Tuesday, February 5, 2013
The character of love...
Among our extended family are several who suffer (or suffered and have died from) the scourge of Alzheimer's. I am sure we are not unique. Many families know the painful loss of memory and identity that slowly steals away those whom we love. But this is not really about Alzheimer's. It is about the love of a man afflicted by this terrible disease and the love of a woman who cares for him. Even as I write this my eyes fill with tears. I am humbled by the nobility of this love and the way it is lived out day in and day out -- amid the slow and painful advance of a plague upon life and love.
My father-in-law has watched his brothers fade away due to this illness. Their once vigorous lives were taken from them slowly, over years, as their family watched. He watched this not simply as a spectator but as one looking into the crystal ball and seeing his own future. In their retreat from the past that formed them and in the emptiness of a present that left them constantly in the presence of strangers, he saw what would eventually be the shaped of his own life. How he has borne the pain of this is beyond my knowing. What I do know is that he has remained remarkably cheerful and contented in the midst of it all. His memory loss and difficulty making choices cannot be explained away or ignored any longer. His fate is sealed in what already reduced the band of brothers to but one sibling, now confined to a nursing home.
I watch as he sits with his wife at the piano, singing as she plays, remembering the incidental lyrics of songs from his youth while unable to remember the precious things he hoped never to forget. I hear him say to his beloved wife -- with fondness, affection, and joy -- "Have I told you today that I love you? Do you know how lucky I am to have you?" I know their lives are filled with routines that might seem difficult for some but which have provided a comforting ordinary in which the extraordinary love of these two is lived out day by day.
And then there is his wife of 35 years. She is tender, patient, loving. When even the ordinary routines become complicated and difficult, she explains what she has explained countless times before. But she does so without showing any sign of frustration and bitterness. She is exceptionally kind. It is the duty of love in which love is not duty but delight. She does not treat him as a child (though it seems that this is exactly what victims of profound memory loss like Alzheimer's become). She shows him respect and it is the respect of deep and abiding love. Even as I marvel at what she does and how she lives, I am shamed by my own weakness and temptation to frustration and upset in circumstances far less pressing or costly than the life which has been handed to her. She is not blind to what is going on now nor is she naive about the future. But she has found a happiness and contentment with this man and he has found it with her in a way that is remarkable. This is not the typical story of a husband and wife.
No, this is a story of profound love. In an age in which it is increasingly hard for us to distinguish love from lust and ever easier to use love to get what we want, we see in this man and in this woman an example of a noble love, a love from God and not simply the result of personal choice.
So allow me to honor the many anonymous families who bear the burden of Alzheimer's in graceful ways by telling a little bit of the story of my father-in-law and my mother-in-law. They have made a remarkable peace with each day and chosen to use the moment to honor each other with the love they pledged to each other, now 35 years ago, February 5. In quiet dignity and graceful character, they have reminded me what it means to love. God bless them.