Pat Robertson made an astounding comment on his TV show last week. His comment came in response to a caller who said that a friend had begun dating other women while his wife lies seriously ill with Alzheimer’s, and justifies it by saying that “his wife, as he knows her, is gone.”
Robertson said he agrees with the man: “What he says basically is correct. I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”
His co-host pressed Robertson about whether that violates the marriage vows. Robertson responded that Alzheimer’s “is a kind of death” and added, “I certainly wouldn’t put a guilt trip on you” for choosing divorce in such a scenario.
The Reverend Robertson is famous for making controversial statements, but this one seems to be rewriting scripture and revising the marriage vows. He advocates abandoning a spouse when they are at their most vulnerable.
The Book of Common Prayer wedding vows are as follows: In the Name of God, I take you, (name), to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
Alzheimer’s is not death or “a kind of death”. It is a horrible disease that robs minds, but the person lives on. It often seems that the person is not there at all, but moments of lucidity come through. I volunteered for a time bringing religious services to an Alzheimer’s ward in a nursing home. When we sang the old familiar hymns, even the worst off would often mouth the sacred words. They would sit up, smile, and sink back. They were in no way dead.
My grandfather’s second wife suffered a stroke that put her into a vegetative state. She lived for several years after the stroke, and my grandfather found care arrangements so he could be with her. On a number of visits I never saw any sign that my grandfather’s wife was aware or could understand anything. Nevertheless, my grandfather stayed with her, talked to her, cared for her personal needs, and never lost heart. His caregiving for a woman he loved who was in “a kind of death” made him a better man, sensitive and loving. He was no longer the dour Scot I knew most of my life.
Life is a mystery. Illness is a mystery. Love is a mystery. Sometimes the answers to the mystery lie in a lasting commitment to another until parted by death. I pray that Mr. Robertson learns that.