Maria Elena Dahlquist, an energetic and talented resident of Payson, has always been a voracious reader.
These days, fatigue forces her to read less.She used to love to play the piano and the violin, especially in the BYU Symphony Orchestra and for the annual Payson presentation of "The Messiah." But in recent years, she has given up the violin entirely and only plays the piano when no one else is around. She still knows which notes to play and which hand and fingers to use, but it's difficult to make them co-in-cide.
Someday Dahlquist, who enjoys writing poetry, plans to compose a poem called "I still play my violin in my dreams."
But it's difficult to find the time these days.
Dahlquist was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nine years ago, at the age of 39, and she has since suffered significant de-bil-i-ta-tion.
Her initial symptoms were a tingling in her face and a numbness in her legs. A jogger, Dahlquist was accustomed to running at least a mile and a half daily. But one day her left leg went numb after only an eighth of a mile.
"I suffered from optic neuritis," Dahlquist explained, "a condition that made me almost blind in one eye, and I have extreme fatigue. My left side is very weak, and I skim my left foot along. I use a cane outside the house, and in some instances, a wheelchcair."
She is bothered by heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter. She considers herself to be "kind of clumsy." And she was once proud of her attractive handwriting, but her fine motor abilities have decreased.
Her husband, David Dahlquist, is the choral director for Payson High, and their five children were already born when she was diagnosed.
Their oldest child, Kristiana, 23, is married and living outside the family home. She is also the only one of their children born in perfect physical condition.
The other four, Rebekah, Jenny, Ryan and Sean, were all born with an undefined syndrome, what some medical authorities refer to as congenital microcephaly. Each was born with a small head and a speckled cornea, the early observable signs of the syndrome. Medical authorities told the Dahlquists that each child's life expectancy was 13 years.
Rebekah passed away at age 19 and Jenny at 18.
Ryan, 16, and Sean, 15, have already surprised physicians, but their prognosis is not encouraging. The two boys attend a school in Provo for children with disabilities, but neither can walk, talk or feed himself, and each responds in a limited way to outside stimulation.
As a result, Dahlquist was accustomed to having children who required a great deal of care before she was diagnosed with MS. And those who know her have been amazed at the personal sacrifice, patience and love she continually displays not only to each of her children but to everyone she knows.
Dahlquist does all of the cooking, dishes and laundry in her home, but she spends most of her time caring for Ryan and Sean. She has help from people who carry the boys out to the bus and back into the house when they return.
A young woman comes into her home four days a week to dress the boys, another woman offers some physical and speech therapy for them, and some neighbors come in regularly to clean the house.
Dahlquist teaches a Sunday School class, where she perches on a high stool. "I can't write on the blackboard or do a lot of other things teachers do. One lady in the class has really nice handwriting, so she writes on the board if I need her."
Dahlquist has some lingering regrets about her failure to get her degree in humanities at BYU. "I was 11 credit hours short." But she was also suffering increasing fatigue, a precursor to her subsequent bout with MS.
Those who know Dahlquist are impressed with her strong spirit of optimism and determination. Many have asked her how she manages to smile with all of her problems. "You can be bitter about something that happens to you," she says, "but it's a long life if you don't ever smile again.
"There are still a lot of wonderful, wonderful things. Life has not brought me exactly what I envisioned when I was 18, but I wouldn't trade what I've learned, because I would be a very different per-son."
One major change Dahlquist sees in herself is her increased patience. "I think I was pretty selfish when I was younger. MS has made me have more empathy with my children, because I can't do some of the things they can't do."
Dahlquist was selected by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society as 1998 Utah MS Mother of the Year, and she will be honored on June 6 at the Family Seminar in Salt Lake City.
Perhaps the highest tribute came from her oldest child, Kristiana, who praised her mother for exhibiting unconditional love for each of her children. In spite of the regressive nature of Dahlquist's disease, her daughter praised her for handling the bad days as well as the good. "I have never seen her resent her condition in life or give up hope," Kristiana said. "She has great spirituality which strengthens her beyond her physical capacity and gives her the faith to bear her trials without bitterness."
Kristiana considers her mother the "greatest example of how a mother should love and care for her children."