I’ve been part of at least a couple hundred discussions about marriage over the last few years. I hear people “ooh” and “ah” when they hear couples have been married for decades – as if that’s a new thing. It’s our recent selfish attitude and lack of commitment and respect for the holy institution and its purpose that has…..well, I don’t have enough paper for that. I guess it’s strange to me to see people get all excited about someone lasting longer than a decade because I never had a fairy tale concept of love. I hear people talk about falling in and out of love or divorcing and re-marrying as if they’re changing clothes. Love is a choice and always has been. I got a chance to see true, mature marital commitment a while ago.
The beautiful and inspiring moments observed inside a psychiatric hospital are few and far between, but some things will be with me a very long time. I’ll call this couple Al and Bea because I feel like starting at the beginning of the alphabet. Visiting hours had ended a few hours before I arrived, but Al was still visiting his wife. He started asking me questions about some over-the-counter eye drops for his wife to reduce her discomfort. Less than five minutes into my shift, I’m trying to figure out why he’s still here, answer his question and check on my other 15 patients. (As a staff member, it’s quite easy to get agitated because you’re immediately thrown into the middle of chaos, you know other patients are going to be asking why their visitors have to come during regular hours, and you just don’t have the time to do all these special favors family members are requesting because you’re spending every moment trying to make sure your patients are safe.) I had to inform Al that the doctor did not approve Bea’s drops, so she wasn’t permitted to have them in the hospital. I could see he was disappointed, but I had distanced myself so I could say what I needed to say and start taking vitals. Before he left, he asked me to talk to his wife. I said, “Sure”. Then, he asked me again to talk to his wife, and he looked at her like it absolutely broke his heart to have to leave her in the hospital. I knew I didn’t have the time he wanted me to use, but I could see it meant a great deal to him to know she wasn’t just being ignored.
That night, a co-worker (more familiar with the hospital) and I talked. And it dawned on me. This man knows his wife! This man knows what being committed means. He asked for her drops – not because he was trying to be a nuisance – he was asking because he knows what helps his wife. To him, it was such a small request to get the drops so her eyes wouldn’t feel dry and scratchy. She’s used drops for years. The doctors had turned down or not reviewed the request since she was admitted several days earlier, but every day, he asked because he didn’t want his wife in any more discomfort than necessary. It’s also quite possible that they’d never slept apart since getting married. He used every moment he was permitted to call and visit her. On his exit, he did his best to ensure his wife had someone to talk to and not be stuck in some corner or feel abandoned. You could tell how interconnected they were. When she’d get up in the middle of the night, she would walk around the hall looking and calling for him.
I see that commitment and want to show people this is that deeper connection. Marriage is more than a good feeling, “falling in love” or acting like some scripted sitcom. I’m pretty sure Al was not thinking about how sexy his wife was when she needs to be changed. I’m sure he’s not asking why she doesn’t look or act like she did when they first got together while angry with her for having dementia. He didn’t penalize her for not doing what he wants. And…. he didn’t abandon her when she needed him most (people actually do leave their spouses during treatment knowing they can’t get discharged yet). Bea may not remember what she ate 30 seconds ago, but she remembers Al and talks of him often. They are one.
That night, I thought about how Al is like so many unseen and unrecognized husbands who understand what commitment is. God made the union between husband and wife to be the most important interpersonal relationship. It’s so important that in Genesis, God stated a man is to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. Why does that stick out to me? Adam and Eve didn’t have parents to leave. The marriage is the rock on which families and nations are built. Jesus restated a man is to leave parents and cleave to his wife and that the two would become one union – a miracle in itself. There are other spiritual reasons behind the sanctity of marriage, but this stuck with me that night. Cleave…. as in “hold on for dear life.”
Al demonstrated his unfailing commitment to be there for his wife through thick and thin no matter what happened. He honored his vow to God and honored his vow to his wife.
“I, Al, take you Bea, to be my wedded wife to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’til death do us part.”
As I helped Bea back to her bed, I thought about how blessed she was to have someone that truly meant those words. Al’s determination to be there for his wife from the altar until their last moment together is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in the last several years. If you ask me, that’s poetry in motion and better than any romantic movie Hollywood could produce (unless, of course, they use a story like theirs).