Story Producer & Writer - Sarah Watson
Videography & Photography - Shadow | Shine Pictures
PRODUCED FOR AND PUBLISHED AT CENTRAL WESLEYAN CHURCH, HOLLAND, MI.
Marti and Larry Smith are well acquainted with the old saying, “things don’t always go as expected.” Their 28-year marriage began as an extramarital affair. Larry was an avowed atheist turned long-term missionary. After three years on the field in Central Asia, they came home. And, at 64 years old and diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, statistically speaking, Larry should be dead.
Marti and Larry met in the Emergency Room – she was a nurse, he was a doctor – at Holland Hospital. Both married at the time, they each had two daughters. Marti, who calls Larry a “great teacher,” says that long hours and high-pressure situations fostered a great friendship and working relationship between the two of them.
“It became clear to each of us that, although we loved each other deeply, our desire to maintain control of our lives was useless and joyless,” Marti says.
After a long struggle of turmoil and despair – and a near suicide – a fellow doctor in the emergency room invited them to church. Even more shocking, they went.
“We just couldn’t believe someone would invite us,” Marti says.
It was friend day at Central Wesleyan.
“God reached into our spirits and saved us,” Marti says. “God has forgiven us, redeemed us, and sanctified our marriage.”
They were married in June 1987, and blended a family of six daughters: Wendi, Amanda, Alison, Meredith, Samantha and Sarah, whom they call “the joy of our lives.”
In spending time with Marti and Larry, most of the stories they tell revolve around their daughters’ accomplishments. Among the women are a trained drummer turned Navy pilot and an animal trainer for major motion pictures. Their stories of “the girls” only give a small glimpse into the deep love they feel for their daughters. The way their faces light up tell the rest of the story.
It wasn’t until Larry began explaining his diagnosis with Huntington’s disease that he made the distinction of his biological daughters.
“My colleagues all told me it was ridiculous to get the tests,” Larry says. “They were expensive and they were very new. But Huntington’s is genetic; I had a 50% chance of getting it; if I had it, my four daughters could have it.”
In their first six months on the field in Central Asia, both Larry’s mother and brother died from complications of Huntington’s disease.
“They were never officially diagnosed,” Larry says authoritatively as the doctor in him enters the conversation. “The tests were too new. But we always knew something was wrong.
Larry’s brother, Dick, died in his late forties. Because Huntington’s displays itself so differently among those who suffer from it, there is very little published information on average life expectancy. However, the average onset is between 30 and 40 years of age.
“Most men with this disease don’t survive past 50,” Marti says.
On their trip home for Dick’s funeral, Larry and Marti made the decision not to return stateside for his mother’s funeral.
“We talked it over with my family and said our goodbyes then,” Larry says. About three months later, she passed.
“Our team had a nice service for her there,” Marti says of their community in Central Asia. “We felt very loved."
Larry says he knew he didn’t have Huntington’s because of his age. He had no symptoms of the disease, and was well past the average age of onset. At the time, however, new blood tests were available to see if a person carried the genetic markers for Huntington’s.
“Everyone was saying, there’s no way he’s got it,” Marti says. “When he got the tests, we really thought it was going to give us peace of mind. If he had Huntington’s, he shouldn’t have been able to do the things he did in the ER all those years. He shouldn’t have been able to learn a new language. In our minds, he didn’t have it.”
Months after returning to Central Asia, Marti checked her email to find a message from Larry’s doctor, the one who had ordered the tests.
“He said, ‘I’m so saddened to tell you this way,’” Marti says. “The markers turned out positive.”
Their field director, Mick Veach, came to their home and after speaking with Marti for a short time, was able to get Larry to come home from the school he was at that day. Together, they told Larry of the test results.
“It was a blow,” Larry says. “I honestly thought it was a false positive.”
Mick made the decision to send them home.
“The one agreement we made with him was that we would always do what he told us to do,” Marti says. “He was younger than we were. We promised to let him lead us.”
The years that followed their return to the States, Marti calls some of their darkest. Larry grieved their work on the field, while she remained angry at God for nearly seven years.
“God finally broke through to me,” she says. “I came to realize that I had no choice but to live every day trusting Him to take away my fear and worry, not only for Larry and our life together, but for our daughters and their future as well.”
Shortly after their return, Larry began to run. Now, having completed fifteen marathons and many other distance races, he says he’s running for his life.
“It’s really a feat for any 64-year-old guy!” Marti says.
“But him, he should really be,” her voice trails off. “He shouldn’t be here.”
Larry and Marti invited the Central communications team and the team from Shadow|Shine Pictures into their home for an afternoon in January. They told us their story as we sat in their living room surrounded by pictures of their daughters and their adventures. Their dog, Hamlet, and their black cat, Emerald, sat at their feet. To close the day, Larry headed out for a run with the video team piled into the back of a PT Cruiser.
“We know that there’s purpose in this,” Larry says. “We know that the world is broken, that we’re broken. We also know that until Jesus comes back, none of this is going to be right.”
Marti adds that she feels God has given them this story to be shared. But, even this won’t define them.
“He will define us,” she says.
Their missional spirit emerges once more as Larry adds that they do still long for the field. Our team can’t help but encourage their authenticity in telling their own story as testimony for the Lord’s redeeming work.
“We never went through any of this thinking there was no hope,” Marti says. “God was just there. That’s the foundation we live on.”
Larry jumps in to finish her sentence, a rarity now that his Huntington’s manifests itself in his cognitive functions. His sentiment is profound.
“[In the end] every tribe, every nation, every tongue will know the Lord,” he says. “He will be that hope.”