Would I kill my wife, the love of my life? Is it possible that I would consider such an act an expression of my depthless devotion to her? I doubt I’m the only person entertaining such questions, not in the wake of the recent demise of Charles and Adrienne Snelling.
They’d been married 61 years, the last half-dozen of which were increasingly consumed by Mrs. Snelling’s Alzheimer’s affliction. Late last year (2011), an essay of Mr. Snelling’s about caring for his wife was published in the New York Times. In it, he wrote, “It’s not noble, it’s not sacrificial and it’s not painful. It’s just right in the scheme of things….” Less than four months later, just two weeks ago, Charles killed Adrienne, then himself, in an act of what their family called “deep devotion and profound love.”
Among the few things I’ve learned in nearly 70 years of this incarnation is the arrogance of presuming how I would or wouldn’t respond to a given situation. I find the universe infinitely resourceful in the ways it can challenge even our most fiery commitments. Heck, I’m a recovering alcoholic; before hitting bottom 23 years ago, I swore off booze cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die countless times. It amuses me to daydream that one of God’s primary jobs is swinging into action anytime we say something like, “Why, I’d never do that!” My story is that when we reach enlightenment, there will be nothing we haven’t done––and nothing we haven’t forgiven.
I think Gandhi said something like, “A pacifist is a person who can kill you and won’t; most who call themselves pacifists are merely impotent.”
There are many tremendously harmful acts that I cannot conceive doing. Given who I am at this moment, I can’t imagine the circumstance in which I would rape someone, for instance. Perhaps because I’ve done my share of raping in previous incarnations, my understanding of its harm is deeply seeded in my cells, to the point that I have compassion for rapists. I get the terror, pain, self-hatred and rage (at ways I’ve been abused) that have led me to be a perpetrator of violence myself. And while I may have transcended the compulsion to rape, other forms of violence (such as judgment and the blood I’m willing to spill protecting my wife’s well-being) I must more actively choose to free.
More to the point, I’m aware that just because I can’t conceive of doing something doesn’t mean I won’t do it. Among the silliest beliefs we humans hold is that the limits of our understanding is the limit of understanding itself. Calling something “impossible” only means we haven’t figured out how it can happen. Calling something “unforgivable” only means we choose not to forgive it. This kind of self-centeredness can lead us to the conviction that our view of things is “The Truth,” and everyone who doesn’t think like we do be damned.
I can predict with only so much confidence what my behavior will be in a given situation, but I can say what my intention is––to bring all the love I can to whatever presents itself, creating the space within so spirit/nature can guide me.
Four days after the Snellings died, my wife and I welcomed into our lives a new golden retriever puppy, eight weeks old. His name is Red. A mere two weeks of bonding around the clock with this furball of delight has discombobulated the normal rhythm of our existence. We’re in heaven, but we sure cherish every moment we get to nap. Of course, we know this is a phase. It will end. And the rewards of good doggie training are immeasurable. Still, it’s just enough of a commitment to remind us how unfathomable are the requests of a teacher like caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. And we’ve actually experienced quite a bit of that teacher up close among the elders in our family.
Recently, under the subject “Doggie bliss,” I emailed a photo of Red to our son in California. Immediately, he replied, “A loan from God.”
I’m happy to be able to say with confidence that, if my wife gets Alzheimer’s, I will do my best to act with deep devotion and profound love. After all, we’re talking about my beloved of nearly 40 years, my dearest friend in the world, my number one mentor––a loan from God.
All I can say is, wherever that love and devotion leads, I’m up for the ride.