Barb Johnson has had a tough life. Nevertheless, she not only survives but radiates joy and purpose, thanks to two special relationships: one with God and the other with her son, Mark Davis.
She has survived a tumultuous childhood, domestic violence, the death of her husband and decades battling the unpredictable and debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis.
Despite obstacles that would depress most, she has developed such an upbeat, inspirational attitude that people flock to her. A year ago, she was named 2001 Alaska MS Mother of the Year and the state's outstanding single mother by the organizers of the Mrs. Alaska pageant. Recently, she got word that both titles have been extended, at least through the summer.
"It wasn't necessarily something I signed up for," she said. "They kind of handed (the awards) to me."
A song in her heart
"She is a great encourager," said Pastor Dan Thornton from Peninsula Grace Brethren Church, one of two churches Johnson attends.
His first meeting with Johnson was a bit eccentric, he recalled.
After moving to the Soldotna area in 1999, she went barging into his office to announce her arrival -- and her mission.
"God had told her to move here so she could have a music ministry," he said. "I had heard that before -- but not usually from someone who actually can sing."
Over the next couple years, Thornton said, Johnson proved she could sing beautifully, help others and not seek out the spotlight.
Johnson sings in the Grace Brethren choir, where her wide range, fine voice and musical talent indeed have become an important part of the church's musical ministry. In addition, Mark has joined the youth group where his growing prowess with the guitar shows he shares his mother's talent.
Johnson said music plays a huge role in her life and is one of the main ways she expresses her faith.
"I just love it," she said. "Such a joy wells up in me, because I know I am encouraging someone. ...
"For some people, it has helped them decide to come to Jesus Christ. I find that incredible. I know it is not me; he is just using me."
Thornton said Johnson's joy comes across to others and makes her a friend and inspiration to many.
"She is so kind and gentle," he said. "She has really displayed a trust in God that has given her strength in adversity."
A life of challenges
Johnson was born 45 years ago in Chicago. While her parents got their lives in order, they sent young Barb to live with her grandparents from the time she was 2 until she was 10.
Her grandparents had a big, unconventional home in the city. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister with a storefront church downstairs. In the rest of the building, they took in boarders. Her life there revolved around her beloved grandmother.
"She was Bigmama to me, never grandma," Johnson said.
Bigmama loved God and music and raised her granddaughter in a home saturated with fervent Christianity.
"It is my firm belief God did that because he wanted me to learn to love him at an early age," Johnson said.
When she was 10, she went back to live with her parents in New Jersey and New York City. They lived in the Bronx and in Queens, where she finished high school. Although she describes her family life as happy, the city had a dark side, too.
She wrote about one night when she was 13, squabbled with her parents and ran away. She found herself spending a hair-raising night on the streets.
"I spent the entire night running from some of the vilest men I hope no girl will ever meet. Unbelievably, God didn't allow them to be able to catch me or touch me," she said.
Johnson had scholarships to attend college, but her attention went elsewhere. She joined the Army partly, she said, to annoy her father.
"I was a brat," she said, looking back. "I don't think I took life seriously enough."
In the military, she did well, she said. She specialized in medical inventory work. For years she worked at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
She also got married.
Her first husband was handsome, charming and good at making friends, she said. But he got involved in drugs, his personality changed and he became violent. She felt committed to marriage and to their baby son and tried to stick it out despite the heartache and deteriorating situation.
It was her husband who wanted to move to Alaska. In 1981, she transferred to Fort Wainwright. In retrospect, Johnson thinks he pushed for the move in part to isolate her. That backfired, she said.
One thing she has learned over the years is to reach out to others, offering and accepting help willingly. She does not hesitate to seek advice and, in a pinch, emergency aid.
"They are only too happy to help," she said.
Fear for her child finally prompted her to leave the relationship after seven years. One day, she came home and found her husband and his friends free-basing drugs in the kitchen while 3-year-old Mark ran around the house with blood pouring from a gashed finger. The strung-out men had not even noticed.
She took a bag of baby supplies, left with nothing else but the clothes they were wearing and fled to a women's shelter. When her husband realized what had happened, he tried to break into the shelter.
"He threatened to kill me and everyone else there," she said. "It was pretty hairy for a while."
When she resumed her activities, friends from her church provided escorts so she was never alone.
"They did that for five months until they were sure he had left the state," she said.
"I was very grateful that those gentlemen would take the time to do that for me. ... That is the type of love I have been shown in this state for the past 20 years."
With her first husband out of the picture, she worked and slept while a boarder helped take care of little Mark.
Johnson finished school at the University of Alaska, graduating with a major in journalism. Over the years, she has written for the Alaska Journal of Commerce, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Alaska Parenting and the All Alaska Weekly, for which she did a series of columns on domestic violence.
But she had worsening health problems. The doctors could not explain it, and some questioned her sanity.
Eventually, one diagnosed her as having MS, a little-understood chronic neurological disorder that causes a variety of symptoms, including pain and weakness. She realized it explained problems she had as early as her teens, including low blood pressure, disorientation, lack of coordination and fainting spells.
Three years after walking out of her first marriage, she married again.
Her second husband was James "Jimmy" Johnson. Eight years her senior, he worked at a resource center for the mentally handicapped.
Barb Johnson sews caps from animal skins as her son Mark works on dinner behind her.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"He was a wonderful man," she said. "We had a good time. He was so full of life."
Jimmy was an ideal father to her young son. He and Mark were inseparable.
But only six months after the wedding, Jimmy died in a freak accident.
