How would you react if you suddenly went blind? In this interview we are talking to Gary Emery, who lost his sight about four months ago, and his wife, Joneile. Gary serves as the regional executive director for Open Bible’s Pacific region. Joneile is an artist and also serves in many facets of regional ministry.
Message: Gary, describe the morning you first lost your sight.
Gary: It really happened in two phases. In 2014 I was doing our regional conference in Spokane. I didn’t understand what was going on at first as I was having difficulty seeing, but my left eye had gone blind during the night. I kind of stumbled through the rest of the conference, got home, and found out that my optic nerve in that eye had died. A specialist told me that one out of five people who experience this type of loss would eventually lose sight in the other eye. After about a year I felt like I had dodged that bullet, but in October of 2019 I was returning from a missions trip to Costa Rica and noticed everything was going dark in the airplane. Within a day I was meeting with the specialist again, and he confirmed the optic nerve in my right eye was gone.
Message: What went through your mind when it first dawned on you that your sight was mostly gone?
Gary: At first it felt as if I would wake up and realize I had experienced a bad dream, but then you realize it is real. Outside a miracle, this is permanent.
It’s been four months now. A couple things help: first, the grace of God and great support from my wife and friends. You realize that although this is the “rest of your life,” you really live only one day . . . and then you live the next day. That old phrase “one day at a time” is really true. I would think, “I don’t know if I can bear this the rest of my life, but I can bear it today.” The second thing is that years ago I learned how our emotions are formed and how to change our emotions. Because of that and by God’s grace, I haven’t gone into a depression hole. If someone had told me years ago this would happen, I think I would have curled up into a fetal position.
Message: What do you mean you can change your emotions?
Gary: Emotions are not created by our circumstances. We get a scary diagnosis or a letter in the mail or we lose our job. We think the event created the emotion, but it is not true. It’s not the event but what we believe at that moment that creates the emotion. So there is the event, and then there is the belief we have about that event, and then there is the emotion. If I have the belief that my life as a blind person is going to be horrible and there are no good times ahead and I have nothing to offer the Kingdom, that’s what creates the depressed emotion. Instead I can face it and say, “This is a hard thing, but I have been through other hard things, and God will be there with us and He will give us opportunities to make a difference for Him in other ways like we haven’t before, and we are going to have a great life!” I have to contend for that. But that belief is what creates the emotion.
Joneile: When this happened, we held each other and made a pact to remember that this has not changed who God is or who we are. We are going to take advantage of the things we like to do. We are going to enjoy life. People go through worse things than this. It is tragic. But if you treat it as “this is going to ruin my life,” then you will miss every good thing that comes from just being alive and being together. We’re not buying that. We are going to cling to each other and cling to the Lord and anticipate all the good things we are going to experience together.
Gary: Outside of a miracle (which we’re praying for) this is it; there is no medical cure. We believe in miracles, but we are not going to wait for one.
Joneile: We also believe that this could be one of the best testimonies ever because Gary’s case has been so documented; his optic nerves are dead. Imagine if the Lord chooses to heal that…!
Message: Joneile, you and Gary are both pretty independent and lead busy lives. How has this situation changed your life? Your relationship?
Joneile: Gary and I were best friends before we felt romantic about each other and got married. He’s the person I would most rather spend time with than anyone on the planet. The good thing is that this has thrust us together; we are more of a team. Of course, there’s a downside. He can’t drive. There are inconveniences that come with that. But I’m less ambitious at this age about chasing every opportunity and more excited about being home with our routine.
And he has family. I could call his sister who lives in California, and she would gladly come up for a week. Lots of friends, lots of men pastors would love to spend time with him. I don’t feel boxed in.
Gary: I don’t know what people would do if they had a bad marriage and something like this would happen.
Joneile (laughing): It’s a good thing we like each other.
Message: Gary, how do you cope with what I would think must be an increased sense of dependence?
It’s been four months now. A couple things help: first, the grace of God and great support from my wife and friends. You realize that although this is the “rest of your life,” you really live only one day . . . and then you live the next day. That old phrase “one day at a time” is really true. I would think, “I don’t know if I can bear this the rest of my life, but I can bear it today.”
Gary: It’s hard because I have run at a fast pace my entire life. I multitask pretty well. One thing in addition to the dependence factor is that my pace just has to be slower because I do need other people to do certain things for me. Even just walking through a room . . . if I walk too fast, I will trip over something. That’s frustrating. You try to do as many things for yourself as you can, and every day gets a little better. Early on I would try to help with dishes or brew coffee and would drop something or spill something and end up making a bigger mess. But you have to keep trying. You have to keep making messes if you’re going to get on the other side of this. There are some things I can’t do at all, but I’m trying every day to do one new thing.
Joneile: The Oregon Commission for the Blind has assigned him two trainers. One is a mobility coach that helps him with things like getting up the stairs to go work out and walking with a cane. But training comes one piece at a time and you still must live your life, so he’s in the midst of it. I would guess it will take a year before he becomes proficient. The other coach they assigned him is a technology coach. He is training him how to navigate with an iPhone. Every iPhone has “VoiceOver” technology, so if you can’t see the screen, you can still operate the phone. However, it is very complicated.
At work his staff has helped so much. It’s hard for him because if one of us at the office is helping him, he knows we aren’t getting our other stuff done.
Message: Joneile, have these circumstances changed your sense of security, and if so, how?
Joneile: I depended on Gary to kill spiders and get up in the night when I heard a sound. Just last night the security system alarm at the office went off, and we got dressed and went to check on it. We are willing ourselves to trust God and not be afraid.
