Like other young couples, Dennis and Claudia Hiatt looked forward to a bright, untroubled future when they married in 1968. That’s what you do when you’re young and healthy.
And for a while that’s the way it was. Dennis had a good job and strong prospects with an engineering company. The Hiatts were living in Whittier, California, when Claudia gave birth to their first child, Heather. But shortly after Heather’s birth, Claudia began to have difficulty with the muscles in her legs. They would give way unexpectedly, and she would fall.
For Claudia, the problem went from alarming to terrifying. What if she fell and hurt herself while Dennis was not available to help? Worse, perhaps, what if she hurt her baby? At 24, she had to wonder if she would even be around to raise her daughter. Could this problem, whatever it was, take her life? Worry brought her close to despair at times.
And there was the pain, often a constant companion. She felt it intensely in her muscles. “It was pain that went right to the bone!” There were excruciating cramps and spasms of virtually all the muscles of her body. Sometimes Claudia’s only method of dealing with it was to rock back and forth in bed or on a chair singing softly to herself, “I Need Thee Every Hour.” Simple tasks such as buttoning her children’s clothing would be nearly impossible. Through the years, her medical condition has also affected her body in ways requiring surgery or other treatment to correct damage that was done.
It took years, and a number of visits to different doctors as the Hiatt family changed locations, before the problem was properly diagnosed—spinal muscular atrophy.
It is a disease for which there is no cure. Major symptoms include a gradual but progressive weakening in the large motor muscles of the body, with weakness in the legs generally greater than weakness in the arms. Claudia’s case may not be completely typical. For her, the disease has not been disfiguring as it is for some people, but it has forced her through the years to adapt to gradual loss of strength and mobility. When Heather was small, Claudia simply could not carry her around as readily as other mothers might have. The difficulty became progressively worse as her other children—Michele, Brittany, David, and Spencer—came along. When Spencer was a baby, she had to use a stroller to move him around in the house, or sometimes she would drag him on a towel or blanket. In time she had to recognize the need for her to use a wheelchair.
Not all of her pain has been physical. Some has been emotional—the pain of not being able to serve her husband and family as she has wanted, of trying to help her children deal with insensitivity and even ridicule from their peers because of their mother’s disability. Additional burdens have fallen on Dennis, both in caring for his family at home and in limitations on his career. The Hiatt children have had to help at home in addition to dealing with limitations on their own activities. But Claudia and Dennis as a couple, and the family as a group, have met their physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges with faith and perseverance and often with generous, deliberate doses of the good humor that is a family strength.
Claudia has not conceded easily to limitations. Her approach from the beginning has been that when something needed doing and the disease made it difficult, she would simply find a way.
“I’m a very independent person,” she says. “I had to learn to accept people’s help and be gracious about it.” A wise member of her stake presidency once taught her, Claudia recalls, that she needed to allow others to serve her so that they could fulfill the Lord’s commandments and follow His spiritual direction.
The majority of her help, of course, has come from those closest to her—Dennis and their children. Her husband has taken on tasks that many men do not expect to have to shoulder in marriage. “I have been blessed with the most wonderful husband,” Claudia says. “This man has stuck by me through thick and thin, and we’ve had to go through some very hard times in dealing with this illness.” There have been surgeries, broken bones, and lingering sickness, but Claudia chooses not to dwell on them; she simply handles them and moves on. Dennis has not hesitated to take on any of the work in the home as needed—washing the clothes, cleaning the house, bathing and dressing the children. It was not something that began only when her illness was diagnosed, Claudia says, but an attitude he brought to their marriage in the beginning. “The bond of love between Denny and me has grown stronger over the years. He has always been there for me, to hold me in his arms, to comfort me, to give me a blessing, to encourage me.” With him, it was safe to cry when she needed to.
Over time, as Claudia’s disease has progressed, they have adapted as necessary, Dennis says. “I’ve held back, letting her do as much as she can. But when a thing becomes a ‘no-doer,’ I pick it up. There are things that have to be done, and if one person can’t do them, then the other one does.”
Their children were also enlisted to help, beginning at very young ages.
“I’ve never had a mother without a disability,” says Heather Meier, their oldest. While there were difficulties in dealing with her mother’s disability when Heather was young, she eventually overcame them. Learning to deal with them “elevated where I was. It enhanced my ability to have compassion.” Because of Heather’s experiences with her mother, she has found it easy to reach out to others with disabilities or special needs. “She’s my hero,” Heather says. “There hasn’t been anything thrown at her that she hasn’t dealt with positively.”
The Hiatts’ second child, daughter Michele Collins, echoes that sentiment. Michele herself has had to deal with diabetes and the birth of a son who was deaf. (Now a toddler, he has had a successful cochlear implant.) “I don’t know if I could have dealt with what I have without my mother’s example,” Michele says.
Claudia’s tenacity in doing everything she could for herself meant that for a number of years Michele did not realize it was out of the ordinary to have a mother with a disability. All of the Hiatt children seem to have accepted it as a matter of course. An experience with Spencer when he was a young boy illustrates. Claudia fell in the grocery store while shopping and could not get up by herself. She told Spencer, who was riding in the grocery cart, what to do. At her direction, he climbed down, scooted a chair from the nearby pharmacy waiting area to her so she could use it to stand, scooted the chair back to its place, then climbed back into the grocery cart.
