You’ve probably heard about it in the news this past week. Pat Robertson, ordained Baptist minister and former Republican presidential candidate was asked a question on his “700 Club” TV show. Robertson was asked what advice a man should give to a friend who began seeing another woman after his wife started suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her,” Robertson said. He went on to say that he wouldn’t “put a guilt trip” on anyone who divorces a spouse who suffers from the Alzheimer’s, then added, “Get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer.”
His co-host asked about the marriage vows that couples make, including the promises to take care of each other “for better or for worse” and “in sickness and in health.” Robertson responded by saying, “If you respect that vow, you say `til death do us part… this is a kind of death.”
As one who visits with and interacts with Alzheimer’s patients every week, I can tell you they are very much alive. Robertson’s likening Alzheimer’s as “a kind of death” is offensive to me. Imagine if we said to those dying from famine in Africa that our Slimfast diet plan is “a kind of starvation”.
Let’s acknowledge the obvious. We’re all sinners and we all say stupid things sometimes. Thankfully for most of us, our stupid remarks are not aired on national television.
That said, it is disconcerting to hear a prominent figure in the Christian community redefining the terms and conditions of God’s design for commitment in marriage. We don’t need an ethicist to give us a ruling on the meaning of “till death do us part”. It’s a sign of the times to take that which is black and white and paint it gray.
The terms and conditions of a relationship determine the nature of the relationship. If we allow ourselves to say that Alzheimer’s is “a kind of death” because that person, while still very much alive, has a diminished capacity for recognition, what are we doing? Especially if our purpose is to abdicate our responsibility and commitment? It’s a despicable example of situational ethics; redefining the terms of the relationship to suit our personal desires. Never mind that it flies in the face of God’s design for marriage.
My personal opinion, seriously offered, is that Pat Robertson should retire, go buy “The Notebook” on DVD, and pray that his wife didn’t hear how he answered that question. And if she did hear what he said, he better start praying he never gets Alzheimer’s.
Saturday morning I was making my weekly visit to Carillon House and Vista Care Hospice. While at Vista Care one of the nurses gave me a heads up that the lady in Room 8 was having a hard day and would I maybe spend some time with her, which I gladly did.
Joyce was sitting in a chair next to her husband’s bed. Wesley was sleeping peacefully and after the hard week they’d had, she was thankful for that. Last Sunday they pronounced Wesley dead, only to discover quite some time later that he had a pulse.
Who would know the simple office chair Joyce occupies has been a week long roller coaster ride?
Her Wesley has Alzheimer’s. It’s in an advanced stage and he can’t take care of himself. He talks crazy talk, she says. But she knows it’s the disease and not him. He’s 91 now and she’s 85. They’ve been married for 65 years. 65 years. She said she never dreamed they’d make it to 50 years.
After hearing her story I said, “Joyce, this is going to sound like a silly question but I have a reason for asking. Why do you stay here? Why do you stay with Wesley?”
Had I not prefaced the question I’m certain she would have looked at me even more strangely than she did. Her answer was simple.
“Because we love each other and we love the Lord. We’re playing for keeps.”
After saying my good-bye I left the room, trying not to let the nurses see my tears. It was a holy moment in the hospice unit. A privilege to be in the presence of two people who really get it. Two people who love each other and love the Lord and are playing for keeps. Two people who are leaving a legacy of faithful love to everyone who knows them.
When Wesley and Joyce got married 65 years ago, they set the terms and conditions of their relationship. Love each other. Love God. Play for keeps. Those terms and conditions have determined the nature of their relationship ever since. It’s why Joyce wouldn’t dream of leaving Wesley’s side, even though he doesn’t recognize her anymore.
God willing, I’ll be back at Carillon and Vista Care next Saturday. Wesley might be gone by then. Or he might still be there. As Joyce said to me, “Who knows how long this could last?”
One thing is certain. You can set your clock by it and take it to the bank.
If Wesley’s there, Joyce will be there, too.
They’re playing for keeps.
Todd A. Thompson – September 18, 2011