A too-long-undiagnosed bout with Lyme Disease has left me challenged with arthritis and some neurological damage. The arthritis has its uses: I can predict rain, and the pain gives me something to offer up in prayer, or as penance.
Not so the neurological issues. At the peak of my illness I was unable to figure out how to do the dishes; my organizational skills have never fully recovered, and verbally I sometimes wander into strange lands, referring to cereal as cookies, or to hats as helmets. When that happens, and after I have apologized to my family for sending them into hysterics or on goose chases, I will ask, “Are you going to get rid of me, when my mind is gone?”
“We’re going to be confused a lot of the time,” they admit.
“Well,” I shrug, “as long as you still love me.”
CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen recently filed a report on the early-onset Alzheimer’s that began affecting his wife, Jan Chorlton, at the age of forty. It is an undeniably moving story; after introducing the viewer to images of the beautiful and lively Chorlton, the report shows us Petersen’s sixty-year old, still-beautiful wife, now living in what appears to be a top-notch assisted-living facility. She is unable to sustain simple conversation or to recognize her husband. Chorlton talks of a man she will always love, while Petersen openly weeps. When he asks his wife if she can name that man, she giggles, “Mr. Happy.”
Medical experts are introduced and they declare that there is no treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease, and no way to prevent it. In the near-future, we are told, sixteen million Americans will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Petersen reveals that he is now in a relationship with a widow; they live together, and they both love Jan in what one of them calls “this very peculiar new American family.” The piece closes challenging anyone to gainsay them, who has not walked in their shoes.
But, was it not precisely for such situations that marriage vows were designed? “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, together or apart.” Love, which is limitless, is supposed to be strong enough—even if we do not think we are—to survive these challenges.
The idea is not exclusive to churches; marital vows are common to secularists, as well, and societies have been built upon them for millennia. Why, suddenly, do they no longer “work”? Is it a generational thing? Are the same baby boomers who would not submit to military conscription or unplanned parenthood now refusing to embrace the difficult, shattering work of suffering for love? Has the church done such a poor job of demonstrating the efficacy of such surrender that there is simply no capacity for it left, in the post-modern world?
A neighbor of mine works as a therapist for Alzheimer’s patients, both high-functioning and low. She recently described one sixty-ish daily visitor. “He is a saint. Every day he brings his lunch and eats with his wife. She doesn’t recognize him, so every day she is meeting a new friend. When we told him he needn’t come so often he said, ‘But she is my bride; if I did not see her, I would miss her.’”
The man’s wife had changed, but if she was no longer capable of seeing her groom, he still beheld and adored his bride. Their marriage, then, is the microcosmic reflection of the macro-love of God for his people and the love of Christ for his church. Love without limit, love without fear, love without desertion; love in joy and in pain, love in the shallows and the depths, love without end.
We cannot see God except as he is made manifest through us, and in the covenant of marriage his faithfulness is beautifully reflected. We look to this manifestation—in all its turbulent courses—to get an inkling of him. When we cannot see the great love of God reflected so near to us, we are diminished.
When love is rationalized into limits, we have sold love, and ourselves, short. If God is love, we have sold God short, too. We have chosen to walk around a fire, rather than through it, chosen not to trust that our sufferings have meaning and that they are, on balance, the crucibles of our commonalities, which mold and strengthen our societies.
Petersen says his wife’s love has been “lost to the long-goodbye of Alzheimer’s.” That suggests a perspective that sees love, and life, as finite—a measure brought to close, and the rest is silence.
To the nameless, lunch-bearing husband of my neighbor’s acquaintance, love is not lost; it is wholly there and alive. Petersen’s love is not “lost,” either, but perhaps he cannot quite perceive its nearness because he has dropped the lens of eternity.
Hard times are endurable, and suffering can be borne; if humanity no longer believes that, it will quickly extinguish itself, in an effort to go through life anaesthetized and feeling nothing but “fine.”
If mentally absent spouses can credibly be warehoused and apportioned a third of a marriage, that will quickly devolve into something more banal and expedient, particularly for those lacking means. The lives of “gone” spouses will eventually be deemed too expensive to sustain, and another thread in the seamless garment of life-and-death issues will have frayed and snapped.
I cannot judge Barry Petersen, and I would not; that is God’s job. I have no idea what torments he has endured, or how he came to his decisions. But it is not enough to ride a sentimental wave of emotion. Those choices will resonate within our consciences, eventually affecting medical and legislative actions and further challenging the churches.
I am a woman with neurological problems, and these questions about the limits of life and love, awkward and unwelcome as they are, must be asked, before much more is lost.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.