Mitch Albom

It's a phrase you hear in almost every marriage ceremony. "'Til death do us part."

But what about "a kind of" death?

Can you "kind of" part?

That's the debate raging ever since Pat Robertson used those words in justifying divorce if one partner suffers from Alzheimer's.

Robertson was answering a question 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," he 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 is a kind of death."

He did suggest the man make sure his wife had custodial care before leaving her. But last time 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.

Alzheimer's, in particular, has become a common companion. Sufferers can live for years in their own private prison, rarely if ever emerging for a glimpse of recognition. The rest of the time, spouses and family members comfort the body while searching for the soul.

So do you walk away? Pay for care and feeding, then get on with your life? That's what Robertson was suggesting when he said, "I can't fault him (the husband) for wanting some kind of companionship. If he says in a sense she is gone, he's right. He's right. It's like a walking death."

The problem is "a walking death" is still not death. And Alzheimer's is not the only form it takes.

What about ALS? It robs the brain of its communication with the body, leaves you an empty 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 -- and 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.

Strokes can do similar damage. They leave once healthy men slumped sideways in a chair, once beautiful women with open mouths and dazed expressions. At that point, the marriage cannot be the same. But does that stamp a spouse's walking papers?

What about closed head injuries? Comas? Patients hooked permanently to machinery? Their married lives, under such heavy weight, may feel over. But if we're only meant to stick around until the going gets tough, why bother to make all those promises at the altar?

Let's be honest. More than half of American marriages fall apart over more mundane issues. So it is not our place to judge when something as tough as Alzheimer's enters the picture. Whatever the couple may have discussed should supersede.

You hear people say, "She wouldn't want him to be alone." If this is true, why should an outside view be more binding? And if it's not, let the parties answer to their own consciences or faiths.

But we can say this: a "kind of death" is a worrisome phrase. It puts commitment up to interpretation.

Better, perhaps, to focus on the Augie and Lynnes of the world and be inspired by how amazing lifetime love can be.


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Health - Should Alzheimer's Be a Reason to Ditch Marriage Vows?