It’s probably good that the wedding vows are very general. Catholic wedding vows are just two sentences long: “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
Perhaps there are a few young couples who grasp exactly what they’re promising with those sentences, but most—myself included—stand on that altar and think the words about bad times and sickness are more of a formality.
As a twenty-five-year-old bride, sickness to me still meant a case of strep throat, and a bad time was rain at Summerfest. The naiveté of youth blended with the fairytale tulle of the wedding dress and the two-foot tall cake for dessert seemed to whisper “liar” to the hints of trouble in the vows.
Now, sixteen years into marriage, I would stand on that altar with Bill again and promise my life to him, once again, but I would also understand that just as the word “good” cannot do justice to the exquisite joy of the moment of a baby’s birth or child’s adoption, so the word “bad” cannot contain the profound sorrow of loss and pain.
Bill’s mom died of Alzheimer’s disease three weeks ago. It was by no means the first death we have experienced as a couple, but it was the closest. Watching my father-in-law care for his wife during the eight-year progression of her illness taught me the depth of the sanctity of marriage. Alzheimer’s is a cruel and sneaky disease. It started off looking like normal forgetfulness— Nancy misplacing her keys or reaching for the wrong word in a sentence. It progressed to the somewhat worrisome—Nancy adding flour rather than powdered sugar to the cake frosting. At each stage, we lost her a little more. A usually bright and engaged conversationalist, she became increasingly unable to keep up with chatter at the dinner table. As the disease progressed, she lost her ability to cook, to keep the calendar and checkbook, to drive, and in the final year, even to dress and care for herself.
My father-in-law, Harry, responded to his wife’s illness by living his marriage vows so completely and so beautifully, it took my breath away. Harry would never say he was living the vows. Harry was a computer analyst and programmer before he retired; a straightforward and practical man, not given to poetic expressions or liturgical language, so he would just say, “I made chicken and potatoes for dinner,” if he said anything at all. But for a groom of the 1960s whose responsibilities as a husband had not included making meals, keeping the house or calendar, or doing much of what would be considered “women’s work,” Harry’s decision to take on the full care of his wife, along with doing all the things she used to do, was to me, exactly what is meant by honoring your spouse all the days of your life.
A few years into Nancy’s illness, I suggested to Harry that he didn’t need to worry about gifts for myself and the kids for birthdays and holidays. Gift-buying had been Nancy’s department and I didn’t want to burden him with one more responsibility. I think I may have offended him, because he sputtered something about how it was not going to be a problem. And it wasn’t. Apparently, he had been absorbing Nancy’s sense of style through the years; while I wasn’t too surprised with the remote control vehicles he gave to the boys, I was amazed by the fabulous clothes he managed to pick out for both the girls and myself.
“Great sweater,” a co-worker said to me at work one day shortly after Christmas. “Thanks. My father-in-law gave it to me,” I said.
“Who has a father-in-law who can buy them clothes?” she said incredulously.
A father-in-law who is living the vows, I thought.
As Nancy’s condition worsened, Harry—in Bill’s words at the eulogy—became a Superhero. He took on more and more of Nancy’s care; managing her medicine; feeding her; dressing her. Sometimes he was hard on himself, saying he wasn’t patient enough. In her final year, he was smart enough to know what was best for her; sending her to adult day care a few days a week so she would be in a safe setting while he got things done in the house. Two months before her death, he found a nursing home a mile from their home. She moved there, and Harry visited every day to feed her lunch.
On the day of Nancy’s death, Bill, Harry and I were together in her nursing home room, along with the hospice nurse. Nancy was struggling to breathe. Harry knew it was time. I said goodbye to Nancy. Harry left the room and I thanked her for being such a good mother-in-law, for welcoming me into the family and sharing her son with me; for being a wonderful grandmother to our children.
And now, a few weeks later, I have someone else to thank, and that’s Harry. For giving me a model of what it means to live those marriage vows.
“I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
So, that’s what it looks like. Got it.
Thank you, Harry.