The marriage vows were easy. “For better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.”
For better for worse? That was no problem. We loved each other, and life could only get better once we were married.
For richer for poorer? Well, we knew we’d both be poorer for many years. We were buying a house, and to be honest we couldn’t afford it.
But in sickness and in health? When you’re in your twenties, sickness means nothing more than the occasional cold or tummy bug. We could manage those. We’d coped with that sort of thing ever since we were born.
Then suddenly, after thirty-seven years of a great marriage of loving and cherishing, Liz was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And that really is a sickness.
No way was I going to let Liz go into care. I could manage. And for three years I did manage. At first it was fairly easy. The medication worked, and Liz’s memory score rose to the point where she believed she was better. But of course nothing is that easy in life.
In August her memory became worse again, and she started to have behavioral problems. Hey, not to worry, we’d promised that we’d be there for each other in sickness and in health. I’d see it through to the end.
The changes were slow but steady. It was a bit like watching weeds grow in the back yard. Things happen so slowly you hardly notice—until you get back from a long vacation. That’s when you realize how much the plants have changed.
But I didn’t get that break, so I hardly noticed how badly Liz’s condition was worsening.
Friends from church rallied round. They were great. A good friend warned me that I had to look after myself, but I was doing fine—apart from the chest and stomach pains that were nothing more than indigestion brought on by a little bit of stress. Not that the antacid did much good.
The local health authority sent a helper to give me a break during the day. As far as Liz was concerned the woman was unwelcome. So was the next one, and the next. Liz thought they had moved in with us and she was afraid to go to bed at night in case they were in the room with us. And I couldn’t go out and leave Liz with one of the helpers anyway in case she became too agitated, so the stress continued. And so did the love. In fact, looking back, I can see that our love was actually strengthened.
The more Liz’s condition worsened, the more my love for her grew. We’d always been a very loving couple, but this seemed like an extra special love, and she was able to return it with hugs and kisses. But it didn’t solve the stomach pains.
One morning in March I woke up with a crushing pain in my chest. It couldn’t possibly be my heart, I reasoned, and anyway I had no pain in my left arm. Besides, I had to look after Liz.
Liz managed to fetch some antacid, and this seemed to fix things. The pain didn’t return, and four days later I felt brave enough to look up the symptoms of a heart attack on the Internet.
It seemed that a heart attack could start with stomach pains. Well, maybe it could, but I definitely hadn’t had a heart attack. I knew that for sure.
Well, not quite for sure. On Monday morning I was round at my doctor for a checkup, just to be on the safe side. He immediately transferred me to the local hospital for a checkup, also just to be on the safe side.
Liz had to go with me. I couldn’t arrange for anyone to look after her until the afternoon, so she sat by my side, wandering off from time to time as she became bored.
The hospital staff knew she had Alzheimer’s, but I was the patient and they wouldn’t take responsibility for her. So each time she went out of sight I had to get up to fetch her back. I wasn’t wired up yet, so it was easy enough.
Fortunately, my daughter was able to come from her work and take Liz home before lunch. A friend from church who had been a nurse checked on Liz during the afternoon. By then I was wired and tubed up and given blood tests. Yes, I’d had a heart attack.
“Will I be going home today?” I asked naively. “My wife needs me.”
The family brought Liz to see me in the hospital the next day. Things were going on okay at home, or so they told me. They probably didn’t want to add to my stress.
The tests showed that I had two blocked arteries that could probably be fixed with stents.
I had to stay in the hospital, and this could be a matter of weeks. I knew that Liz wouldn’t understand what was going on, even if the family told her.
The next Sunday was Easter—the first Easter we’d not gone to church together. I was taken to the hospital chapel in a wheelchair, and after the service the chaplain asked me what was wrong.
I started to tell her about Liz, and the tears came. I couldn’t speak. I’m sure the rest of those present thought I was crying because I’d been given the devastating diagnosis. Not that I cared what they thought. My tears were for Liz.
After ten days, the family was no longer able to cope. Liz had to go into temporary care. She had been brought to see me several times, and knew I was no longer at home. Our oldest son bravely volunteered to take his mum to a specialist care unit, and I’m sure there were tears there as well.
The trauma of going into care was not as devastating for Liz as I had feared. She settled within forty-eight hours, and I phoned her a few times and said I’d be seeing her soon.
Nearly four weeks passed before I could leave the hospital, and this turned out to be a great blessing. Liz seemed to accept that we were parted, and the family could visit her without her crying when they left. The expert assessment on Liz was that she needed to stay in full-time care. So now I had to find a permanent care home for her.
The local health authority gave me a list of approved homes, and I quickly found one that seemed fine. I took some of her favorite pictures and ornaments to decorate her room in her new home and was in the room when she arrived.
Yes, there were tears, but there were hugs and kisses too. Liz never asked to come home. One day she asked me if we had a home somewhere, and I said, “No, not at the moment.”
We didn’t have a home. I lived in the house that had once been our home, determined to make the best of my life from then on.
Once Liz had settled in, I took her every Sunday to the local church. I didn’t want to go to the church where we had first met in 1964 and had worshiped ever since. I wanted Liz to think that she was living a new life, without remembering the past.
As Liz’s condition worsened she had to be moved again, this time to a secure nursing home, but the pictures and ornaments were there when she arrived. And so was I. She settled in again remarkably quickly, and is still holding on.
In sickness and in health? Maybe deep down, all those years ago, I thought that one of us might get a serious illness later in life. But that was far in the future. I’m glad the prospect of long-term ill health never worried either of us, because when it happened we had the strength to cope with it.
For richer for poorer? The house was eventually paid for, and things got easier financially for us as a family. But richer? Forget the money. Surely, the richness is the extra capacity we both discovered for love. The love was always there, but in the time of suffering it became greater and even more important.
I think back to our wedding in the little country church in the village where Liz was raised. We both said, “I do.”
Knowing what I know now, would I say it again? Yes I would, without a single doubt. We’re both much richer for having said it.
- Chris Wright
A wise mentor once said, “We often wish we knew God’s plan for our lives. But we can be glad God doesn’t lay out the direction of our whole lives for us to see—if He did, we’d probably run, scared spitless!”
Likewise, it’s probably good that when we begin a relationship, we never know where it will lead. If we knew ours would be one of those relationships, like Chris’s, that would face pain and challenge, we would probably hesitate! And in doing so, we’d probably also miss out on some of the greatest joys in our lives.
While no relationship is guaranteed a pain-free future, as Chris learned, love is still worth it.
And how does love weather the storms of life? A firm foundation helps. One of the keys is to build strength and nurture love during the sunny, warm days of camaraderie . . . to focus on and deepen the closeness day by day. Then, if the storms hit, we can ride them better because our relationship is already firmly planted and rooted in deep soils.
Take time today to nurture your relationships.