The Road Less Traveled in Marriage

When I was asked to preach at a camp at Columbia International University, I quickly said yes.  I was excited to be with them for many reasons, but one reason was that I finally got to walk around a path that was legendary for me.

I had never been to that school.  I have friends associated with CIU and have heard great things about it, but I had always wanted to walk upon the roads of the school.  I wanted to see the layout.  I needed to get the earth beneath my feet.

All because of the story of another who had walked on those roads.

Let me tell you a story about Robertson and Muriel McQuilken.

Robertson_McQuilkinYears ago, Robertson McQuilken was finally realizing his dreams.

Serving as President of the Columbia International University, he was training and equipping ministers that were serving all over the world.

When his wife, Muriel, displayed signs of Alzheimer’s Disease, Robertson had a choice to make. Many encouraged him to send Muriel to a nursing home because he really could not help her. That way, he could continue to follow God and the calling on his life.

He attempted to lead the school and care for her, but it became increasingly difficult.  When he would go to work, she would become upset and frightened.

At night, he would often get her ready for bed to discover that her bloodied feet had traveled back and forth the road to the school for their house anxious to be reunited with him.

Many thought the choice was simple for him.  His choice was simple. The video in this post contains some of what McQuilken stated in his resignation speech to the school.

The words are also written below:

Muriel now, in the last couple of months, seems to be almost happy when with me, and almost never happy when not with me. In fact, she seems to feel trapped, becomes very fearful, sometimes almost terror, and when she can’t get to me there can be anger. She’s in distress. But when I’m with her she’s happy and contented, and so I must be with her at all times. And you see, it’s not only that I promised in sickness and in health, ‘till death do us part, and I’m a man of my word…It’s the only fair thing. She sacrifices for me for forty years, to make my life possible…so if I cared for her for forty years, I’d still be in debt…It’s not that I have to. It’s that I get to. I love her very dearly, and you can tell it’s not easy to talk about. She’s a delight. And it’s a great honor to care for such a wonderful person.

How different is his response from so many spouses today.

Many people questioned his choice.  His response during those days:

Muriel never knew what was happening to her, though occasionally when there was a reference to Alzheimer’s on TV she would muse aloud, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever have that?’ It did not seem painful for her, but it was a slow dying for me to watch the vibrant, creative, articulate person I knew and loved gradually dimming out.

I told them that when the time came that Muriel needed me full-time, she would have me.

Should I put the kingdom of God first, ‘hate’ my wife and, for the sake of Christ and the kingdom, arrange for her to go into an institution? Trusted, lifelong friends, wise and godly, urged me to do this.

‘Muriel would become accustomed to the new environment quickly.’ Would she? Would anyone love her at all, let alone love her as I do? I had often seen the empty, listless faces of those lined up in wheelchairs along the corridors of such places, waiting, waiting for the fleeting visit of some loved one. In such an environment, Muriel would be tamed only with drugs or bodily restraints, of that I was confident. To put God first means that all other responsibilities he gives are first, too. Sorting out responsibilities that seem to conflict, however, is a tricky business.

She is such a delight to me. I don’t have to care for her, I get to.

Muriel cannot speak in sentences now, only in phrases and words, and often words that make little sense: ‘no’ when she means ‘yes’, for example. But she can say one sentence, and she says it often: ‘I love you’. She not only says it, she acts it. The board arranged for a companion to stay in our home so I could go daily to the office. During those two years it became increasingly difficult to keep Muriel at home. As soon as I left, she would go out after me. With me, she was content; without me, she was distressed, sometimes terror-stricken.

The walk to the college is a mile round trip. She would make that trip as many as ten times a day. Sometimes at night, when I helped her undress, I found bloody feet. When I told our family doctor, he choked up. ‘Such love,’ he said simply. Then, after a moment, ‘I have a theory that the characteristics developed across the years come out at times like these’. I wish I loved God like that – desperate to be near him at all times. Thus she teaches me, day by day. As she needed more and more of me, I wrestled daily with the question of who gets me full-time – Muriel or Columbia Bible College and Seminary? Dr Tabor advised me not to make any decision based on my desire to see Muriel stay contented. ‘Make your plans apart from that question. Whether or not you can be successful in your dreams for the college and seminary or not, I cannot judge, but I can tell you now, you will not be successful with Muriel.’

When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, in sickness and in health… till death do us part’?

This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.

“She doesn’t even know you.” — “Yes,” he said, “but I know her.”

Robertson tried to explain his decision to his supporters and critics. He admitted that his wife didn’t know who he was. But that wasn’t the point. The really important thing was that he still knew who she was, and that he saw in her the same lovely woman he had married those many years ago. He said: “And I promised to be there for her ‘until death do us part.’”

The “easiest” decision would have been for him to leave her and go back to “ministry.”  His example leaves me challenged, inspired, and gracious.

How committed are you to your spouse?

Is your spouse aware of your commitment?  For better, for worse, in sickness, and in health, till death do us part.

Travis Agnew is married to Amanda and the father of two sons and one daughter. He serves as the Senior Pastor of Rocky Creek Baptist Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is What God Has Joined Together.