Recently Pat Robertson made news when he declared that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer’s is justifiable because it is “a kind of death.” The simplest thing I can say is that he didn’t get that teaching from the Bible. The very concept of Christian marriage rests upon a vow to be faithful “in sickness and in health.”
I thought that I should share a story that illustrates that truth.
A close friend of mine found himself put to the test when after many happy years of marriage, his wife developed Alzheimer’s disease. Her descent from rationality happened so fast that even the doctors were surprised. At first my friend hired a housekeeper to take care of his wife, but that solution did not work for long. Soon he admitted her to a nursing home with a special unit for patients with Alzheimer’s.
The first time he took me to visit her, I was not prepared for what I saw. The woman I had known—vibrant and full of life—had simply disappeared. In her place was a feeble old woman barely able to feed herself.
But when we walked in, she recognized her husband and called him by name. We walked arm-in-arm down the hall together, listening to her chatter away aimlessly, her words and sentences tumbling out unconnected as if some inner computer had been tampered with and the wires hopelessly crossed. Toward the end of our visit, when her husband asked if she would like me to pray for her, she said, “Yes, that would be nice,” then stared blankly into space while I prayed.
As we left to go home, we got into separate cars. My friend brushed the tears from his eyes before he drove away.
But that is only part of the story. My friend also had a very successful career that took him around the world. More than that, his work repeatedly put him in business meetings at some of the most glamorous resort areas known to man. He has a charismatic personality, is visibly successful, and is one of the most respected men in his field.
“I Made a Promise”
I asked him at one point why he remained faithful to his marriage vows. There was no chance–none whatsoever–that his wife would get better.
“I made a promise,” he told me, “and I have to keep it. She’s still my wife. Years ago when I pledged to be faithful to my her, I didn’t know she would have Alzheimer’s disease. But she made the same promise to me. It could have happened to me instead of her. As a Christian, I simply have no choice but to be faithful no matter what happens.”
Lest that sound grim and hopeless, he added these words: “Since my wife has developed Alzheimer’s disease, I have gone through the hardest time of my life. Yet out of that hard time, God has drawn me closer to Himself than I’ve ever been before. If I were unfaithful, I would lose all I have gained in my walk with the Lord. I would be a double loser then.”
“My wife,” he continued, “is contributing all she can to the marriage. The fact that she’s locked up for her own safety doesn’t change that fact. Even though she barely recognizes me now, we’re still married. I’ve made a promise to her, and I’m going to keep it.”
Before her death several years later, his wife regressed to the point where she no longer could communicate with anyone. In the end she sat motionless in a chair, her hands clenched, her legs permanently crossed. The doctors had no idea what kept her alive so long except that somewhere deep inside her a spark of life kept burning. One day her husband said to me, “I don’t know why she is still alive. I can’t see any purpose in it. Why is God allowing her to hang on when the person I knew disappeared years ago?” My friend wasn’t complaining, but just stating the facts as he saw them. He was still faithful, but the road was hard, the nights long, the loneliness intense, the future bleak.
“My Son is Watching You”
Then my friend spent an evening with a man who told him, “You’ll never know what you have meant to my son. He’s been watching you take care of your wife all these years. You don’t know it, but he’s been talking about you to everyone he meets. He tells them that anyone else would have left her by now and started a new life. But you didn’t do that. You stayed with her. And that has made a profound impression on my son.”
My friend told me, “Maybe that’s is. Maybe God allowed this so that somehow through it all I could help someone else.” Nothing could lessen the terrible pain my friend endured. But he would tell you that God has changed his life profoundly through the experience of watching his wife die. He would also say that God has seen fit to use his testimony to reach many people for Christ.
Some years after his wife died, my friend remarried. I know he is glad that he remained faithful when it would have been easier to walk away. He has shown the world what love looks like when the darkness closes in. God bless him and God bless all those faithful spouses walking with a loved one through the valley of Alzheimer’s. They have shown us what it means to be married for better or for worse, by God’s grace, to the very end.