Till death, or brain injury, us do part?

February 9, 2012

Philip Weeks fondly remembers the days when his wife of 56 years,
June, was a nurse and an artist whose paintings were compared to
Rembrandt's. Her paintings still hang in their home in Lynchburg,
Virginia, but almost everything else changed for the couple after she
was diagnosed with possible Alzheimer's disease and then an acute form
of dementia.

In one moment, Weeks said, she would lean over to
kiss him. "An hour later, she looked at me and said, 'Who are you?'"
recalled Weeks, a bishop who belongs to an independent charismatic
church body.

When the person you married goes through a dramatic
change, what's a spouse to do? Clergy, ethicists and brain injury
experts agree: there are no easy answers.

When a couple is faced
with the sudden or gradual change in the person who now may no longer be
able to give flowers or go out to the movies, it often means a new
definition of love. "I made a vow," said an emotional Weeks. "For better
or for worse, in sickness and health. She has stood by me in mission
work, in the pastorate. Why can't I stand by her now?"

Several recent examples reflect the complexities of love in medically challenging situations:

  • Last summer, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson initially suggested on his 700 Club
    program that a man might well divorce a wife with dementia and "start
    all over again" with dating. He said Alzheimer's was "like a walking
    death." He later said he was "misunderstood."
  • In early January, the Washington Post
    magazine ran a story about a woman whose husband suffered a traumatic
    brain injury after a heart attack. She eventually decided to divorce
    him—but continued caring for him with the assistance of her second
    husband.
  • On the weekend of February 10, The Vow debuted
    as the no. 1 film nationwide, making $41.7 million at the box office.
    The movie is an adaptation of a new edition of a book about a young
    married couple whose serious car accident left the wife unable to
    recognize her husband. In fact, she thought she was not married. The
    couple, who attend First United Methodist Church in Farmington, New
    Mexico, credited their faith for making it through, said the United
    Methodist News Service.

"There's always an obligation, I
think, to keep faith with your spouse, but the shape that that can take,
morally speaking, can vary," said Darlene Fozard Weaver, an ethicist at
Villanova Univer­sity in Pennsylvania.

When medical crises
interrupt a couple's expectations of wedded bliss, there are all kinds
of dynamics to consider: Is the ill spouse now abusive? Can the
still-well spouse manage the necessary care? Al­though The Vow is
a romantic drama about trying to get a wife to fall in love with her
husband again, Weaver said it's not far from real-life marriage
issues—with health challenges or not.

"Keeping faith in a marriage
is always this ongoing process of both remembering what brought you
together in the first place but also responding to and embracing the
person who's here before you now," she said.

The Vow is
based on the true story of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. Physical
therapist Scott Madsen knew the couple and watched the husband move from
caretaker to coach to, eventually, an again accepted mate.

"As
she got better, the relationship be­came better as well, more of a
normal relationship," said Madsen, who served as best man when the
couple renewed their vows in 1996.

Kim Carpenter writes in the book The Vow that some people suggested divorce, saying it might even help with medical expenses. That was not his choice.

Greg
Ayotte, director of consumer services for the Brain Injury Association
of America, said it is a misconception that most spouses of
brain-injured patients—people who have been in a car accident or had a
fall, stroke or tumor—head to divorce court. According to two recent
studies, the vast majority of married brain-injured patients remain wed.

"In
the world of brain injury, the term often used is the 'new normal,'" he
said. "As you begin to understand the injury, you kind of develop a new
normal for your life and your family."

Page Melton Ivie, the subject of the Washington Post story, said faith played a role in her decisions on how best to care for her first husband, Robert Melton.

"In
the context of my faith, I am standing by him and with him," she wrote
during an online chat after the story was published. "I am fortunate to
have found someone who will share this with me." Others didn't look at
it that way. "Some day she will have to stand before God and explain why
she put herself before her vows to God and to Robert," wrote Dennis
Babish, a blogger for Prison Fellowship's Breakpoint blog.

Terri
Corcoran, a spokeswoman for the Well Spouse Association, said members of
her organization's online forum also were divided. Some called Ivie's
story "beautiful," one that gave them hope, while others criticized the
"have your cake and eat it too" relationships.

Corcoran's husband
Vince has a neurodegenerative disorder that has left him mostly
speechless. Corcoran said her conversion to her husband's Catholic faith
helped her carry on. "I've learned to accept the way things are," she
said. "I still would give anything to have him normal again even for a
day. I just keep saying, 'Lord this is your will. I know you will show
me other blessings,' and he has."

Retired bishop Weeks, who self-published a book, A Long Dark Night: A Caregiver's Journey with Dementia,
said he came close to losing his faith, but not his love. Eventually,
he said, he stopped doubting God. "He was giving me a quality of love
for her that I did not have before," the bishop said of his wife. "I
think I'm a better husband now because I've learned how to deal with
this."  —RNS