Perneita Farrar (Photo: Courtesy of Essence)

With 15 pounds of ruffled organza, sequins and faux pearls draping her body, carbon fiber braces girding her unsteady calves and running shoes on her feet, Perneita Farrar, 38, stood in the open doors of the University of Maryland wedding chapel. Her father held her up on the left side. Her 22-year-old son, Brian, gripped her arm on the right. Dappled afternoon light streamed through the chapel's 14-feet-high windows and stretched upward toward a high, vaulted ceiling. Eyeing her finish line—an altar precisely 97 feet away, where her tuxedoed groom waited—Farrar started down the aisle. The sight of her walking, however haltingly, sent their wedding guests into a frenzy.

"G'on now, Perneita!"
"Lord Jesus, thank you..."
The guests applauded. Some danced, some wept. They hadn't known Farrar could take even those assisted steps. Since lupus ravaged her body and nearly ended her life in 2005, she'd been a wheelchair-dependent paraplegic. But Farrar had been practicing to make it down the aisle almost since the day, about a year before, when Troy Fitzgerald asked her to become his wife. Her labored and joyous walk for their Sunday nuptials was a testament to her love for her man. More than that, she says, it was sign and symbol of how God had saved her from a private hell. "Having gone through my deep season of being in the valley, I now realize that God was preserving me for a purpose," she says.

The valley that Farrar, now 39, went through had been deeper than most. Thirteen years ago, in 1999, she had been diagnosed with lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that causes the immune system to attack the body. Lupus can affect the skin, joints, brain, blood cells, kidneys, heart and lungs. It has often unpredictable symptoms, such as sensitivity to cold, joint stiffness, dry eyes and headache, making it difficult to diagnose, and it affects Black women more often than other groups. Eight years ago lupus attacked Farrar's spinal cord, causing a cascade of systemic failures. As her vital organs began to shut down, she suffered kidney failure, had to have a breathing tube inserted and had her spleen, appendix and gall bladder removed. In all Farrar underwent 17 surgeries, 12 of which were emergency procedures. At one point she was in a coma for several weeks. Four months into watching Farrar drop from a curvy size 10 to a skeletal size 0, doctors put her chances of survival pretty much at zero. During the next two years she shuttled between three nursing homes and five hospitals. "I don't think anybody had any hope for me at that point," she recalls. "This dragged out 848 days. Life moved on for everybody but me."

Farrar started to believe the doctors were right. By then she was begging God to let her die. Later she sent her son, Brian Adams, Jr., who was just 14 at the time, to live with his father and paternal grandmother. Her parents, who had separated, often found it difficult to travel to her distant nursing home. The flood of visits from friends, relatives and loved ones trickled down to almost nothing. The most dutiful among them had been her boyfriend of 12 years. By 2007, resigned to her fate, Farrar released him from the burden of staying in her life. But first he helped her move into a specially outfitted apartment, arranged by a social service agency for the disabled. Her new place was located in Columbia, Maryland, an hour's drive from any of her blood kin. When her 12-hour-a-day home health aides left, Farrar, unable to get out of bed on her own, was alone from 9 P.M. to 9 A.M., seven days a week.

It was during this same time that Farrar joined the congregation of Celebration Church in Columbia. Her in-home physical therapist, a Celebration member, had invited her to visit the church. Later she began to attend services in her wheelchair, accompanied by a health aide. It was in the safety of that supportive congregation, Farrar says, that she realized her story was larger than herself—that it was for other people's hearing and strengthening. With considerable prodding from her pastor, church elders and prayer partners, she testified before the congregation. "I was still struggling with my new life," Farrar says. "But I started reading my Bible again and was very much able to relate to the story of Job. In this midst of all his troubles, he saw that God still had the control. I held on to that."

As her faith was slowly restored, Farrar found great reserves of strength. "I realized that I'm still smart, professional, capable," she says. "I calculated that I could still do many things, even if my body would not paralyzed people with different levels of paralysis can regain some, if not all, of their mobility. It was here in Baltimore that Farrar gutted out three-hour sessions, three days a week, determined to walk down that precisely measured church aisle. "Perneita put herself in a place where cooperate. I told myself, I will have to overcome this." Having enrolled in graduate school while still in the nursing home, she now poured herself into her studies. In 2011 she earned a master's degree in education from the University of Maryland.

Farrar recounted her story as she took a break from the rigors of therapy at the Kennedy-Krieger Institute's International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI), renowned for its innovative approach to paralysis. The physicians and therapists at ICSCI ascribe to a newer science that says she could be rooted for," says Julie Cagney, a physical therapist at Kennedy-Krieger. "She's worked very hard. She deserves every good thing that comes to her."
Farrar now believes that God had hemmed her up in that private hell for a reason. He knew—even if she didn't at the time—that she could be trusted to tell her tale and give
God all the credit. "I wanted a witness and God gave me Troy," she says.

She'd met Troy Fitzgerald in passing in 1993, when she was a bridesmaid and he a groomsman in the wedding of her best friend and his cousin. Fitzgerald had been left paralyzed from the waist down by a gunshot five years before. His shooting left him deeply transformed spiritually.
After Farrar moved out of the nursing home and into the Columbia, Maryland, apartment, the couple whose wedding she attended began prodding Farrar to get in touch with Fitzgerald, 45, a health and nutrition coach and motivational speaker. They figured he'd be a good sounding board, given his own experience. In time Farrar made the call.

They talked for months over the phone before getting together face-to-face. Fitzgerald listened patiently as Farrar shared the highs and lows of her life. Pregnant at 16 and in a relationship her parents did not sanction, she moved out of their house in Prince Georges County, Maryland, and into the nearby home of her child's father. Their relationship lasted only three years, and afterward Farrar worked a series of clerical jobs to support herself and her son. Although low on cash, she pursued her education in fits and starts and graduated from college at 29.

Farrar shared with Fitzgerald the assorted humiliations of her illness—including how she was saddled with $200,000 in medical bills when the insurance she had with her job ran out. Eventually, Medicaid, Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicare covered most of those costs. She also shared her loneliness. "She was going through her journey," Fitzgerald says now. "I didn't try to force anything on her, but I did try to get her to focus on what she had, rather than what she lost. And I told her, 'You have me.'"
At the time Fitzgerald, who is the father of a 26-year-old daughter and granddad to a preschooler and a toddler, was single and celibate. Farrar says they were both seeking a relationship grounded in the shared intimacy of true friendship. "We didn't want to be in any place where God did not want us to be," she says. "Six months later we were talking marriage. By the eighth month we were engaged."

Farrar, now an adult education instructor at a community college, says her post-2004 life is richer and more purpose-filled than her prior existence, a fact that anyone who encounters her bubbly personality and sunny smile would not dispute for a moment. "I'm a happier person than I was before my injury because I value the things that are spiritual, not material," Farrar says. "It's the small things that I care about. These are the gifts that matter."