He was working on the car in the yard. He had it blocked up and the wheels off. When he was underneath, the ground shifted and the car fell, crushing his windpipe. She and Mark were in the house and heard him yell. They tried to lift the car, but even adrenalin was not enough for a 6-year-old child and frail woman to do the task.
Johnson said her husband was so beloved that they received thousands of cards and every seat was full at his memorial service.
In the months following, her MS flared up worse than ever. Sometimes she had vertigo so badly she had to hold onto a bedpost because the room seemed to whirl around her. She could barely keep food down or walk across the room. She was bedridden for more than three months.
All this was hard on Mark.
"He's had to grow up, maybe too fast," she said.
The people at school told her sometimes they found Mark hiding in the restroom, weeping. He began having trouble at school, and eventually Johnson pulled him out and home schooled him through eighth grade.
Now 15, he is a sophomore at Skyview High School.
"I've missed out on some of his growing up time because I was just sick," Johnson said.
Her work as an office manager for a union office led to a transfer to Anchorage in 1995. She liked the people but found the state's biggest town too hectic and impersonal.
"The atmosphere wasn't the best," she said. "It was very stressful for me in Anchorage."
An elderly friend from her Fairbanks days, Doris Oglesby, had moved to Soldotna. Johnson and her son would come to visit, and over time their visits got longer and more frequent.
"I would come down here kind of to relax. She would pamper me and pamper Mark," Johnson said.
Johnson got a strong feeling that God wanted her in Soldotna. Mark was so upset he cried, but his mother was determined. In the spring of 1999, they set up permanent quarters on the peninsula.
Oglesby introduced Johnson to the Worldwide Church of God, a small evangelical church that reorganized in recent years after a period of controversy. She and Mark now attend Saturday services with about two dozen members of that church, which does not yet have a building.
Sundays, they attend services at Grace Brethren.
Johnson has found the Kenai Peninsula a refuge.
"It has been a healing place for me here."
She noted that Soldotna is the smallest town where she has ever lived. She praised the sense of community.
"No matter where I go, God gives me favor."
Struggling for health
Johnson continues to battle her disease, which sometimes leaves her dazed and confused, other times prostrate with pain. Although it is linked with stress, it is unpredictable and erratic.
"It is more frustrating than you can imagine," she said.
She gave up on conventional medicine after doctors could do little for her, and many of their medications made her sick with allergies.
She now relies on a healthful diet and a naturopathic treatment that has worked better than anything else so far: bee venom.
"My body wants natural stuff," she said, adding the National MS Society does not endorse bee venom treatment.
She gets boxes of bees from bee keepers. Three times a week, she lets 15 to 30 bees sting her on the part of her body that hurts most.
She holds the provoked insects in tweezers as they do their one-time job, then she waits until the stingers have emptied themselves of venom before plucking them out. She said she has scar tissue in areas from all the stings.
"The only side effect is the itching," she said.
"I still have problems, but I am able to live my life."
She calls her situation a medical puzzle.
"The doctors, they don't know what to do with me. I'm not going to let them use me as a guinea pig," she said.
In the meantime, she has gotten more involved with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society .
The past year has been a busy one for her. With the titles she has won come responsibilities. Particularly, she raises funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Alaska Division. Her health permitting, she planned to go on the five-mile MS Walk held Saturday.
She vacillated about whether she should walk, as she prefers, or take a wheelchair as some concerned friends urged her.
"I think it is important for people to see me out there because God has made it possible for me to walk," she said.
Fund-raising for causes she believes in comes naturally to her, she said.
"I just ask. Either people can give or they can't."
With the money raised for MS, researchers have found tantalizing clues about the illness but are far from a cure or even understanding the cause.
The disease seems not to be inherited, although susceptibility to it may be. It may be prompted by a virus. Some cancer medications and something in the spice turmeric, an ingredient in curry, seem to slow its development. Some stem-cell projects are promising, she said.
The disease has cut off many of the avenues Johnson planned in her youth to pursue, but it helped her focus her life priorities, she said.
"I can almost go so far as to say I am thankful I have it. I don't know what sort of person I would be otherwise."
Relying on God's plan
Sometimes Johnson thinks about cutting back on her activities, which include singing ministry, charity work, participation in support groups for MS and for mothers and sewing head wear. She said she is trying to make time for other projects.
One such is her writing. She has been working on an autobiographical, inspirational book about God's role in her life. She calls it, "Somebody Always Helps That Girl." The "somebody" of the title, of course, is God, and she is dedicating the manuscript to her grandmother.
She has two other, untitled manuscripts in the early stages of development: one that focuses on Christian living and one about MS.
"It's hard for me to cut back on anything. It's hard for me to say 'no,'" she said.
Much of her concern focuses on Mark, who faces the challenges of adjusting to a new community, being bored at school and of being an adolescent male without a father.
"Not having a dad has been really hard on him," she said. "He is trying to find himself."
Mother and son are close and worry about each other a great deal, Johnson said.
But they also experience the frictions common to the teen years.
"We butt heads a lot," she said.
But when her life was bleakest, her faith wavered and giving up seemed the easiest option, it was motherhood that inspired her to pull back from the brink.
"Mark has been kind of a savior for me. I knew I couldn't just check out and leave him."
The strength that kept her in this world she credits to God, not herself.
She considers her relationship with God to be as personal and important as those with other members of her immediate family.
"I always look for an opportunity to pump up my dad. I call (God) my dad," she said.
She looks to God through Christ for the answers to all her problems and those of the world.
Johnson said she is confident God has more in store for her as part of the divine plan. Following that call will continue to see her through life's obstacle course, she said.
"Some of the things he's got me doing, I should not be able to do. ... Ultimately, I'm dependent on him."
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