Saturday, November 04, 2006 sickness and in health...

Visiting a dying patient is nothing new to me. Seeing someone sick isn't either. Exposure to both over the past two years has slowly changed my perspective on life and love. I've been to more than a few weddings over the years, and at most of them the traditional vows are exchanged, almost a magic formula, the significance of which few, if any of those parties truly understand. I doubt many of those parties envision Mrs. Walmswood.

This woman is dying, but she has not been given a swift departure from the world. She is suffering from a very slowly progressive form of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. And as her body's functions have been slowly taken from her, she has lost along the way the ability to inflect her voice, or speak at more than about 30 words per minute. Walking into her room for the first time, I was set on edge almost immediately. I tend to size up a person quickly, and my initial impression of this woman was that she was a bit mentally slow, and in general the typical obese diabetic with two or three psychiatric issues. As I got her history, I found that she has been suffering from her disease for over ten years.

What struck me was the fact that her husband was in the room, and he was smiling and upbeat. Actually, more striking even than his presence and attitude was the discovery that this woman had been a teacher in a nursing school, a very highly functioning individual. And as I tried to get past the irritation I felt waiting for her to finish sentences, I discovered that preserved within her was a wry sense of humor and a still-facile mind.

I guess what awed me was the fact that this man had made a commitment to this woman, and even as sickness has taken most of what, to an outsider, is attractive, he has stayed with her, and I imagine most days manages to see within the decaying mortal remnants that soul he married not so many years ago. But I must wonder if he ever regrets his choices.

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote.

I don't doubt the ability of humans to make and keep promises. But the single guy in me questions the utility, marvels at the commitment, and ponders the components of those promises. Just as I wouldn't want to end up a patient on a medicine ward, I especially wouldn't want to have my wife (should I ever have one) end up a patient on one. It almost seems that it would be more worthwhile to live singly than live with that pain. I respect the strength I see in my patient's families, but I wonder if I even possess the ability to have that kind of commitment. Judging from success rate of marriage in this country, I think many of my fellow citizens suffer from the same weakness.

On me can Time no happier state bestow
Than to be left unconscious of the woe.
Ah then, lest you awaken me, speak low.


Thainamu said...

That made me cry, and not just for your patient.

Anonymous said...

It upset me a bit, too, but for multiple reasons. I wish there were more who would contemplate and take marriage as seriously as your patient's husband and you do. However, it's frustrating, for me at least, because your thoughts illustrate what seems to be a common theme among 20-somethings these days -- that marriage isn't worth the pain.

I watched my Grandma hold my Grandpa's hand when he died. There were generations of love wrapped in that moment, and it was worth it. She still says so, too.

Nathan said...

I'm sorry to have made you cry. I was mostly marveling at the strength of committment involved in marriage, and I came out a lot more negative than I expected. It depresses me, but doesn't surprise me, that fewer than 50% of marriages survive. It depresses me, but doesn't surprise me, that fewer than 50% of households in the United States are made up of married couples. It depresses me because as a Christian, I know I ought to be stronger, but if I am honest with myself, I see the seeds of the same destruction within my own soul.

Which I think is the point, one I should have touched on. Marriage is, or has been, the cornerstone of society for at least 5000 years, and probably longer. That's a lot of history to buck in the arrogance of a mindset. So it must be true that something seen from outside as difficult or impossible is so because a) it is different than I imagine or b)I am different than I imagine. If "a" is true, then there must be something about marriage I don't see, not being in it. And that hasn't happened because I havent found The Girl yet. If "b" is true, it must be because The Girl, or Faith, allows me to be stronger than I can see at present. Probably both are true.

So I imagine a touch of "a" and of "b" are true. I also realize that what I see can be taken as motivation or discouragement, and that a Christian really has no right to take the latter perspective. And that if I take that faith seriously, then marriage is almost certainly intended for me and most others.

Thainamu said...

ryann, you've made a great observation which seems too true. They can't help but see the pain in so many marriages (or former marriages), and conclude it is better to neither risk facing that pain nor risk adding to it.

Yet it is still true that it is not good for man to be alone.

I feel like I'm bursting things to say on this topic, but then I realize that after being happily married for 30 years, maybe I really just don't understand what the problem well enough to speak.

On the other hand, I do feel sad for all the young believers who have rejected the world's attitude toward love, sex, and marriage and aspire to a Biblical view--yet, for whatever reason, have not yet married.

Alex said...

Anyone that believes they can keep a marriage together on their own strength is, I think, sorely mistaken. I think that anoyone who does not have a healthy degree of concern as to their ability for marital faithfulness and devotion has taken upon their own shoulders what only God can make them strong enough to do. Love is, in perhaps a less than romantic sense, a choice. But God gives us strength to pursue and be intentional and faithful in our choices.

medstudentitis said...

I recently had an encounter with a patient who is also a family physician and has secondary progressive MS. Not only has her husband supported her as a wife, but he has also supported her as her practice partner. He has taken on a great number of patients as she has become disabled to a point where she can no longer do physical examinations, and in return refers all of his patients in need of talking psych therapy to her so she can remain active as a doctor for as long as she can (her greatest desire). Their ability to act as a team in multiple aspects of life left me in awe.

I have great hope that we all will one day find a person that we love as much as that. Perhaps having met great couples who can act as role-models for a long and loving relationship will make it that much more possible for us to pursue one of our own.

Nathan said...

This thought continues here.