With a solid foundation of faith and family, actress-singer Kristin Chenoweth lives by a motto she learned from her mother: "You never know, honey."
Apr 25, 2017
It was just after Christmas, and I thought maybe I should get a new dog. If I was ready. Not a purebred like my Maddie, my Maltese and constant companion, who had died in August. A rescue dog this time. If I was ready.
I drove to the place in Los Angeles that everybody recommended—Spot! ADOPT A RESCUE DOG, its sign said out front. I could hear the boisterous barking before I even opened the door. Inside there were wagging tails and yearning expressions, eyes begging for an owner. Was it too soon? Was I betraying Maddie somehow? I didn’t think I’d ever own another dog. After all, the two of us had been together for 13 years, and she’d gotten me through thick and thin.
Then my eyes fell on the cutest ball of brown fluff, a puppy with soft dark eyes like chocolate pudding. The staff said she was a poodle mix, maybe part Maltese like my beloved Maddie or maybe something else. She turned her head and looked at me with a “take me home” expression that melted me.
“I might be interested in this one,” I said to the lady in charge.
“I was thinking I’d keep her myself,” the woman said.
“Could I let you know in a day or two?” I asked. I still needed more time.
“Okay, but if you don’t take her...” The rest remained unsaid.
“Thanks,” I said, heading out the door. What would this puppy be like when she grew up? Too big to sit in my lap on a plane, as Maddie used to? Or too rowdy? As a performer, I travel a lot. Would she be able to handle it? What would happen if I suffered a bout of vertigo, a symptom of the Ménière’s disease I struggle with? Would she be as comforting as my old friend had been? Would this puppy understand if I couldn’t walk her sometimes?
Then it hit me. I could practically hear my mom’s voice: “You never know, honey.” Had my parents known what I would be like when they adopted me as a baby? Did they expect me to grow up to be a singer and actor?
Did I know what would happen when, after graduation from Oklahoma City University, I went to New York City on a whim and was cast in the first show I auditioned for? And as for those bouts of dizziness that could sideline me for days...did I ever say no to an opportunity because I feared I might not be able to sing or act or even just walk across a stage?
You never did know.
The first time I was hit with the dizziness, I didn’t know what was happening. I was only in my twenties, and I was walking down the street in New York. All at once, it was as if I were plummeting down an elevator shaft. I grabbed a lamppost to catch myself, then staggered home. I was doing a show at Lincoln Center at the time, and the dizziness made me so nauseous that I would rush to the bathroom the minute I was offstage. I called my mom back home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. “Something’s wrong,” I said.
“I’ll be right there,” Mom said. That’s Mom, 100 percent. She always shows up. She’ll drop everything. Not just for me but for my brother, my sister-in-law, my niece, my nephew, for any of her friends. She studied nursing in college and gave it up to raise a family, but she was like a nurse to everybody.
Mom took me to countless doctors’ appointments, and I had all kinds of tests. The symptoms would wane and then come back. The doctors changed. Finally a wise physician determined that I have a chronic condition called Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disturbance that produces vertigo. I’ll go for months with no problem, but then all of a sudden, the ground tips, the walls cave in and I drop down that elevator shaft.
There’s no known cure. All I can do is cut out the sodium in my diet, be careful about traveling too much—almost impossible in my job—and sleep on an incline.
And pray. I get all quiet and listen for God’s presence. I know you’re here with me when I’m like this, God. You know what I need. He always does. One time when I was downtown in New York, near Wall Street, he sent me an angel. I was leaning against a building, trapped by the vertigo that had descended on me without warning, and a kindly man, aware that I was in trouble, flagged down a cab, got me into it and took it with me all the way back to my apartment on the Upper West Side.
I know what you’re going to say: You should never get in a car with a stranger. He could have done all sorts of terrible things. But he didn’t.
In God’s world, you never know.
My mother taught me long ago about the power that comes to you when you help others, complete strangers as I was to that man. I was just a teen when she suggested I volunteer with Meals on Wheels, delivering cooked dinners to the homebound.
I didn’t want to do it. It didn’t sound very cool to me. Going into old people’s houses, bringing them food. But my mom was my mom, and I did what she said…and you know what? I loved it. Meeting all those folks who welcomed me, who were so grateful, who let me sing for them, who made me laugh, who had dogs and cats I could pet and call by name. I had planned to do Meals on Wheels for only one year, but I couldn’t wait to sign up for a second year before going off to college.
The thing is, when you know someone as generous as my mom, Junie, you want to do everything you can to give back, although the debt—at least in the case of my mom—is too big to ever repay.
Mom has had two bouts with breast cancer, and as scary as they were, as frightened as I was at the prospect of losing her, I refused to give in to the fear. I’d call home every chance I got. I’d sing to her on the phone, I’d send her things, I’d look for little presents that would make her laugh. I prayed for her all the time.
The second time around, Mom had to have a double mastectomy. The timing couldn’t have been worse. I was scheduled for a slew of performances. “Mom, I’m going to cancel everything and come home and take care of you, the way you’ve taken care of me.”
“Nothing doing,” she said. “You stick with your commitments.”
“Some commitments are bigger than others,” I told her.
I canceled all those gigs and spent a month at home with Mom. I drained her tubes, cleaned the house, sang—of course—and managed her schedule, so all her friends could see her without tiring her out. It was precious motherdaughter time. I would have spent another month there if she hadn’t sent me back on the road—her friends had to pick up the slack.
You never know what’s going to happen, but you have to trust. That’s what I was taught at home, going to church, reading the Bible. Like everybody, I have my favorite verses to get me through. I never stop saying that one from Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me.” And even though I can’t quote it from end to end, I love the whole book of Ephesians. It makes me happy every time I read it.
After meeting her potential successor at that rescue place in L.A., I came home and stared at all the pictures of Maddie on the piano and my walls. Were they accusing me or encouraging me? Was I supposed to adopt that brown ball of fluff or not? Things had been going well for me. I’d been on tour with my new album, and I hadn’t had a bad bout of vertigo in months. God had felt very present in my life. Was it time for a new puppy?
That night I had a dream. There was Maddie sitting on the edge of my bed, as sassy as ever. “Hey,” she seemed to say, “I’m just fine where I am. Everything’s being taken care of. Now go find yourself another dog to love. It’s time.” I could also imagine her saying, “You’re never going to find anyone to match me!”
I rushed back to Spot!—Thunder was waiting for me. I call her Thunder because that’s the name of my favorite basketball team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. And also because she sounds like a thundering herd of buffalo when she runs. I took her home, and the two of us have been at each other’s side ever since.
Okay, as it turns out, she is going to be bigger than Maddie was, I can already tell. And she gets a little more excited when we travel, so I have to quiet her down every once in a while. But she’s just perfect for me. A godsend.
You never know what’s going to be in store. But when I put my trust in God, wonderful things happen. I’m given all that I’ve ever longed for, even if it’s a size or two bigger than anything I dreamed.
For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.
Kristin’s new album of Great American Songbook classics, The Art of Elegance, is out now. Find out more about her nationwide tour and her upcoming projects at officialkristinchenoweth.com.