Gary can talk me through a lot of things he would have done. But there is a whole rack of stuff you don’t realize your husband does, like when we travel. So we get the rental car and guess who’s driving downtown everywhere – all over L.A. and other places I’ve never been? It’s me! I’ve had to pull up my courage a bit, and I’ve had to say to the Lord, “Cover us.” We do get through it, but it does feel a little weird.
The reality is, our husbands can only protect us to a point. There are few things in life you really have control over. We’ll do the best we can and trust God for what is deficient. We do have people around us. Our nephew lives in an apartment under our house and our son is near us.
Message: It’s fun to see people who have been together as partners and see how their relationship grows even stronger through something like this.
Joneile: I think when people see a Christian suffer, someone who loves God and is committed to Him, there is a beauty to that. It’s hard for people to look away from it. It’s counterintuitive that you thank God for every day even though it’s so altered. When we apprehend everything we’ve ever taught about what the Bible says, about who God is and how we serve Him, that this is the short life and we are servants of another kingdom, we can trust that God brings joy in that. People that know God know that He died to give us peace, joy – to fill our lives with what it means to be near Him and how good that is – and that is enough. We in America don’t know what’s it’s like to be stripped of stuff, but when you are stripped of things that are crucial to you, He is still enough, and more than enough. That is a testimony that nobody can take away.
Gary: We would love to have a miracle. But our faith isn’t in that. Our faith isn’t in getting what we want. That’s a shallow, thin, and misdirected faith. Our faith is in the Lord. The three Hebrew children said, “Our God is able to deliver us from this fire, but even if He does not . . . we’re not bowing down to you.” That’s faith in God irrespective of results. We don’t want to have “results faith” but “regardless faith.”
Message: Gary, you said that asking the “why” questions doesn’t help. Could you unpack that a bit?
Gary: The why questions are going to come, usually for me in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Here’s the thing with asking why: Those answers are not things that you can apprehend or pry out of something . . . and when you try to do it you will probably end up with the wrong answer. Instead, what we are trying to do is focus on the “what.” God, what do we do now? There is plenty we need to deal with right now, so we say, “What do we need to do in this moment?” That’s enough. If I need to know why, I will know. There could be mysteries we will never know.
Joneile: There is mystery in suffering. Some of the why questions will be answered on this side, but most won’t. We can concoct answers, but then can be like Job’s comforters.
Gary: Knowing the answer to a why question doesn’t get you anywhere anyway. So what if we know why. You still have to move through your day and figure out how to do life.
Message: Gary, we know your faith, your sense of humor, and your amazing wife and colleagues have been a huge help to you. What could the average person you encounter do to help you?
Gary: The greatest value of using my cane is that it says to people around me, “This guy can’t see.” I’ll be moving through an airport and people will see me struggling to find something and come up and say, “May I help you?” Just ask first. My mobility coach told me a story of being in San Jose. He needed to cross the street and some guy who spoke a different language grabbed him by the back of the shirt. The guy then semi-dragged my poor coach across the street all the time speaking a different language. My coach couldn’t help but wonder if he was being kidnapped! Simply ask if you can help. People are extraordinarily kind.
The why questions are going to come, usually for me in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Here’s the thing with asking why: Those answers are not things that you can apprehend or pry out of something . . . and when you try to do it you will probably end up with the wrong answer. Instead, what we are trying to do is focus on the “what.” God, what do we do now? There is plenty we need to deal with right now, so we say, “What do we need to do in this moment?” That’s enough. If I need to know why, I will know. There could be mysteries we will never know.
Joneile: We try to keep a sense of humor about all the crazy things that happen instead of being angry or sensitive. We laugh about stuff. When people realize we are relaxed about it, they are happy to help.
Message: Joneile, how can people help you?
Joneile: By encouraging me to enjoy life and to take breaks when I need to. I’m meeting a friend today for coffee. She carries a huge load in her ministry, and she is one of the people that makes me laugh. We are going to a junk shop that’s owned by a friend of hers, and we will drink some really good coffee together. Having normal things going on that are part of our lives keep me going. I come back with a clear head, excited about life again. Don’t assume that we don’t have time for “those things” anymore.
Message: There are people reading this that have just received life-altering news. What would you tell them?
Joneile: Don’t isolate yourself. Continue to enrich yourself in the relationships God has put around you – good friends, a good church, and good family. Draw close to them. Be honest with your feelings. So, if you’re having a bad day be honest about that. Even with a good outlook and trusting God, like Gary says, we have to contend for that. There are days we don’t feel on top of things and we feel like everything’s too much. Be honest about that. That lets everyone in and allows them to be part of your life as they always have been and allows you to not feel alone.
Gary: You need to ask yourself, “At a gut level, what is it I really believe?” What do you believe in this moment about your life, your future, about God, about who you are? Second, in blindness there is disorientation; there are challenges to your balance. [In life] you can lose perspective as well. You feel as if you’re in a hole, as if your compass is off. So if you feel like you are in a hole and can’t find your way out or you are disoriented, go to a specialist or some type of Christian counselor or therapist. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Joneile: Those moments can be temporary if you ask for help.
Anything that is life-altering begs the questions: What is the quality of my own life? How can I still appreciate the things that are important to me, that are my goals? You have to inventory what is truly important to you. Maybe decorating your house is not as important as you thought it was. Maybe now you are more for comfort. Reassess what’s truly important. Invest in that. Drink from the blessings of knowing the Lord and having people you love. Draw deeper from the well.
Gary: We are so thankful for our Open Bible family. We have received words of encouragement from people all over the country and even in some of the other countries we’ve worked in. It’s wonderful to have that kind of support.
Gary Emery serves as Open Bible’s Pacific Regional Executive Director. Joneile Emery is an artist and also serves in many facets of regional ministry. Gary and Joneile have been married for 40 years and have two sons, a wonderful daughter-in-law, and three beautiful grandkids.