Have you ever met someone with a smile so bright, they should pay the sun royalties?
Do you know someone whose spirit is so refreshing, you don’t need to see them enter a crowded room to know they've arrived?
I met one of these people three years ago as I helped chaperone a church youth trip to Palmyra, N.Y. She is Ashley Evans of Berryville, Va., and if she organized a fan club, I’d run for president, vice president, treasurer and chief window washer.
On paper, she’s like many 17-year-old girls. She loves the color purple; the shade, not the movie. Her favorite class is lunch. She likes mac and cheese, candy and books. She can’t get enough “Toy Story”; the movie, not stories about toys.
She’s a fan of Hilary Weeks and Owl City. Who’s her most favorite? That would be former America Idol superstar, David Archuleta.
Her favorite scripture is Proverbs 3:5-6. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
If anyone knows about anything about trusting in the Lord and relying on heavenly understanding, it’s Ashley Evans.
As an 18-month-old toddler with unbound energy, Ashley was an accomplished climber. Once, while her parents were thousands of miles away celebrating their anniversary on a cruise ship, Ashley removed the drawers from a dresser and scaled it like Spider-Man.
In an instant, her life pivoted forever. The dresser, and the heavy television on top, fell and crushed the left side of her skull.
Her family quickly learned that though the accident may have paralyzed the left side of her mind and body, it did not paralyze her spirit.
She’ll have to relearn to walk? No problem.
She’s lost most of the sight in her left eye? No worries.
Learning to read will be tougher and take longer than her friends? So what?
Her father, blessed with a sense of humor so dry he sleeps with a humidifier, once cracked, "She certainly has done more than most folks with a complete brain."
As family and friends can attest, Ashley matches him wit-for-wit. During a chat after church about this very column, her father tossed out that she also suffers from hearing loss in her left ear. Ashley spun her head toward him, “Wait, what?”
When he drifted away and into another conversation with a passing friend, I quietly asked Ashley if she’d been teased as a child. Her crooked smile and eyes said, “You’re kidding me, right?”
She described some of the whispers and not-to-subtle jabs she’s heard through the years. Even now, as a popular and well-liked 17 year old, she still sometimes hears juvenile cracks as she shuffles down the school hallway, dragging her left leg and walking the only way she ever remembers.
“Does it change who you are?” I asked.
Her eyes narrowed to make the point: “Of course not.”
Isn’t it ironic how much taller and straighter she stands than those small-minded few?
Later I asked if her parents and siblings ever took it easier on her. “Ha!” she said, and when her dad rejoined us, he concurred. Later, her mother also agreed: no special treatment.
And why would they? She's special enough already. When asked for an example, her mother, who's done more for Ashley than anyone, said without hesitation, "Ashley is the only one of our six children that gets herself up and ready for seminary before we are even awake."
I bet she does it smiling, too.
Before saying goodbye that Sunday in the foyer of the chapel, and with more wisdom and light than most adults I know, Ashley shared how rock solid her faith is that one day she’ll be made whole again. Her testimony and love of the Lord, particularly given the challenges he’s given her, is something otherworldly.
“I know who I am,” she said with the conviction of someone who knows her soul is much, much older than her body.
As I watched her greet a friend, I wished I had her faith and strength as a teenager. Thinking of the moment weeks later, I now realize how wrong I was; I wish I had that faith today.
The lasting impression of this remarkable young woman isn’t just what she’s overcome, or how she’s adapted to her limitations or even how positive she is in the face of heaven’s trials.
For me, the lesson is how much a smile reveals about a person. In the case of Ashley Evans, it tells the world that she knows something special and she’s not afraid to share it. She is grounded not on physical terms, but on eternal truths.
I can hear the words again: “I know who I am." Yes she does, and the world is better for it.
And for her.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jasonfwright.com.
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