a biblical solution to what you face.
In fact, last year alone, we help, according to the research that we've done, 150,000 families successfully work through a crisis involving their children. And let me say thank you to each one of you who have prayed for us, who have supported us financially, for allowing us to be at that point of need, so that we could provide that help I just talked about. If you believe in what we're doing here to serve families in the name of Christ, will you help us. Here at the end of the year it's so important that we hear from you. About half of the budget is raised in about a 60-day period for the entire year. It tends to come in the end of November and December here. And today when you make that donation of any amount to help us meet those needs, your gift's going to be doubled because of some gracious friends to Focus on the Family. And hopefully, this is kind of a fun way that they can incentivize many of us to provide a gift to Focus on the Family and they're gonna double it. And it's a great way to end the year. And if you can make that donation, do it today. So often, I make a commitment in my heart to give and I wait a week and then by that time sometimes I forget, to be honest. So, if you can do that today, I really would appreciate it.
John: And you can make that donation right now at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or by calling 1-800-232-6459; 800-A-FAMILY. And when you get in touch, know that in addition to your gift being doubled, we'll also send the 2-CD set of this conversation with the Sexton's, which includes an entire third day of Lisa sharing openly about the depression she faced while raising Tyler in such difficult circumstances, even to the point of attempting to take her own life. It's a gripping story. Make that donation right now at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.
And when you get in touch, also ask for a copy of our entire Best of 2014 Collection, including the message we've heard today, as well as ones from Shaunti Feldhahn about marriage, Dr. Juli Slattery, Dr. David Clarke, Lecrae and others. This is a collection that you'll want to hear over and over again and maybe even share with some friends or family members.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow for more from Lisa and Tyler Sexton, as we once again, provide encouragement to help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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