It's a phrase you hear in almost every marriage ceremony. "Till death do us part."
But what about a "kind of" death?
Can you "kind of" part?
Pat Robertson seems to think so. The TV evangelist answered a question on his show last week about a man who started seeing another woman after his wife's Alzheimer's left her unable to even recognize him anymore.
"I know it sounds cruel," Robertson said, "but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again ."
When pressed about the marriage vows, Robertson added, "If you respect that vow, you say 'till death do us part.' This [Alzheimer's] is a kind of death."
He did suggest that the man -- before he left -- make sure his wife had custodial care. But last I looked, a nurse is not a husband.
And "custodial care" is not in the vows.
Reaction was swift and often angry to Robertson, particularly from Christians who felt he was betraying his own religion. Still, before we jump all over the man, an exercise that seems to happen every year (the host of "The 700 Club" has made controversial comments on everything from gay rights to the potential assassination of Hugo Chavez), we should at least acknowledge that this is a serious issue more and more Americans are facing.
Debilitating illnesses have always been around. But as modern medicine improves, people can live longer with them -- which means healthy husbands and wives live longer with their afflicted spouses.
So do you walk away? Pay for care and get on with your life? That's what Robertson was suggesting when he said, "I can't fault [the husband] for wanting some kind of companionship. If he says in a sense she is gone, he's right. It's like a walking death."
The problem is "a walking death" is still not death. And Alzheimer's is not its only form.
What about ALS? It robs the brain of its communication with the body, leaves you an immobile husk, unable in many cases to do more than blink an eye or wiggle a toe. Isn't that a "kind of death"?
And yet I recently visited a couple in California, Augie and Lynne Nieto, who seven years ago were the picture of health and wealth and beauty. Now, Augie, 53, is in a wheelchair, unable to speak, move, kiss or hold, deeply victimized by ALS. Still, Lynne is as in love with him as ever, doting on him, teasing him.
Their relationship is not the same -- not in its behavior. But it is in their hearts.
I watched my own father push my mother -- a stroke victim -- in her wheelchair. They never imagined this. But his love for her, and commitment to her, is as unwavering as on their wedding day.
What about closed head injuries? Comas? Patients hooked permanently to machinery? If we're meant to stick around only until the going gets tough, why bother to make those promises? Like "in sickness and in health"?
Let's be honest. Half of American marriages fall apart over more mundane issues. If I'm not judging those, then I cannot judge when something as tough as Alzheimer's enters the picture. Perhaps the couple spoke about such a dilemma. Perhaps one told the other, "I don't want you to be alone. Live your life." If so, that should supersede outside opinion.
But we can say this: a "kind of death" is a worrisome phrase. And applying it can set worrisome precedents.
Better, perhaps, to focus on the ways people find to stay together -- Augie and Lynne, my folks, people you know? -- and be inspired by how amazing lifetime love can be.