Archive for August, 2017

Marriage Ends

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

Once upon a time, I was a parish minister and one of my elderly (90-ish) parishioners, “Sally,” was dying. I went to visit her in the hospital, finding her semi-comatose in her bed, surrounded by an encampment of family members and with her not-dying but very old and dignified husband beside her.

The husband—I’ll call him Fred— had not left his wife’s side for two days, sitting upright in a chair, holding her hand and refusing all invitations and entreaties to go home to bed, if not for the night then at least for a nap.

I suggested that if the Fred wouldn’t go to bed, maybe the bed could come to him? The nurse agreed. We found a cot and wedged it in between the wall and Sally’s bed. Upon discovering that the cot wasn’t high enough to allow Fred to be able to comfortably maintain his grip on Sally’s hand, we stacked another mattress on top. Fred clambered aboard this slightly precarious perch, lay down, took hold of Sally’s hand and grinned blissfully. 

I was standing at the foot of what was now—sort of—a double bed. I was dressed in clerical garb. Fred was still wearing his customary jacket and tie. Sally looked lovely in a white hospital gown draped in a white blanket. There were bouquets in the vicinity. 

“Yeesh, this looks like a wedding!” said one of the grandchildren.
Fred and Sally’s daughter’s eyes at once lit up. “That’s what we’re going to do! We’re going to have a wedding!” She ran out into the hall to collect stray grandchildren who had wandered away during the cot-moving exercise, roped in a few nurses’ aid and a doctor or two. One of the grandchildren strummed a guitar.

“In the presence of God and of this beloved congregation,” I performed a renewal of vows and, “by the power vested in me by the State of Maine” pronounced that Sally and Fred were still married. Fred kissed the bride, who smiled. 
Sally died the next morning. 

In the National Review Online, Wesley J. Smith has written an essay about the increase in “couples euthanasia” in European countries that have adopted an affirmative right to end your own life.

In a story guaranteed to evoke “ahhhs” from the sentimental and perhaps a recognizant twinge from anyone who is in love with his or her spouse, he describes an elderly couple who died “holding hands, surrounded by loved ones.” 

They were both 91, seriously old even by 21st century standards. 

“The couple’s daughter told The Gelderlander [translated]. “The geriatrician determined that our mother was still mentally competent. However, if our father were to die, she could become completely disoriented, ending up in a nursing home. “Something which she desperately did not want. Dying together was their deepest wish.”

When my first husband died, I had our four young children to think of, so the thought of joining Drew in death could not be entertained for long…but it definitely did occur. So I get the “deepest wish” thing, truly. 

Fred would get it, too, I think. After all, he had loved, honored and been faithful to Sally for sixty years, but even if their marriage had made them one flesh, they remained two souls and so they were parted by death.

And that sweet old Dutch couple in the story have been parted by death, too.

“Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms,” C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiographical A Grief Observed: “But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats.”

The notion that we can (let alone should) die together with our loved ones and then spend eternity in a celestial version of earthly reality is as absurd and, in its way, as selfish as the idea that we can take our money with us when we go. That the Dutch wife might become completely disoriented, might end up in a nursing home was not a reason for her to die in some sort of refined pharmaceutical sutteee.
For all her children’s sentimentalizing self-exculpation, the fact remains that a double-euthanasia has freed them from the duty (and, if only they could see it this way, the privilege) of comforting their mother through the grief that is the privilege of love. 

 “Et voila,” Smith writes. “…Before you know it, the children of elderly parents attend and celebrate their joint euthanasia killings–instead of urging them to remain alive and assuring them that they will be loved and cared for, come what may.” Euthanasia, he argues, inevitably corrupts our “perceptions of children’s obligations to aging parents and society’s duties toward their elderly members.”

It also extends an already-endemic and self-indulgent DiCaprio/Winslet identification of eros rather than agape with the highest, best manifestation of love.

A good friend and fine warden, Michael, demonstrated agape for me when his wife died. He was devastated. And yet, within minutes of her death, when a kind nurse at the hospital tried to tell him “she’ll always be with you,” Michael gently corrected her. “She is with God.”

For all my anguished yearning to somehow be with Drew after he died, he was with God. It was not possible for me to go with him nor for him to remain with me. Instead, it was my privilege to grieve for him and to carry his memory into the life he did not get to live.

I frequently assure my present husband that he is obliged to outlive me, but if Simon instead predeceases me, then as his (hopefully really aged) wife I will yield him into God’s embrace and mourn him fiercely, for whatever time is given me to live.

It is living on and loving more, not dying-too that honors love.
Fred, by the way, grieved strongly for his Sally. It hurt to lose her; it was—as C.S. Lewis would say—a kind of amputation. And yet, he lived on. Sure, he needed more help as he got even older. He moved in with his daughter and son-in-law… and then he started dating again.