In "Living by Vows" (Oct. 1990) Robertson McQuilkin told Christianity Today readers about life with his wife, Muriel, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Because his wife needed full-time care, he had decided to step down as president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary (now Columbia International University) in South Carolina and give back to her some of the nurturing care she had provided him for so many years. Over the past five years, Muriel's condition has continued to deteriorate—and Robertson has gained even more insights into the mysteries of love and marriage.
Seventeen summers ago, Muriel and I began our journey into the twilight. It's midnight now, at least for her, and sometimes I wonder when dawn will break. Even the dread Alzheimer's disease isn't supposed to attack so early and torment so long. Yet, in her silent world, Muriel is so content, so lovable. If Jesus took her home, how I would miss her gentle, sweet presence. Yes, there are times when I get irritated, but not often. It doesn't make sense to get angry. And besides, perhaps the Lord has been answering the prayer of my youth to mellow my spirit.
Once, though, I completely lost it. In the days when Muriel could still stand and walk and we had not resorted to diapers, sometimes there were "accidents." I was on my knees beside her, trying to clean up the mess as she stood, confused, by the toilet. It would have been easier if she weren't so insistent on helping. I got more and more frustrated. Suddenly, to make her stand still, I slapped her calf—as if that would do any good. It wasn't a hard slap, but she was startled. I was, too. Never in our 44 years of marriage had I ever so much as touched her in anger or in rebuke of any kind. Never; wasn't even tempted, in fact. But now, when she needed me most …
Sobbing, I pled with her to forgive me—no matter that she didn't understand words any better than she could speak them. So I turned to the Lord to tell him how sorry I was. It took me days to get over it. Maybe God bottled those tears to quench the fires that might ignite again some day.
It wasn't long before I found myself in the same condition, on the floor in the bathroom. Muriel wanted to help—hadn't cleaning up messes been her specialty? But now those busy hands didn't know exactly what to do. I mopped frantically, trying to fend off the interfering hands, and contemplated how best to get a soiled slip over a head that was totally opposed to the idea. At that moment Chuck Swindoll boomed from the radio in the kitchen, "Men! Are you at home? Really at home?" In the midst of my stinking immersion I smiled, "Yeah, Chuck, I really am." Do I ever wish I weren't?
Recently, a student wife asked me that. Cindi has sort of adopted us. As we sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee, she said, "Don't you ever get tired?"
"Tired? Every night. That's why I go to bed."
"No, I mean tired of … " and she tilted her head toward Muriel, who sat silently in her wheelchair, her vacant eyes saying, "No one at home just now." I responded to Cindi's question, "Why, no, I don't get tired. I love to care for her. She's my precious."
"Well, I certainly would."
Cindi and her husband are handsome, healthy, smart people, and yet she admits that it is hard constantly to affirm one another. What happens when there is so little to commend? How does love make a difference?
Love is said to evaporate if the relationship is not mutual, if it's not physical, if the other person doesn't communicate, or if one party doesn't carry his or her share of the load. When I hear the litany of essentials for a happy marriage, I count off what my beloved can no longer contribute, and I contemplate how truly mysterious love is.
What's Love Got To Do With It?
The five-column headline read: "Love Helps Alzheimer's Victims Survive, Study Says." The reporter wrote: "What's love got to do with it? Just about everything, says a researcher who studied what happens in a marriage when a spouse gets Alzheimer's disease." In Prof. Lore Wright's study of 47 couples over a two-year period, she had predicted with 100 percent accuracy who would die first, based on her analysis of the love relationship between husband and wife.
I attended a workshop in which another expert told us that there were two reasons people keep a family member at home rather than in a nursing facility: economic necessity or feelings of guilt. Afterwards I spoke with her privately, trying to elicit some other possible motive for keeping someone at home. But she insisted those were the only two motives. Finally I asked, "What about love?" "Oh," she replied, "we put that under guilt." So much for love.
What some people find so hard to understand is that loving Muriel isn't hard. They wonder about my former loves—like my work. A college freshman heard that I had resigned as president of Columbia International University to care for my wife. "Do you miss being president?" Scott asked as we sat in our little garden. I told him I'd never thought about it, but, on reflection, no. As exhilarating as my work had been, I enjoyed learning to cook and keep house. No, I'd never looked back.
But that night I did reflect on his question and turned to the Lord. "Father, I like this assignment, and I have no regrets. But if a coach puts a man on the bench, he must not want him in the game. You needn't tell me, of course, but I'd like to know—why didn't you need me in the game?"
I didn't sleep well that night and awoke contemplating the puzzle. Muriel was still mobile at that time, so we set out on our morning walk around the block. She wasn't too sure on her feet, so we went slowly and held hands as we always do. This day I heard footsteps behind me and looked back to see the familiar form of a local derelict behind us. He staggered past us, then turned and looked us up and down. "Tha's good. I likes 'at," he said. "Tha's real good. I likes it." He turned and headed back down the street, mumbling to himself over and over, "Tha's good. I likes it."
When Muriel and I reached our little garden and sat down, his words came back to me. Then the realization hit me; the Lord had spoken through an inebriated old derelict. "It is you who are whispering to my spirit, 'I likes it, tha's good,' " I said aloud. "I may be on the bench, but if you like it and say it's good, that's all that counts."
