August 18 – Muriel

August 18 – Muriel

Psalm 15:4

“…honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt.” (Psalm 15:4)

Robertson once said to his second wife, Deb, “How would you like to be famous for having quit?” Quit? Hardly, but his story of the decision to step down from Columbia International University as president might help you to sort your thoughts and feelings about commitments, and about God. His story goes:

Muriel’s love for me was not just a noun describing her feelings, but a verb describing her activity. Oh, she had the feelings – take my word for it – plenty of passion. But it was so much more – she lived out her life for me. No wonder it was a happy partnership.

But then. . .

But then the brightest light in my galaxy began to flicker. And she was only 55, looked no more than 35. In the summer of 1978 on a trip to Florida, as we visited with friends, Muriel began a story she had told only moments before. When I pointed that out, she just laughed and continued the story. I thought, “That’s funny. Never happened before.” But it happened again. And again. A college president’s wife does a lot of entertaining, and Muriel was a gifted hostess. But now those special occasions for people important to the institution began to become hazardous. What sort of menu might we expect? What sort of food preparation and when?

In 1983 we visited a neurologist friend to see exactly what was happening. After she’d consulted with Dr Taber, he asked me to come in while she sat outside in the waiting room. When I returned, Muriel cheerfully greeted me, “Well?” Stalling for time, I responded, “Well what?”

“Well, am I batty?”

“I guess, just as we suspected, we may have a problem,” I responded rather lamely.

I told the Board of Trustees what was happening and suggested they develop contingency plans because, I assured them, when my sweetheart needed me full time, she would have me.

No two patients are the same, I discovered as people told me their stories, not in the losses suffered (apart from memory loss), not in the order of loss, not in the pace of loss. But it was to be 15 years before the obvious dawned on me. This is a disease of the elderly. If you’re 85 at onset you’re likely to die of something within seven years. So much for averages. But Muriel was not even 60 when diagnosed. “Early onset” they call it. Sometimes the “long goodbye” is very long indeed.

There was one thing she did do with unrelenting determination: escape the prison guarded by that pesky care-giver and dash for her husband’s office a half-mile from home. More often than not the effort would prove futile, for Sherry, my secretary, would bar the entrance. “There’s someone in his office, Mrs. McQuilkin. You can’t go in just now.” She would speed-walk home, only to return a few minutes later. As many as 10 times a day – 10 miles of walking, walking, walking.

When would the time come when I could no longer fulfill my obligations adequately both to the schools and to my beloved? I wrestled with the question. It wasn’t, as some have said, a battle of the loves because I loved Muriel above all, whereas the work – well, it was exciting enough to dream great dreams and see them come to pass, but I never considered myself indispensable. I wasn’t married to an institution.

I said I loved Muriel above all. And that’s true of all human loves, but there’s Another I want to love with all my heart, will, mind, and strength. And that was the root of the problem. The battle centered on what love for God would choose when his instructions don’t seem to point in a common direction. “He who does not care for his own is worse than an unbeliever.” “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it.” Fair enough, let’s go for it! But then again, what of the many verses on which I’ve never heard a sermon, verses like, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters- yes, even his own life- he cannot be my disciple”? Or the promise: “…no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will not fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” What would love do? Love for God, that is.

The Board meeting was in early February, so I didn’t have much time to think about my personal situation, but the night before that meeting I could put it on hold no longer. I lay awake beside my beloved. How she needed me. There were many people, no doubt, who could lead Columbia Bible College and Seminary (now Columbia International University), perhaps better than I, but no one could care for Muriel as I could. At three AM the decision was made. Now at peace, I drifted off into a deep sleep.

The next morning, after telling the Board of my decision, I went to the chapel to tell the faculty, staff and students. Next it was time to share with the whole constituency:

“Twenty-two years is a long time to serve a school. But then again, it can be shorter than one anticipates. And how do you say good-bye to friends you do not wish to leave? The decision to come to Columbia was the most difficult I have had to make; the decision to leave 22 years later, though painful, was one of the easiest. It was almost as if God engineered the circumstances so that I had no alternatives. Let me explain.

My dear wife, Muriel, has been in failing mental health for about 12 years. So far I have been able to carry both her ever-growing needs and my leadership responsibility at Columbia. But recently it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time she is with me and almost none of the time I am away from her. It is not just “discontent.” She is filled with fear- even terror- that she has lost me and always goes in search of me when I leave home. So it is clear to me that she needs me now, full-time.

The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago when I promised to care for Muriel ‘in sickness and in health. . . till death do us part.’” So, as I told the students and faculty, “as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. But so does fairness. She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years; if I cared for her tor the next 40 years I would not be out of her debt. Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more: I love Muriel. She is a delight to me – her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I don’t have to care for her, I get to! It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person.”

I’ve heard that 72% of marriages break up when one partner contracts a terminal illness. I’ve never been tempted, but if I were I’d remember that God loves promise keepers, gives no audience to promise breakers. [67]

[67] Note: for a more complete story, there’s a book: A Promise Kept, Chicago, Moody Press (2005).

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