August 23, 2013

People who doubt God’s existence say that, despite the well-known adage, there have been plenty of atheists in fox holes. Ernest Hemingway is often cited as an example. History tells us that Hemingway was on the frontline of several wars. However, history also tells us he committed suicide because he was unable to face his declining health, so he may not be a legitimate example of godless bravery.

My time in a foxhole came in October of 2007, a few months after my husband and I moved back to our hometown. Gery—a 56 year-old family physician—was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. For the first time, I faced a challenge I couldn’t handle alone. In sheer desperation, I reached out for the Lord. I had pretty much ignored Him for years, but He was still there.

When we learned Gery had Alzheimer’s, I knew it was important to let him choose which church we joined. We began attending Gery’s childhood church and, when his diagnosis was confirmed by a second neurologist, we asked our minister to announce it to the congregation.

Our openness greatly expanded our support network, and our church family was a true blessing in our lives. We tried to “give back”—we served as deacons and I joined the choir—but we got far more than we gave. I will be forever grateful for the emotional and spiritual support we received. As his illness progressed, Gery was increasingly comforted by long-familiar people and places, including his church.

Gery was always happy when Sunday rolled around. I suspect the atmosphere of warm and loving acceptance was a refuge for him in a world that didn’t always show forbearance to people with dementia. For me, attending church each Sunday renewed my spirit and brought a welcome sense of normalcy into our relentlessly abnormal world.

During Sunday services, I tried to pray, but I was so terrified of what lay ahead that all pretense at eloquence deserted me. I shut my eyes, folded my hands and begged for help. “Please God, help me to be a better caregiver. Please God, give me the strength to deal with this.”

During the first year Gery was ill, I had difficulty sleeping and frequently found myself wide awake at 3 a.m. While the rest of the world slept, I lay wondering where I would find the strength to meet the terrible challenges of Alzheimer’s caregiving. I’ve never felt so alone and frightened or so humbled.

Over and over, I repeated my simple plea. At first I wondered if I deserved for God to hear me. Eventually, I believed He was listening. It was an indescribable relief to put myself in God’s hands.

Every Sunday at the conclusion of the church service, we recite a charge: “Wherever we go, God has sent us. Wherever we are, God has put us there. He has a purpose in our being there. He has something He wants to do through us, wherever we are.”

I taped this passage to our refrigerator and, during Gery’s illness, I thought often about its meaning in my life. My wonderful friend Jane, who prayed faithfully for us throughout Gery’s illness, was the first to suggest there was a divine purpose at work in my life. With God’s help, I stopped asking why such a good man met such a terrible fate. Instead, I began to consider the possibility that the Lord brought us together later in life for a reason other than our love for each other.

It’s never made sense to me that life as we know it is the beginning and the end. After Gery’s brother died in 2003, we discussed our faith for the first time. The knowledge that Gery believed in heaven helped me face the last stage of his illness. I could barely look at him without crying, but I knew we would see each other again, only Gery wouldn’t be ill and we wouldn’t be sad.

Sometimes I prayed as I sat with him during the terrible final weeks of his life. My prayer was still a plea, but this time I asked God to fold Gery in His arms and carry him away. I was able to ask this because I believed to the depths of my soul that Gery was on his way to a better place. Without faith, I don’t know how I would have thrown off the utter despair that threatened to sink me so many times during Gery’s illness.

Through God’s grace, I’ve survived the illness and premature death of my husband, the most traumatic event of my life. Many people suffer similar or worse tragedies, but how do any of them persevere without a belief in God? I have no idea, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. As one of Gery’s childhood friends said, “We were raised with faith, and sometimes it’s all we have.”

Sometimes, it’s all we really need.

Christine McMahon Sutton is a former medical journal editor and author of “Stop and Smell the Garbage: A Caregiver’s Story of Survival.” She lives in Iowa and frequently speaks on the subject of Alzheimer’s caregiving.