It happened so gradually that Elizabeth and I hardly knew anything was wrong. She had never been much for physical exercise, but why should a walk up a hill be so difficult?
"C'mon, Mom, you can do it," our two kids said in near-unison. "We'll push."
And with that the three of us got behind her 110-pound, 5'3" frame and gave her the boost she needed.
But as those late-in-the-day foot drags became more frequent, they ceased to be as fun-filled as they were during that vacation in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. Back home, the afternoons brought fatigue; she complained about tingling and a constrictive feeling that made her right leg heavy.
Elizabeth had falls, one while standing on a chair to hang a poster in her high school classroom. "I should have been more careful," she said. Still, there seemed to be more to it. And there were times when a careless turn caught her off balance and pitched her to the floor where she stayed until I could help lift her. Once, she spent an afternoon on our closet floor waiting until I returned from work.
By this time she had a diagnosis—multiple sclerosis. "It will only get worse. There's no cure," her doctor said bluntly.
This intruder invaded Elizabeth's body, and by extension, mine. Her disease became my disease and made demands on our relationship we were ill-prepared to manage. As she moved from cane to walker to electric scooter and finally to a powered wheelchair, then lost use of her right hand, I had to adjust my life to fit her needs.
Uninvited and unwelcome, this disease now forces us into a kind of sick reality game, leaving no choice but to follow the rules even as they change and become more restrictive.
Elizabeth lives on the edge of her abilities. We discovered how close, when she caught a cold and ran a fever. In an attempt to leave the bed for the bathroom, she sank to the floor. The fever sapped what little strength she had, and in her attempt to stand, she crumpled. She lacked even the power to let me lift from under her arms, and delirium from the fever wouldn't let her try. A call for help got her back on the bed where I could slip disposable pads under her to protect the mattress.
It was as if we'd entered a new phase in this disease, and it scared me. I wondered if we were facing that day we both dread when I'll be unable to provide the level of care she'll need.
Dealing with life's unfairness
At night, I help her undress, put on her nightgown, and get her into bed. I bring her hot chocolate, a handful of pills, and an interferon shot, which I inject into her thigh or buttocks.
In the morning, she depends on me to help her to the bathroom, to bathe, dress for the day, and prepare breakfast with more pills on the side. I shop, cook, wash clothes, set hair, and do many of the things she used to do for herself and me. I'm thankful she's learned to apply mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick with her left hand. And I'm grateful beyond words that not one woman in our circle of friends has asked for "hair by Richard," as Elizabeth calls it.
Every family divvies up chores, fairly or not so fairly. The MS dictates ours and it's not at all fair, but we do have the choice to let it tear us apart or use it to strengthen our marriage bond as we face the adversity together. This reaches deeper than deciding who does what. It reaches to feelings, emotions, and attitudes about what we do, what's done to us, and who we are to ourselves and each other.
Dressing my wife humbles me; it humiliates her. Do I have thoughts such as, Why am I reading recipes and washing dishes? Checking her hose for runs? Untangling her bra and filling her lingerie drawer from the dryer? You bet I do. And I know the way I respond to those thoughts deeply affects Elizabeth.
When she asks me to bring her a blanket and a book,
I unconsciously sigh, too long and too loud. "And turn on the lamp, but first help me out of the recliner to the wheelchair so I can use the bathroom. And I'd like some tea and crackers when I get back to the recliner." She hesitates. "I'm sorry you have to do this."
I wince, realizing she heard my sigh. This dependency hits her self-esteem, and my reaction makes it worse. But how do I stop what I don't even know I'm doing?
We both pray for healing. With our families and our church, we agonize before God for a return to the day when Elizabeth can offer an open handshake instead of a permanently clenched fist, or take a flight of stairs without thought.
But if we only grieve the loss, we miss the gain—that what this disease does to us may also be done for us. Even as the MS steals abilities from Elizabeth's life, a healing grows almost undetected inside. When we talk about this, Elizabeth wonders aloud, "Did it really take this to teach me that my soul is more important to God than my body?"
And I ask, "Is this what Jesus meant when he taught his disciples to serve? When he washed their feet, did he look 2,000 years into the future and see me washing my wife's clothes and helping her onto her shower seat to bathe? Did it really take this to teach me compassion?"
Could it be that God in his wisdom and love gives Elizabeth and me this disease to heal us from the inside out in ways he considers far more important than how efficiently nerve signals travel from her brain to her muscles?
Whom do I love more?
God's healing can be sneaky. We pray that Elizabeth will resume her old life; he wants her to assume a new life. We long for change on the outside; he desires change on the inside. We pray for what we want; he answers with what he knows we need.
Is it wrong to want a whole, functioning body? Not at all. But though we focus naturally on the flesh, this disease compels Elizabeth and me to turn our minds to the Spirit. The apostle Paul said, "For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6, NASB). How unexpected is that?
Truth be told, Elizabeth and I are still learning the realities of that revelation. She tells me that when she had no choice but to submit to multiple sclerosis, she learned how to submit to her Lord.
And he has made me question whom it is I love.
When I pray for healing, is it for Elizabeth? Or is it because her healing would make life so much easier for me? I challenge, "Aren't you the God who heals? I love her and I want her well." But in the back of my mind I know I also want her healed for me.
In response to my challenge, Jesus asks me as he asked Peter, "Do you love me more than these?" I think, He wants me to love him more than my wife? So I reply with Peter's words, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You."
"Tend My lambs" (John 21:15, NASB), he tells me.
I care for Elizabeth. She's his lamb. Doesn't that show I love him?
But what is he really asking? He's asking if I love him more than these things I say I want, the things I'd have if this disease would just go away. Now my answer's not nearly as glib. Can I actually love God more than my wife, but not more than these things I say I want? They're not bad things: a happy, healthy life together, a stroll on the beach without a wheelchair to become bogged down in the sand, getting to church on time because she can dress herself.
The exposure shames me. Do I love him more than these? This is the love of Matthew 22:37-39 that commands me to love God with all that's within me, with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor—my wife—as I would myself.
Loving what I want for myself isn't even on the list.
It's not in me to love like that, except that God has promised that his love "has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Romans 5:5, NASB). God has given me an impossible command, but he has given me the power to obey it.
The intruder still resides in our home, still presents us with new challenges each day, and still teaches us forceful lessons on submission, dependence, service, and a love that endures all things and never fails (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)—even when I fail.
Strange as it may seem, that intruder is beginning to look more and more like a guest.
Dick Peterson, a freelance writer, and Elizabeth have been married 37 years. They live in South Carolina.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.