Praying Nathan Home


The birth of a child united a ward in prayer and faith.

Ours is a special ward. Laura takes her seat in the front facing her parents and others who cannot hear the meeting. With her hands, she tells them the wonders of the gospel as each talk unfolds. Many in the ward have learned to sign, so there is closeness and communication among the gospel family.

Andy sits in the middle. He rocks back and forth with the music as his fingers run along his braille hymnal. There is always someone at Andy’s side, guiding him through the meetinghouse, weaving through the throngs of worshippers. One Scout has chosen as his Eagle project to coordinate the efforts of ward members in recording books and literature for Andy.

Lee and Sue walk up the aisle to a seat. Lee leaves his walker at the door, choosing to walk aided only by his Sue’s loving hand. He has walked on his artificial legs for just a few weeks. The crowd parts for him to pass, and everyone has to pat him on the back or give him a little squeeze of encouragement.

Ours is a very special ward. It became even more so one fall when it became Nathan’s ward.

Val and Melody Asay have a home filled with love and music, where their seven children grow, play, laugh, and cry. Death has come close—tried and failed. Maybe for that reason, the Asays see life with an added measure of gratitude. In many ways they had been prepared for the birth of their eighth child, Nathan.

Nathan was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. The doctors at James Whitcomb Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis evaluated Nathan’s condition and informed his parents. Cases such as Nathan’s are graded on a scale of zero to ten, with ten being the worst. Nathan’s condition was considered a level eight. He would need surgery approximately every three to six months for the next twelve years. The doctors talked about nose reconstruction, ear surgery, bone and skin grafts, and dental implants. They talked about hearing aids and speech therapy.

Brother and Sister Asay were concerned about the pain and suffering their infant son would have to endure. It was clear this good family was in for a very hard time.

When the Asays brought Nathan to church, there were loving arms to welcome him. Yes, children asked questions about his appearance. They asked about his different bottle, why his lip was parted, and if they could touch him. Their questions were answered—not with hushed whispers but openly and honestly, as they had been about other special members of the ward: “Nathan was born with an opening in his lip and mouth that will have to be closed by the doctors. Sister Brown can’t hear. Andy can’t see. Lee doesn’t have legs, but we are all children of our Heavenly Father. He loves us and we love each other.” Soon, Nathan was being cuddled and passed among the members, like all babies.

When he had gained enough weight to total ten tiny pounds, Nathan was scheduled for his first surgery. A fast was held, a priesthood blessing was given. Val and Melody Asay kissed their other children good-bye and set out for the hospital. The drive took several hours, and as Melody wiped tears from her eyes a sense of panic began to set in. Knowing only one way to control her fear, she began to say a prayer for Nathan.

Just prior to surgery, the parents were instructed in how to care for their baby in the coming weeks. Nathan could not be given any pain medication after he woke. Still, he must not be allowed to cry, or he could destroy the surgery. Nor would he be allowed the sweet comfort of sucking, either on a bottle or a pacifier. He would be fed through a tube for three weeks. His arms would be restrained so he could not touch his face. Val and Melody were told to sleep well that night as it might be their last rest for a long time.

Thursday

As the limp little boy was wheeled toward the operating room, with tubes protruding from his small body, prayers began again. In the hospital, Nathan’s parents pled fervently to understand the Lord’s will for Nathan. They wanted a successful operation, but they had faith that the Lord knew what was best for them and for their son.

At home that morning, their eldest daughter, Wendy, stayed home from school to help the baby-sitter care for her younger siblings. Alex was cross and wanted his mommy. Katy sat by the window and stared at the snow. Wendy piled the blocks so Alex could knock them down again, but Alex was tiring of the game. She gathered her young brother and sister into her arms and said, “Let’s say a prayer for Nathan.” Wendy held Alex on her lap and folded his arms as she had seen her mother do. Katy knelt at her knee. As Wendy said each phrase, Katy and Alex repeated the words after her as they had been taught to do. Even though Alex still spoke baby talk, he was able to pray for his “brudder.”

Elsewhere in the Asay’s ward that same hour, Lee bent low in his wheelchair during therapy to offer a prayer for Nathan. He was familiar with pain, having recently lost both legs in an industrial accident.

Barbara, a family friend and the ward Relief Society president, expecting a child herself, slipped out of bed onto her knees. She often prayed for the members of the ward who needed blessings. This day she poured out her soul to her Father; having intimately known the sorrow of her own child’s death, she wanted her friends to be spared heart-ache. Others throughout the ward did the same.

Sara bent over her math book and said a prayer for Nathan. She didn’t have much time, but she knew her prayer would be heard just the same.

Gloria and Herb, whose hearts were also touched, prayed together and asked that Nathan’s surgery would go well. Elsewhere in the ward, Chante, Calena, Nikki, and David, still in their pajamas, gathered for family prayer before their father left for work. Before they prayed, they talked about Nathan and the hospital and doctors. The children were mainly concerned that Nathan would hurt. Nikki, not quite three years old, said the family prayer and prayed that Nathan would not cry.