Spencer, like the other Hiatt children, recalls times when he was not free to do all of the things his friends could do because he was helping his mother. Some friends were not understanding about that. Others were understanding enough to help him with his chores. But as a result of service together in the home, his best friends were his siblings, especially his older brother, David.
David says now that he is married, he is trying to apply lessons learned from his parents’ example to his own relationship. “I think the major thing my wife and I are trying to implement is to love each other for who we really are and not what we might appear to be on the outside.”
While some young people do not fully appreciate the contributions of their mothers in their lives, David says, “not a day goes by that I take my mother for granted.” He points out that the love he and his siblings learned through service in the family has helped all of them deal with difficulties they have faced.
So, too, has their ability to meet challenges in life with good humor.
“We are a family of ‘EAs,’” Dennis says, smiling. He translates the term: “Easily amused.” Family members find things to laugh about and ways to keep each other’s spirits up when they are together. “We can laugh and have a good time over some of the most foolish things,” Dennis says. “But we just laugh and have a good time.” This good humor is a trait shared by Claudia’s sisters and her extended family, who have offered great support through her difficulties.
Claudia says it is more than simply useful; it is necessary to develop a sense of humor about some of life’s little difficulties in order to combat gloom. She laughs at the memory, for example, of being accidentally and ingloriously dumped on a neighborhood street when the wheel of her wheelchair caught on an uneven section of curbing, and of having to be gathered up by her child who was pushing the chair. Laughter is a better choice than tears. Since it became apparent that she had no choice but to deal with disability, she has tried “to be on the up side, to be bubbly, because I didn’t want people to remember me as complaining all the time,” Claudia says. “If you’re bitter, if you have a bad attitude, you’re going to be miserable. The people around you are going to be miserable.”
Another man might have resented the fact that his wife’s situation has affected his lifestyle and his career. Dennis doesn’t look at things that way. While the family, including Claudia, was often involved in outdoor activities when the children were young, Dennis was not able to do the skiing he enjoyed with his wife. But he has found opportunities to enjoy it alone or with his children. And he has never resented the impact of Claudia’s health on his employment. “Maybe if I’d been driven by a hard-core career orientation, it might not have worked so well for us. I don’t know,” Dennis reflects. But “the job and the career are secondary to each of us and to the family.” Switching from a management position back into a sales job, for example, not only resolved a difficult situation at work but also proved to be a blessing to the family, leaving Dennis freer to meet their needs. In part, that allowed him to support Claudia as she has served in Church callings. Through the years he, too, has been able to serve in a variety of priesthood leadership callings.
Dennis’s attitude has helped sustain her, Claudia says. If ever she has asked, “Why me?” he has gently reminded her that she may not be the focus of the situation, that perhaps someone is supposed to learn through her or be blessed by serving her.
What has been their best weapon in meeting the challenges of life? “In a broad sense,” Dennis says, “just the fact that the gospel is active in our lives.” Participation in the Church has been a priority in their marriage since the beginning.
Knowledge of the scriptures has been a strong source of comfort for both of them as well. Dennis particularly appreciates a Book of Mormon scripture that tells of the blessing given to missionaries who served under Alma in ministering among the Zoramites: “And [the Lord] also gave them strength, that they should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ” (Alma 31:38). It has been comforting, he says, to know that he and Claudia did not have to bear their problems alone and to try to make the joy that is possible through the Atonement a real influence in their lives. “The operative word is joy,” Dennis says, and not necessarily what the world thinks of as happiness.
Claudia, too, draws strength from the scriptures. Several point the way for her: “Be patient in long-suffering and afflictions” (Alma 17:11); “Endure in faith on his name to the end” (D&C 20:29); “Serve him with all diligence of mind, [and] if ye do this, he will, according to his own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage” (Mosiah 7:33); and “The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame” (Alma 11:43). Someday, Claudia says, she hopes to be able to do the things she has not been able to do with her husband and children in this life and to enjoy dancing and other physical activities as she did when she was a young woman.
The power of prayer is a constant sustaining influence for her. The power of the priesthood exercised in her behalf through her husband and others has provided strength and comfort in times of need. Not long ago, Claudia felt the need for a priesthood blessing because of pain from an illness brought on by her disability. Not wanting to trouble her husband yet again, she put off asking him. But a few nights later, she could no longer endure the pain, so she asked her husband and son to give her a blessing. She recalls not only the comfort she felt as they pronounced the blessing but the lingering warmth of hands on her head even after they took theirs away. Her pain was relieved. “I’ve had blessings and comfort, and I know that’s why I get through this illness and disability. I know that He’s there.”
The Hiatt children remark on how well their parents work together as a team. “They are committed to each other—completely,” their daughter Brittany emphasizes. “They are the most important thing to each other.” They share all the little details of their days, and there is nothing they would rather do than spend time with each other. Despite her mother’s periodic physical setbacks, her father is always there to support the woman he loves. “No matter what comes to them,” Brittany adds, “they will make it through somehow—and they will do it together.”
Or as David explains: “They’re building for eternity. They were married in the temple, and they’re building something to last forever.”