Some of my best friends don't agree. One wrote last week, "Muriel doesn't know you anymore, doesn't know anything, really, so it's time to put her in a nursing home and get on with life." That day may come—when, because of a change in my health or hers, she could be better cared for by others—but for now, she needs me, and I need her.
The Good Life
"How do you do it? What are your resources?" asked the host on the television show Day of Discovery. I hadn't thought about it, but since then I have. Praise helps. Right now, I think my life must be happier than the lives of 95 percent of the people on planet Earth. Muriel's a joy to me, and life is good to both of us, in different ways. But I'm thinking of something more basic than just "counting your blessings."
By 1992, the blows of life had left me numb—my dearest slipping from me, my eldest son snatched away in a tragic accident, my life's work abandoned at its peak. I didn't hold it against God, but my faith could better be described as resignation. The joy had drained away, the passion in my love for God had frozen over. I was in trouble. If the only Companion you have in the lonely hours grows distant …
Of course, the passion of his love for me had never cooled. Even in the darkest hours when I felt my grip slipping and was in danger of sliding into the abyss of doubt, what always caught and held me was the vision of God's best loved, pinioned in criminal execution in my place. How could someone who loved me that much let anything hurt me without cause? But still, a one-sided love affair isn't very satisfactory. I missed the intimate companionship.
Then I remembered the secret I had learned in younger days—going to a mountain hideaway to be alone with God. There, though it was slow in coming, I was able to break free from preoccupation with my troubles and concentrate on Jesus. When that happened, I relearned what God had taught me more than once before: the heavy heart lifts on the wings of praise.
I have other resources: family, like my sisters, who have retired one by one and moved back to Columbia from the ends of the earth. They care for us lovingly; and friends do, too. It won't do to cultivate friends for the payback—that's not true friendship. But, I've concluded, those who don't build friendships in the spring and summer of life must find winter a lonely time.
Memories help, too. Muriel stocked the cupboard of my mind with the best of them. I often live again a special moment of love she planned or laugh at some remembered outburst of her irrepressible approach to life. Sometimes the happy doesn't bubble up with joy but rains down gently with tears. In the movie Shadowlands, when Joy Gresham reminds C. S. Lewis that their joy would soon end, that she would die, he replies that he doesn't want to think about it. Joy responds, "The pain is part of the happiness. That's the deal."
It's true. Recently, Muriel's right hand went limp—her first major decline since she lost the abilities to stand and to feed herself 18 months before. A little loss, you would think, but I shed a few tears. I wrote in my journal that night, "It's almost like part of me dies with each of her little deaths." That precious hand was so creative, so loving, so busy for me and everyone else. But it wasn't just the old memories. That right hand was the last way she had to communicate. She would reach out to hold hands, pat me on the back when I hugged her, push me away when she didn't like what I was doing. I miss her hand.
Memories are both sweet and bittersweet. I often remember her repartee. Once I remonstrated that she didn't know everything. "I don't know everything?" she shot back. "Why, I know more than everything. I know some things that aren't so!" Once in reply to her request to do something, I said I was already doing something else. "Well, it's a poor man that can't do two things at once," she said. Muriel, being a woman, could do three things at once, of course, which she did. But not always. "I'm a selective quitter," she'd announce and cheerfully abandon a project. "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well? Pshaw. Very few things in this life are worth doing well." Once, before we signed off for sleep, I was winning the argument with irresistible logic when she raised up on one elbow, transfixed me with fire in her grey-green eyes, and said, "Well, let me tell you something. Logic's not everything, and feeling's not nothing." In the uninterrupted silences of today, the memories of sweet and spicy talk long gone bring pleasure once again.
It's just as well I have those memories of past conversations, for she hasn't spoken a coherent word in months—years, if you mean a sentence, a conversation—though occasionally she tries, mumbling nonwords. Would I never hear that voice again?
Then came February 14, 1995.
I'm No Victim
Valentine's Day was always special at our house because that was the day in 1948 Muriel accepted my marriage proposal. On the eve of Valentine's Day in 1995 I read a statement by some specialist that Alzheimer's is the most cruel disease of all, but that the victim is actually the caregiver. I wondered why I never felt like a victim. That night I entered in my journal: "The reason I don't feel like a victim is—I'm not!" When others urged me to call it quits, I responded, "Do you realize how lonely I would be without her?"
After I bathed Muriel on her bed that Valentine's eve and kissed her good night (she still enjoys two things: good food and kissing!), I whispered a prayer over her: "Dear Jesus, you love sweet Muriel more than I, so please keep my beloved through the night; may she hear the angel choirs."
The next morning I was peddling on my Exercycle at the foot of her bed and reminiscing about some of our happy lovers' days long gone while Muriel slowly emerged from sleep. Finally, she popped awake and, as she often does, smiled at me. Then, for the first time in months she spoke, calling out to me in a voice clear as a crystal chime, "Love … love … love." I jumped from my cycle and ran to embrace her. "Honey, you really do love me, don't you?" Holding me with her eyes and patting my back, she responded with the only words she could find to say yes: "I'm nice," she said.
Those may prove to be the last words she ever spoke.
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Also posted today
CT Classic: Living by Vows | As his wife suffered with Alzheimer's, Robertson McQuilkin said, "If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt."
Final Chapter | Robertson McQuilkin reflects on his wife's long battle with Alzheimer's.