till Death do us Part

July 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

I saw this story this afternoon at The Anchoress.   It is heartbreaking –

Click here to watch. “Jan’s Story, a Love Lost to Alzheimer’s”.

After I watched the story and thought about it for a little while I read the comments at CBS, The Anchoress, and Deacon Greg’s.

Barry Petersen tells the story of his wife,  Jan Chorlton’s,  and her struggle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

A few things about this story sort of get to me, beyond the heartbreaking reality of it all.   The part of the story that has been driving the comments on Catholic site has to do with the fact that Barry is currently living with another woman who he met after his wife’s condition deteriorated to the point where he could no longer care for her in home.  She is a widow named Mary who has joined Barry in caring for Jan.    Which is obviously a problem if you are approaching the story from a Catholic, sacramental marriage, world view.  But I don’t think Barry, Jan or Mary are doing that.  They are coming from a really different place, so I think some of the comments are misplaced – but I also found it really fascinating that in the story there is nary a breath between revealing Mary’s place in his life and Barry’s insistence that people shouldn’t be quick to judge him.   Normally when people announce they are doing something and then immediately follow it with protestations about how they shouldn’t be judged it is because they know on some level that people are going to judge them and that there is a logic to those judgments.

So many things in this story intrigue me:  How we view death and dieing.  The way we view mental capacity as the ultimate indicator of life’s worth.  What is our vision of married and romantic love –  what do those things mean to us and how do we expect them to play out in our lives?  What do we  do when things don’t go according to plan?  What do we really mean when we say “life must go on”?  The answers to these questions are different if you are coming from a world view that is Catholic or traditionally Christian than if your view is shaped by the culture at large.  It is these exact questions that set the Christian world view most starkly in contrast to the secular world view.

I also supposed this whole thing affects me differently having see my Grandmother go through the process of loosing so much of her memory and mental awareness to dementia over the past 10 years and having watched her pass back in December.   At least differently than it would have a few years ago.

Poking around I found a couple more videos about Jan and Barry’s story:

and an interview with Barry:

I think it is very sad that Barry has had to deal with condemnation from Jan’s friends over his decision to place Jan in a residential facility.  I understand the feelings that one goes through having to make those decisions – it is hard.  It is insanely hard to take someone you love to a place (even a beautiful, well kept, homey place) and the turn around and walk out the door leaving them there.  It took a long while before I really was used to the idea that Rachel, for her good and the good of the rest of the family, needed to be in an assisted living setting.  I am very familiar with the guilt that eats your heart as you when you walk out of the room, close the car door and drive away with tears running down your face.

There is really no room in my thoughts to condemn Barry for starting a new relationship, especially as his new companion seems to be accepting of the fact that Jan still needs him, she will likely needs looking over for years to come.  While it is tempting to hold Barry to the Catholic standard of marriage I think it is utterly unfair to do so without being certain that he and Jan had a sacramental marriage, or at least that they both understood marriage as being unbreakable, a life-long commitment.  He claims that Jan would want him to move on with life and celebrate each day.  He could be justifying his own actions or he could be absolutely correct in his assessment of what his wife would want.  Since we can’t really know these things judgment should be slow and gentle.   Yes, he is in a horrible situation and yes, he is doing something morally wrong, but I just can’t bring myself to toss a stone at him.

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