They met as students at Columbia Bible College. Robertson McQuilkin remembers sitting behind her in chapel, watching Muriel Webendorfer run her "lovely, artistic fingers" through her "lovely, brown hair." As they began spending time together, he discovered Muriel was "delightful, smart, and gifted, and just a great lover of people and more fun than you can imagine."
Robertson McQuilkin (center)
He proposed on Valentine's Day in 1948 and they married in August the same year. For the next three decades, they raised six children and served God together at a variety of posts, including 12 years as missionaries in Japan. In 1968 they returned to the United States and Robertson became president of Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University). Muriel taught at the college, spoke at women's conferences, appeared on television, and was featured on a radio program that was considered for national syndication.
The first sign that their lives were about to change appeared in 1978, during a trip to Florida to visit some friends. Muriel loved to tell stories, and punctuated them with her infectious laughter. But while they were driving, she began telling a story she had just finished a few minutes earlier. "Honey, you just told us that," Robertson said, but she laughed and went on.
"That's funny," Robertson thought. "That has never happened before."
But the same type of problem occurred again, and with increasing frequency. Muriel began to find it difficult to plan menus for parties. She would speak at public functions and lose her train of thought. She had to give up her radio show.
In 1981, when she was hospitalized for tests on her heart, a doctor told Robertson, "You may need to think about the possibility of Alzheimer's disease." It was hard to believe, since the disease—which causes progressive degeneration of the brain—does not usually strike someone so young. But the diagnosis was confirmed by other doctors.
As the next few years went by, Robertson watched helplessly as his fun, creative, loving partner slowly faded away. Muriel knew she was having problems, but she never understood that she had Alzheimer's. "One thing about forgetting is that you forget that you forgot. So, she never seemed to suffer too much with it."
Muriel found it more and more difficult to express herself. She stopped speaking in complete sentences, relying on phrases or words. Though she continued to recognize her husband and children, she lived, in Robertson's words, "in happy oblivion to almost everything else."
There was one phrase she said often, however: "I love you." Robertson learned much about love from Muriel, and from God, during those first few years of her disease. When he was away from her, she became distressed, and would often walk the half-mile to his office several times a day to look for him. Once Robertson was helping take her shoes off and discovered her feet were bloody from walking. He was amazed by her love for him, and wondered if he loved God enough to be so driven to spend time with Him.
By 1990, Robertson knew he needed to make a decision about his career. The school needed him 100 percent, and Muriel needed him 100 percent. In the end, Robertson says, the choice to step down from his position was easy for him to make. Perhaps the best explanation can be found in the letter he wrote to the Columbia Bible College constituency to explain his decision:
…recently it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time she is with me and almost none of the time I am away from her. It is not just "discontent." She is filled with fear—even terror—that she has lost me and always goes in search of me when I leave home. So it is clear to me that she needs me now, full-time…
The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago when I promised to care for Muriel "in sickness and in health…till death do us part." So, as I told the students and faculty, as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. But so does fairness. She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years; if I cared for her for the next 40 years I would not be out of her debt.
Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more: I love Muriel. She is a delight to me—her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don't have to care for her. I get to! It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person.
So Robertson became a homemaker and a care-giver, and he's proud of it. "The touchstone for me," he says, "has always been, 'With whatever God has put in me or will ever put in me, how can that count the maximum for what He is up to in the world?' People think it must be so difficult, but actually even on the emotional side I didn't look back with any regrets at all. I enjoyed the new life. All I had to know was God's assignment for me now."
When Robertson accepted his new assignment, he thought his public ministry was ending. Instead, it transformed into something altogether different. In a culture where people prize their individual freedoms above all else, this simple story of a man who loved and served his wife has touched people in a way that he never anticipated.
The story of Robertson's act of love spread across the country. Pastors mentioned it from the pulpit, leading couples to renew their wedding vows. Christianity Today, printed two articles by Robertson, and in 1998 he expanded that material into a book, A Promise Kept. He has appeared on television and radio. FamilyLife shows a video about his decision at its Rekindling the Romance events.
Robertson couldn't understand why so many people were inspired by his choice. Then an oncologist who worked with dying patients told him, "Almost all women stand by their men; very few men stand by their woman."
Robertson relied on God to give him the strength to meet his wife's needs week after week, month after month. When people asked him if he ever tired of caring for Muriel, he would often say, "No, I love to care for her. She's my precious."
One special memory is of Valentine's Day in 1995. He was riding an exercise bicycle at the foot of her bed and thinking of past Valentine's days, including the one in 1948 when he asked for her hand in marriage. Muriel woke up, smiled, and suddenly spoke for the first time in months: "Love…love…love."
Robertson rushed over to give his wife a hug. "Honey, you really do love me, don't you?" he said. In response came the words, "I'm nice"—her way of saying, "Yes."
Those were the last words Muriel ever said aloud. Robertson continued to love his wife this way all the way till the end of her life. By the time their 50th anniversary passed in 1999, she had lost all ability to function on her own, and spent each day lying in bed.
During that time Roberston worked on writing projects and took on some speaking engagements, but most days you would find him at home, caring for the wife he was committed to loving "till death do us part."
It helps him, he says, to bring up memories of their first 30 years together-the trips they enjoyed, the family they raised, the funny things she used to say.
Editor's Note: Muriel's last day on this earth was September 19, 2003. In a letter to friends, Robertson wrote, "For 55 years Muriel was flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. So it's like a ripping of my flesh and deeper—my very bones," Robertson says. "But there is also profound gratitude. For ten years I've delighted in recalling happy memories. I still do. No regrets. I'm grateful."
Read the e-mail Robertson sent to friends after Muriel died in 2003.
© 2000 by FamilyLife, all rights reserved. This article was adapted by permission from I Still Do, by David Boehi, Lifeway Books.
Robertson McQuilkin has written about his life with Muriel in his book, A Promise Kept.