Blessed with Trials
September 1990

“Blessed with Trials,” Ensign, Sept. 1990, 42

St. Johns, Arizona,
Oasis of Faith

Blessed with Trials

This Arizona family sees their problems for what they are—invitations to build strength.

The headlines that morning in Apache County, Arizona’s White Mountain Independent carried the alarming news. Ordinarily, major news in St. Johns is more along the lines of the latest score of a high school game or a report that light steers are now bringing more than $1.30 a pound. That morning in May 1989, however, the news was more troubling than a game score or livestock report, and Ed Kennedy was one of those affected. His job at the Salt River Project’s Coronado Generating Station had been eliminated. So had the jobs of many others.

According to the paper, 490 jobs would be cut during the next four months. By early 1990, a total of 791 jobs would be eliminated, which would mean a loss of some $3.5 million in local incomes. Like the Kennedys, 60 percent of the plant’s employees live in St. Johns. The effect of the layoffs sent shock waves through the entire community.

In the initial cutback, Ed Kennedy, a fuel analyst at SRP, was offered the job of another man, just below him, but “the man’s in my ward, and it didn’t seem right to me that I just slide down the ladder and knock him off, if there’s any other way,” Ed declares. Ed’s preciseness of manner suits him well as a chemist, and his integrity is equally precise. So he declined the position, and SRP reassigned him to its large plant in Phoenix, a half-day’s drive from his home. For more than a year now, Ed has been commuting, driving down on Sunday nights and back on Friday afternoons.

“It’s been tough on the family, especially with my wife’s health condition,” sighs Ed, not mentioning his own health problems. But, he adds, “Lavera and I sought the Lord’s guidance in our move to St. Johns ten years ago, and we’re convinced it’s the right place for us. The people here have been marvelous.”

Job offers have come from other states, but Ed and Lavera agreed that they wanted to remain in St. Johns if at all possible. “We’ve asked our four boys whether they would want to live anywhere else,” smiles Lavera. “And though they’d gladly do whatever we asked, they want to stay right here.”

Private Struggles

No headlines in the press announced any of the other major challenges that the Kennedys have faced. Both Ed and Lavera have endured significant physical ailments. They both suffer from subtle yet crippling diseases—yet you wouldn’t notice it to look at them, nor would you hear about the illnesses if you talked with them. In fact, Ed and Lavera consider their triumph over health problems a testimony of the love and care of the St. Johns community and elsewhere, as well as their four sons’ willing demonstration of respect and support.

In 1978, Lavera began to show symptoms of what has since been diagnosed as a tumor in the hypothalmic region of the brain—so centrally located as to be inoperable. For several years, she suffered the effects without treatment because cranial bones prevented X-rays from verifying the tumor’s presence. As the tumor grew, however, doctors noticed an abnormal production of certain hormones from several of the endocrine glands. The delicate balance of these important fluids had been upset.

Such an imbalance can have widespread effects. For Lavera, it has resulted in severe physical instability. For days at a time, she will be enervated and completely exhausted, the nerves throughout her body hypersensitive to noise, light, smells, or touch. Even to have her bed jostled causes excruciating pain.

Then the pendulum will swing to the other extreme, and Lavera will be so charged with adrenaline that she races around with excessive energy, functioning on very little, if any, sleep. Sister Kennedy’s condition is further complicated because her thymus gland has also enlarged, developing a condition known as myasthenia gravis (or M.G.). Among other things, M.G. affects the brain’s signals to various muscles. In Lavera’s case, it is her right eyelid and left arm, both of which will at times remain limp and unresponsive.

As for Ed’s condition—though he doesn’t like to talk about it any more than Lavera does her illness—his spine is slowly fusing together. He has a steadily developing case of spinal arthritis, a systemic disease that will eventually, according to specialists, result in total fusion of the spinal column. Although Ed is only forty-two, enough of the vertebrae in his back are already fused to make it impossible for him to play his favorite sports—softball and basketball.

Ed’s movement becomes more limited each year, with acute pains from head to foot each morning. Occasionally, while driving, he will turn his head, and shock-like pain will shoot through his body.

Seeing with the Eye of Faith

“During low times,” Lavera says, “I’m forced to remain at home in bed—though I’m grateful that I don’t have to be hospitalized. A good thing that has come from this is that my children have always known where to find me.

