I first met Bob and Jan a couple of years ago when they came into my place of work. Even though they are in their late seventies, we hit it off right away. (I have a soft spot for people with way more wisdom and life experience than me :) They had just moved from Florida to the Chicago area and although they were happy to be near their son, they missed the warmer climate and their friends in Florida. Jan seemed to especially miss it, and they both were dealing the best they could with the diagnosis that had prompted the move: Jan was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
They visit my work place regularly, and we have, over time, developed a lovely friendship. Some days are better than others, and there are times I don’t think Jan really knows who I am or what we are talking about. So I’ll compliment her on her nail polish color, or just let her do the talking. Sometimes she’ll tell me surprising stories: I’ll nod my head as I listen and Bob will be behind her shaking his head and mouthing the words no – this never happened. He often has to repeat the same answer to the same question several times, and although I can sense the frustration of the whole situation, their love for each other is obvious. They have probably been married close to sixty years.
I haven’t seen them for a while, and the other day my boss tells me that Bob has come in a couple of times looking for me when I wasn’t there - not to buy anything, but just to talk. She tells me to be expecting a visit from him. Later that afternoon I hear the door chimes, signaling a customer, and in walks Bob, alone. When I give him a hug and ask how things are going, he tells me that the disease has progressed significantly. Jan is now consistently confused and agitated. The disease is horrific, he says, and the part-time care giver that comes to their home is not enough. His son may be moving out East, so he is looking at where he and Jan should live, and he is overwhelmed by the cost of the full-time care she will be needing very soon. I can see the heartbreak in his eyes, and of course, there are no words I can say to make anything better. All I can do is listen and be a friend.
Looking out the window of the store, he spots a three-legged dog walking with his owner, and we step outside to take a closer look. Sure enough, the dog is walking on three legs, and Bob seems tickled by this survivor-wonder dog. As he leaves, I tell him that I‘ll be praying for him and Jan, and for the decisions he is facing. Words that may sound cliché, but I mean them. I will pray for them because it is the only thing I know to do.
And then, almost as if he’s talking to himself, he says something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
I don’t get it, so I ask him to repeat it.
He looks back at me, his blue eyes articulating the promises he made a lifetime ago, the values he has lived by for over half a century.
Two sets of five words.
For better or for worse.
In sickness and in health.
And then he’s gone, and I’m standing speechless.
I am afraid that loyalty, faithfulness, and commitment are vanishing from our culture. When we make our marriage promises, if we even use those traditional vows, we are usually in a season of better, richer, and health. Most of us are not thinking about what worse and sickness and poorer might look like down the road. My husband, Bernie, and I have been married for twenty years, and on our wedding day we had no idea that a diagnosis of MS was waiting for him in his future. We can look back on the season of his diagnosis – which was devastating – and think that was the worst. But the reality is that we don’t know what lies ahead. We are living out our vows every day, and some seasons are better, some are worse. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel a sense of dread at what might be lurking around the corner. And yet we are invited to wholeheartedly trust in a God who is always present with us, a God who is always good. The vows we make to love our spouse ‘till death do us part’ come from the heart of our God who has promised to never leave us, to be with us in the best of times and in the absolute worst of times.
As married people, may we teach our children what it looks like to keep our promises – to live out those two sets of five words.