“As long as we are willing, God will make us able,” says Connie Nelson, first counselor in the Chico California Stake Relief Society presidency. This motto is typical of the faith that has sustained her through a history of challenges and sometimes difficult church service.
An early example occurred when Connie was sixteen years old. Her family had moved from Salt Lake City to Iron Mountain, Michigan, where they met in church services with the only other LDS family in the area. On their first day there, Connie was called to play the piano for church meetings.
“I had only one year of lessons, and that when I was six years old,” she recalls. But she had been called to serve as pianist, “so the next day we bought a piano.”
Connie practiced eight hours a day. The first Sunday she picked out hymns with one finger. The second week, she played the melody plus one bass note. By the third week, she was playing hymns. “Church hymns are still the only music I can play,” she says.
It was faith and determination that sustained Sister Nelson through her first major crisis—a fire that almost claimed her life. It started with a small flame in a pan of oil on her kitchen stove. “I did everything wrong,” recalls Sister Nelson, who later taught fire safety mini-class in Relief Society. Thinking only of the safety of her twin three-year-old sons, she grabbed the pan and ran outside with it, pouting flaming oil into her backyard—and on herself.
“I looked at the boys, and they were screaming, ‘Mommy’s on fire! Mommy’s on fire!’” she recalls. Hair and clothing aflame, she ran back through the house to the shower, where she put the fire out. Then “I just ran around semiconscious until they came and took me to the hospital.”
She received a priesthood blessing through her husband, Steve. “I could actually feel the healing spirit working,” she remembers, and her healing was remarkable, though terribly painful. Slowly she resumed her family and church responsibilities.
“At the time, I never believed I would think of the fire as a blessing,” Sister Nelson admits, “but I see now that it was.” She looks upon her few remaining scars as “beauty marks of the soul,” for they remind her of “what might have happened,” and of the value of life.
Strengthened by this experience, she went on to endure and learn empathy from another. “Several years ago,” she recalls, “I began to suffer untold pain and problems.” In her journal she recorded: “For several months I had not been feeling well. The frequency and seriousness of my illnesses increased as time went by. I started experiencing violently ill spells and could find no logical explanation for them.”
Her illness was characterized by severe headaches, trembling, hot and cold flashes, dizziness, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and extreme nervousness. Each spell seemed worse.
In the summer of 1975, traveling with her husband and their three children to visit relatives in Utah, she became so ill that “I truly felt I was going to die.”
She asked Steve for a blessing. It seemed to help, and by the time they reached Salt Lake City she did not need medical treatment.
The next day, she went with her family to the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti. Shortly after the pageant began, “I could feel myself getting ill. It hit me all of a sudden, and it was all I could do to keep from screaming and shouting. I was terrified. I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
Her husband rushed her to a doctor, who reported that she was “all right physically” but was suffering a nervous breakdown. “I couldn’t believe my ears!” Sister Nelson wrote later. “I cannot describe how frightening that prospect was for me! All my life I had prided myself on my self-control. I had felt I was in command of my life—or at least I had until now.”
Sedated, she slept on the return trip to Salt Lake. She woke the next day “feeling better but terribly upset at the doctor’s diagnosis.”
It was her father’s birthday and her family was planning a party, so they drove to Heber City where her father was working. Sister Nelson dropped off her husband and son, Brett, then started the drive back to Salt Lake City with children Brad and Candee in order to help her mother.
Steve was reluctant to let her drive; he was still concerned about her health. But Connie felt well and assured him that she would be fine. After all, the drive back to Salt Lake City would take only an hour.
“Halfway there,” she recorded, “I began to feel a little dizzy. All of a sudden I realized the car was madly swerving from one side of the road to the other. I had no control! We were on a mountain pass and the canyons were steep. Brad was screaming from the back seat, ‘Mommy, stop that! Mommy, stop that!’ How I wished I could.”
The car plunged through a guard rail and dropped seventy feet to the canyon floor. “The only reason we are alive today is because the Lord saved us,” Sister Nelson records. “No one could believe we survived such a crash.”
But survival was not her only concern. “I was haunted by the notion that perhaps I had caused the accident,” she wrote in her journal, “that it wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t ‘crazy.’ It was almost too much for me to bear—to think that I had nearly killed my children!”
Police investigation concluded that the accident had occurred when the left front tire of her car blew, causing the loss of control. The police even congratulated her on her handling of the situation, but it did not allay her fears. “That accident only served to heighten my medical problems,” she wrote, “until I could not function at all.”
Home responsibilities were becoming more difficult. “I honestly believed I’d never be able to spread another peanut butter sandwich,” she recalls. Many visits to doctors and countless tests turned up the answer that “there was nothing physically wrong with me.”
“My spells were becoming worse and much more frequent,” she wrote. “I had reached my wits’ end. If I had not had so much determination, such a loving and supportive family, and such great faith in my Heavenly Father, I shudder to think of what I would have done.”
At this darkest of times she asked a counselor in the stake presidency for a blessing. The following day “the name of a new doctor came so forcibly to me that I could not ignore it—even though I had promised myself that I could never go to another doctor. I called immediately.”
When she met the doctor, she described six symptoms. “He smiled at me and handed me a sheet of paper with the title ‘Seven Symptoms of a Delayed Food Allergy.’ All six of my symptoms were listed clearly and I had the seventh, but had never connected it with the others. I couldn’t believe it; it was too good to be true! Here was the answer to my prayers and a direct result of that priesthood blessing!”
Sister Nelson learned that she was extremely allergic to wheat, corn, milk, nuts, beans, onions, garlic, chocolate, or any of their derivatives. “I have my own special ‘word of wisdom,’” she notes, “and my private year’s supply.”
A few months later she was called to serve as ward Relief Society president, a calling in which she served for three years. She serves in the stake Relief Society presidency and is the stake adoption specialist. She and Steve were a missionary couple in the stake visitors’ center until he was called into the bishopric.
With each new calling, she gladly accepts new responsibilities. “No matter how inadequate we are, God will make us capable to do whatever he calls us to do,” says Sister Nelson. “The program is too important for him to leave us without help and comfort.”
She believes that her illness was part of her preparation. “I don’t think I could have served as Relief Society president if I hadn’t suffered through that illness.” Earlier she had considered herself intolerant. “I am much more empathetic now,” she says.
“Actually,” she adds, “I’m grateful for my allergies. As a side benefit, my family is healthier because we have to plan and prepare carefully everything we eat. I look upon my allergies and my scars as a reminder of the blessings in my life and of my need to rely on my Father in Heaven. If I didn’t have the scars, I might possibly forget the miracles in my life.”