Debbie stood at the kitchen sink, after finishing breakfast with her husband and daughter. She paused to pray, her hands wet with dishwater and the towel on her shoulder, pleading for a successful operation but acknowledging the will of the Lord.

Bishop Merkley looked up at the clock on his insurance office wall and decided business would have to wait a moment. He knew the operation would be well under way. Pushing papers aside, he bowed his head and asked Heavenly Father’s blessing on Nathan and his family.

Outside the ward, in another part of the world, Trent Asay paced his small missionary apartment and talked with his companion. His love for his mission and his strong sense of obligation to his family—with whom he desperately wanted to share this difficult time—guided his actions that day. He and his companion dressed for the day and knelt in prayer once more before going out. They promised their best effort and asked heaven’s blessings on Nathan. Trent realized he could best help his parents and the little brother he had never seen by fulfilling his assignment.

It was well before dawn on the Brigham Young University campus, but James, a friend of the Asays, had set his clock to match Indiana time to make sure he was awake in time. He slipped out of bed and looked out the window at the mountains. Far on the other side, people he loved were sitting in a hospital waiting room. James, too, offered a prayer for Nathan.

Friday

The family had been warned this would be the worst day. The baby would be fully awake and in pain, but he must not be allowed to cry. The nurse shook Melody to wake her. It was barely morning. The blanket covering her shoulders fell to the floor. Val had returned home when he knew his son was out of danger. He had two jobs and the other children to care for, so for now, Melody would deal with the baby’s discomfort.

“We have to check his stitches,” the nurse told her, explaining that it was Melody’s job to calm and comfort the baby during the procedure.

His little hands were tied to the crib sides. As they dabbed the stinging solution on his face, the baby whimpered but didn’t cry. His mother bent low and said, “Good boy, Nathan. You are a good boy.” He tried to return her smile through his swollen face.

“I’ll say he’s good,” said the nurse. “I have seen some children scream for five straight days. They tear their stitches and have to have them redone. If only we could let them suck. That’s the hardest part. We have to take away every comfort. He is doing wonderfully.”

Later in the day, the baby started to cry. He didn’t like the feeding tube. He wanted a bottle. His mother fought to control her panic. She had to stop the crying, but how? He couldn’t even understand her words of comfort. She untied his hands and wrapped each elbow in stiff sleeves fastened tight with velcro so he couldn’t bend his arms. She rocked him and started walking up and down the hall. As she walked, she softly sang into his ear, “I am a child of God, And he has sent me here.” Past the nurses’ station, past the rooms filled with sick children. “Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, Help me find the way.” She was saying the words as much for her own comfort as for his. Back in his room, she placed the peacefully sleeping baby in his crib.

Sunday

Val packed the children in the car for the ride to the hospital. They were going to visit their mother. They knew they wouldn’t be allowed to see Nathan, but they could at least see Melody. When they arrived in the waiting room, she nearly swept the entire family off their feet in one big hug. Then she said, “Guess what! We can come home today! Nathan was supposed to stay another week, but he is doing so well they will let him come home today. Everyone’s amazed at his progress. They just can’t explain it.” Tears filled both parents’ eyes as they embraced, and she added, “But we can explain it, can’t we. All those prayers didn’t go unanswered. It was our Heavenly Father’s will that Nathan remain with us.”

Two weeks later Nathan went to church. The ward family was so excited to see his new lip. “Oh, look how much he resembles his brothers.”

“I think he’s going to have a dimple.”

“He’s beautiful!”

Above all, over and over, you could hear, “Isn’t he beautiful?” and “He is so beautiful!” Each person claimed a little part of the victory.

Debbie offered the closing prayer in sacrament meeting. “And Father, we sincerely want to thank thee for the doctors who allowed thee to help them do a wonderful job for Nathan.”

Hundreds of prayers were offered for Nathan, and again and again, every few months, hundreds more prayers will be said in his behalf. He is a special little boy, a member of a special family, in a special ward. What is most remarkable about such a story is not that Nathan’s life has been spared—though everyone is grateful for that—but that so many were united in appealing to Heavenly Father in his behalf. It is the kind of story told over and over again about other people, in other wards, each of them special. And though all pleadings of the faithful are not answered the way we might desire, it is through our prayers that we learn to recognize and accept the Lord’s will in our lives.

In the six years since Nathan’s birth, thirteen surgeries and nine sets of tubes in his ears have been part of his preparation for kindergarten. As he takes his place among children who may not know about such difficulties, Nathan will bless his classmates and his teachers with understanding. It will be in this shared understanding that the prayers for Nathan will have been even further answered.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

[photo] Nathan, now six years old.

Suellen Smith Johnson is a member of the Fort Wayne First Ward, Fort Wayne Indiana Stake.