“Great sensitivity has been shown when members and friends have adapted their normal methods of support to meet our individual needs. Though frequently it is impossible for me to enjoy any personal contact or visits, we have felt unconditional love as people graciously accept our unique circumstances without judgment or bias.”

Ed adds further that the M.G. Foundation has published a warning, saying, “It can be very difficult for acquaintances to understand chronic illnesses for which there are no visible signs. This is because the ill person ‘looks so well’ and yet simultaneously is experiencing such acute invisible symptoms.” The Kennedys feel extremely fortunate for the keen understanding and innovative methods both friends and family have used to demonstrate their continuous support.

A friendly debate cycles between Lavera Kennedy and her friends. According to Laurie Platt, whatever you share with Lavera Kennedy she’ll give you back double. But to Lavera, such praise is only evidence of the town’s attitude about doing good for each other. “I’ve learned that what people are most grateful for from a friend is a specific and sincere compliment about something they do well,” Lavera says. “Because I’ve made a conscious effort to express my thanks to those who’ve been kind to us, they seem to think I’ve done more. But I really haven’t.”

As for the Kennedy boys, all four are healthy, strong, and handsome. The eldest, Doug, has completed his first year at BYU and is currently serving a mission in Japan. Two of the boys, Chad, seventeen, and Craig, fifteen, attend high school, and the youngest, Marc, twelve, attends middle school. At a glance, they could each pass for the same boy at different phases of his life. All four have taken on extra responsibilities around the house in order to keep it running smoothly. They help out in lots of ways, and as they mature, those ways become truly manifold. Doug fixes and repairs almost everything. Chad tends to do the outside cleaning and maintenance, though he’s been seen vacuuming and sweeping inside. Craig is a great cook, his mother is proud to tell you. And Marc, the youngest, has older brothers eagerly training him to replace them. For now, he spends a good deal of time ironing.

Every morning during the week the phone rings, and Ed checks in with greetings and fatherly directions from Phoenix. Though some of the boys will already be gone to practice with the band or team, each family member can rely on that call.

Almost legendary in the stake are Lavera’s five large, four-drawer files—a meticulously catalogued library of resources for teaching almost any subject at any age-level. “One calling in the stake that my health will allow is being stake resource specialist,” she says. These materials are so well organized that even the boys have become efficient at obtaining the exact document requested.

Ed and Lavera feel that important blessings have come to their family as a result of their challenges. For one thing, their sons have learned to become self-reliant and resourceful. According to Ed, his wife’s unstable health “has required our sons to become very compassionate young men, as they’ve found ways to help her—particularly since I’ve had to be away this past year.” Ed adds, “It is Lavera’s quiet sacrificial work and courage that serves as the driving force and that inspires success in our home.”

Besides being athletes, musicians, and good students, the Kennedy boys are known in the community for being uncommonly kind and polite. They have modeled themselves after their soft-spoken father, whom Lavera prefers to call “our sweetheart,” rather than Dad or Ed.

With Ed gone all week, Lavera and the boys have become expert at coordination, keeping order in the hectic comings and goings, fitting essentials into the two days of the week they have together when Dad’s home. “When I am too weak to walk downstairs, the master bedroom has become our family room,” explains Lavera. “After weekend games or activities, the boys will come into our room. All too often we find ourselves talking and enjoying each others’ company until well past midnight. It’s during these special moments that our family’s heartbeat is monitored and stabilized. Throughout the years these talks have become our favorite tradition.”

Times may be challenging for the Kennedys—as they are for other families in St. Johns—but the support from family, friends, and the Lord makes the burdens seem lighter. “The strength we have derived from this community has been truly heartwarming,” Ed says. “Life is so integrated in St. Johns that the boys’ coaches also serve as their Sunday School teachers or priesthood leaders.” As Lavera says, “It is not uncommon to feel the Spirit of the Lord in the everyday affairs of life here in St. Johns.”

Photography by Wayne Davis, Craig Dimond, and J. Scott Knudsen

Kennedy family, (l. to r.) Craig, Chad, Doug, Ed, Marc, and (seated) Lavera.

Craig and Marc help with their mom’s almost legendary teaching resource files, so well organized that the boys have become efficient at obtaining the exact document requested.