He Asked God How to Cope With His Devastating Parkinson’s Diagnosis

The answer to his prayers? Help sick children. 

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- Posted on Nov 25, 2019

He Asked God How to Cope With His Devastating Parkinson’s Diagnosis

“You have Parkinson’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy.”

With those words, my life was changed forever. I sat numbly on the examination table as my neurologist explained that, in addition to Parkinson’s, I had an incredibly rare, often fatal, form of palsy that also attacks the body’s motor systems.

“As the diseases run their course, you’ll lose your ability to walk and stay balanced,” she continued. “Eventually, even chewing becomes difficult.... I’m sorry, Mr. Roberson, but you’ve got about four to seven years to live.”

Everything she said after that was a blur. At 55, it felt as if my life was pretty much over. My dad had died of ALS in 2007. I watched him fight that disease for 11 years. He was the most faithful, God-fearing man I knew, and I could never understand why God let him die such a horrible death.

Now I was going to die in almost the same way.

At home, I headed to the hill behind my house, where I go when I want to talk to God. I drove there in a golf cart I’d bought a while back for my grandkids to play around with. When I got to the top of the hill, I sat there and prayed aloud. “What am I supposed to do, God?” I asked. “I’m not that old. I can’t work anymore. I can’t drive. I’m going to die just like my dad. How do I handle this?”

The air was still. As clear as day, I heard the words: “Build dollhouses.”

That could not be right. Was someone hiding in the bushes, playing tricks on me? It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I worked for a phone company for 33 years, slowly climbing my way up to the position of sales manager. I knew how to fix stuff and keep an office running. I did not build dollhouses.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said and turned the cart to drive back down the hill.

But what if that had been God’s voice? What if he was trying to tell me something and I misinterpreted the message? I turned back to make sure.

“Maybe I misunderstood, God,” I said. “I’m asking you for some direction. Please help.”

The same voice cut through the silence with resounding authority: “Build dollhouses.”

I’ve been a churchgoing man all of my life. Even after my dad died and my relationship with God became strained, I kept up with church. My wife and I raised our daughters in the church. I sat on church committees. I volunteered. I stayed faithful, no matter what, just as my dad taught me.

But I had never heard God talk to me like that. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

I had an appointment with my neurologist the next day. “I’m thinking about building dollhouses,” I said, expecting her to laugh.

“That is an excellent idea,” she said. “You need something to keep your hands and your brain engaged. Depression is a real danger with Parkinson’s. Get yourself a kit on the way home and start today.”

Maybe it wasn’t as silly a concept as I’d originally thought. I bought a kit, much like the one I’d bought 15 years earlier for one of my daughters. I remembered thinking back then how boring it must be to build a dollhouse. As I settled in to start working, I didn’t feel much differently.

I fit the pieces together and fastened them with glue. The kit came with some items of furniture and whatnot, and I arranged them inside the finished house.

I called my wife in to take a look. I’d already told her about what happened on the hill.

“Nice,” she said. “You enjoyed it?”

“I’ll be honest with you,” I said. “I have no idea why I’m doing this. It just makes no sense!” I felt my hope slipping away. The neurologist’s warning about depression, it seemed, could easily become a reality.

My wife looked at the dollhouse. “Barry, honey, you’re doing this for the wrong reason,” she said. “You need to build this for someone. Why not give this one to Kate at church?”

She meant the little girl at our church who’d been diagnosed with cancer. I thought about presenting the dollhouse to Kate. Maybe her face would light up for at least a moment and she’d feel special.

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

I went back to work, painting the house and adding extra realistic details. I even painted Kate’s name on the little mailbox out front so it would look as if the house belonged to her.

Parkinson’s had already started to cause my limbs to shake. Sometimes I found it hard to concentrate or remember what I’d done five minutes before. But as I worked, I noticed something. My hands became sure and steady. My mind was focused. The next time I looked up from the work, it was already dinnertime. The day had flown by.

My wife drove me to Kate’s house to give her the dollhouse.

“You made this for me?” she said. “I get to keep it?”

I nodded. Her face lit up. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Barry! I love it!”

Instantly, any feelings of depression I had just melted away. I was indescribably happy to see that something I’d made had given this little girl joy. All I wanted was to get started on another dollhouse. I felt certain now that God would direct me to someone who needed it.

I got to work. This time, I went online and ordered extra pieces of furniture to make the house look even more realistic. Sure enough, by the time I was done, I knew where the dollhouse was going. Another sick child’s face lit up, and I felt convinced I’d found a calling.

I’ve been building ever since. So far, I’ve made 130 miniature structures, including many dollhouses as well as gas stations, woodworking shops and baseball stadiums.

Requests keep rolling in. People find me through word of mouth or through my website or Facebook page. They tell me about a child in need, and I get to work. The materials can cost hundreds of dollars, but I never charge for my work. I prefer to give away the miniature structures to children, to people who have helped me or to those who are just in need of a special pick-me-up.

It’s been seven years since I started. Though my health has gotten worse, I’ve outlived my original diagnosis. I’ve broken bones 37 times by falling, and sometimes my limbs jerk uncontrollably, striking my face and body. But all of it disappears when I sit down to work on a dollhouse.

I think about my dad a lot these days. This whole experience has helped me better understand his faith and my own. When I think of him now, I remember the kind words people shared with me at his funeral. “Your dad is why I came to church. He visited folks and prayed with them, even when he himself was sick. He was an inspiration.”

You never know how God is going to work in your life. I never could’ve guessed that I’d be more fulfilled building dollhouses after my diagnosis than I ever was punching a clock at a nine-to-five. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to be ashamed to answer God’s call, even if it’s to do something you never expected. He won’t lead you astray.

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How Building Dollhouses Helped One Man Cope with Parkinson’s Disease

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