January 30, 2012

First of a three-part series.

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what marriage is going to look like in another 20 or 30 years. On one hand we celebrate marriage in our culture, and on the other hand we continually challenge, attack, and redefine it.

The growing acceptance of cohabitation, for example, raises the question, “Is marriage even necessary?” The issue of gay marriage raises the question, “Was marriage meant only for heterosexuals?” And the issue of divorce leads people to ask, “Do our marriage vows really mean anything?” If you can redefine the marriage vows, you’ve redefined marriage.

Case in point: The Washington Post recently featured a long article in its Sunday magazine titled, “The Vow: A family learns the true meaning of ‘in sickness and in health.’” The piece is very well-written, and it raises an important question: What obligation do you have to a spouse who has suffered a catastrophic health setback and is now a totally different person than the one you married?

Robert and Page Melton of Richmond, Virginia, married in 1995 and had two children over the next seven years. In 2003 Robert suffered a heart attack, followed just six days later by a stroke which left him with moderate-to-severe brain damage.

He’d had little physical impairment, but his cognitive loss was profound. He had severe language problems, couldn’t sit still, was confused and frustrated to the point of violence. And he had no memory—short- or long-term. 

At first Page cared for her husband at home, but after a few months doctors suggested that he would benefit from the regular help of experienced caregivers and from the routine of a qualified facility. Robert has lived ever since in an assisted-living facility, and his condition has stabilized and improved. Page visits him several times each week. But he’s a fundamentally different person now.

… within seconds of meeting him, it’s clear his mind is impaired. It’s hard to know how much he comprehends, even when he answers a question. Conversations are limited and disjointed. 

He sometimes latches onto the sounds of words rather than their meaning—saying, “Give my regards to Broadway,” for instance, when he’s told a friend “sends his regards.” He often falls back on stock phrases or song lyrics. 

The most striking thing about Robert is his personality. Once reserved and a bit aloof, Robert today is talkative and exuberant. He seems to spill over with wide-eyed joy and gratitude. He calls everyone “darlin’” or “babe” or “bro.’” 

By 2008, Page had “made peace with her life.” But then the story really gets interesting.

She attended a college reunion and reconnected with Allan, who she’s known since kindergarten. They began developing a friendship that turned into love. A turning point in the relationship occurred when Allan told Page that he realized that any future with her would have to include Robert.

As he started falling in love with Page, he said to her: “I see this responsibility that you have, and I want to help you with it. I understand this is a package deal.” 

“That’s what triggered the relationship,” Page says. “He understood that Robert was central to our lives, that we needed to take care of him.” 

Still, Page says she felt guilty about the relationship because of the vows she had declared in her wedding—to commit herself to Robert “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.” Says Page, “I believed my vows so strongly that they just kept ringing in my ears.”

Apparently her guilt was relieved when she talked with her minister, who told her that she was still honoring her vows as long as she cared for Robert. She talked with Robert and said she and Allan would like to get married, and he said, “You should marry him. He’s a good guy.” She also talked to Robert’s brother and father, who gave their blessing.

Last year she divorced Robert and married Allan, who included in his wedding vows a promise to “always help you provide compassionate care for Robert.” Page and her daughters moved to St. Louis to live with Allan, and they moved Robert into a facility in the same area.

To many readers of the Post, this is a marvelous and uplifting love story. They praised Page and her new husband for remaining committed to Robert. “What an amazing, inspirational story about exceptional people,” one reader wrote. “It is one I will never forget, one of those tales that reaffirms one’s faith in humanity and in America.”

It’s difficult not to be moved with compassion at the situation Page faced. And yet … there is also something very unsettling about her choices.

It seems she has relieved her guilt about her wedding vows by redefining them. She feels she didn’t break her vows by divorcing Robert because she continues to care for him. But that ceremony back in 1995 was not a friendship ceremony. It was a wedding—she vowed to care for him “in sickness and in health” as his wedded wife “until death do us part.”

© 2012 by FamilyLife.  All rights reserved.


Read parts two and three in this series.