While walking the beach with a friend earlier this summer, she told us a sad story about her dad and her step mom. Her dad and mom had been married 52 years, until her mom died. Twelve years ago he remarried, to a woman whose husband had passed away. It sounds like a sweet story.
But recently, our friend’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is showing the symptoms of dementia. His wife responded by saying, “I didn’t sign up for this.”
This made our friend understandably angry. We were angered also. Of course the woman is distressed to have to deal with a spouse who’s memory is fading, and all that will entail. It may be especially difficult since she watched one spouse die already. But nevertheless, to say she “didn’t sign up for this” sounds cold and selfish and puts into question what kind of love existed in that relationship.
It’s interesting that this anecdote came out in the midst of several other experiences. One was the wedding of the son of friends. At the wedding, we heard the young and happy couple make vows, which included the classic line, “in sickness and in health.”
They are young and healthy now, but they signed up for dealing with whatever hardships a difficult sickness in one of them may bring.
On the same day, other friends of ours were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. One of them has been dealing with persistent health issues. But they remain together through it, without any thought of whether this was part of the deal or not.
Of course if you have read my column before you are aware of all that my wife and I have been through. We are approaching our 21st anniversary, but the past four of those years have been marked with a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis which subsequently metastasized to the brain. There have been 8 surgeries, several months of chemo, two rounds of radiation therapy, an ongoing infusion every three weeks, and countless scans, tests and doctor’s office appointments. One might say I didn’t sign up for this. But I did when I said “I do” more than two decades ago.
Believe it or not, I still remember something the pastor who married us said to us during pre-marriage counseling. “If this goes well,” he said, “one of you will stand at the other’s grave site some day.”
That sounded morbid, but I also know instinctively what he meant. Our vows included the common promise “til death do us part.” That’s pretty plain, we were in this come what may. There was a vow to love each other. There was no promise that our lives would be easy.
After my wife’s first surgery, the anesthesiologist, who knows my parents, complimented me to my parents for how I had been during my wife’s surgery. I was confused. All I had done was wait in the waiting room. But no, he said. I was there in pre-op, holding her hand, giving her a kiss, praying with her, at her side til they had to wheel her off to the operating room. And I was there when she came out, smiling, assuring her of my love in spite of what the surgeons had to do. I thought this would be typical. But I was told many husbands impatiently ask how long it will take before leaving for work, or a golf game. Others don’t even show up, leaving the driving to their wife’s friend or another family member.
I in no way want to put myself on a pedestal. I am blessed to have been raised by parents who model this kind of love. I’ve also witnessed it in many others who in turn inspire me.
But I worry about our society. I worry about people who could say even of the need to care for an ill spouse that they didn’t sign up for that. Many people these days don’t understand love. It is perceived as a good feeling generated toward someone else. But that’s only part of it. Love in its full bloom is a verb. It is about what we do, not just how we feel. In particular, it is about what we do for others, before ourselves.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
That’s really a beautiful way of saying love does not consider what one ‘signed up for.’ If you made a marriage vow, you DID sign up for whatever comes next. If you truly understand love, you will see the beauty and blessing of active love in both the mountaintops and valleys of your journey together.