Barbara Kirkham Jolley, my mother’s mother, died on Monday. She was 86 years old. Grandma Jolley’s husband, Joseph Arben Jolley, died eight months ago, and by all reports, she had put little effort and had even less interest in living ever since. Just days ago, she fell and broke her hip; when she heard that she would have to receive surgery, she was happy: “I hope,” she told my mother on the phone, “that I will go to sleep, and never wake up.” Which is exactly what happened. Her body didn’t quite come out from the anesthesia, and was put on life support. Her children, including my mother, unanimously decided to take her off the respirator; “she’d hate us if we kept her alive artificially,” was one son’s conclusion. The doctor suggested she could remain alive in that state for days, weeks, even months–but as it was, she died in minutes. Obviously, she’d made up her mind to leave.
We use all sorts of deeply romantic and intense metaphors to describe the marriage relationship in the church: welding, sealing, becoming “one flesh.” We hold out an ideal–supported by theological speculations, assorted teachings and hymns, and a few scriptures here and there–of a relationship between a husband and wife in the eternities that is practically unitary, or at least perfectly and totally complementary. And in this life, some seem to be able to reach that state. The cliche of partners being able to finish each others’ sentences is, as some of us know, a real possibility. Certainly that was the case with Grandma and Grandpa Jolley–whatever they might have been before marriage, after they married they spent more than 60 years growing into something more than the sum of their parts. Which has to make one wonder if, after having become such a sum, anyone could abide being turned back into a mere, singular, integer. Grandma couldn’t; as much as she loved her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they simply couldn’t fill that empty space that Grandpa had once inhabited. Put that together with a body that was failing in so many ways, and the prospect of struggling to hold off one’s reuinion with a partner who has gone on before, one’s next step in the eternal journey, seems downright silly.
Not that I’m making a defense of euthanasia–nothing of the sort! But there’s a big difference between endorsing euthanasia, and supporting someone who has lived and loved and lost in their decision to focus on moving along as soon as God allows, even if that means years of simply waiting. I suspect that may be the fate of my parents. If my father dies first, my mother probably won’t last long–longer than Grandma Jolley did, perhaps, depending on her health, but I seriously doubt she would want to or would even be able to go forward vigorously with her life alone. On the contrary, I suspect she’d probably shrink her world even further, letting us–her children and grandchildren–in, but probably very few others. By contrast, my father’s health is pretty good, so he might very well outlive my mother by decades. He’s an energetic, constantly engaged man, and would probably continue to travel and be involved in business and everything else–but I also think he would try to get one or more of the children with their families to move back in with him, to provide noise and activity and someone for him to talk to, as the long years went by. He’s told me before he can’t imagine ever re-marrying; my parents are so settled into their lives and each other, so very much each others’ best friends, that the very notion of anyone else complicating the equation they have totalled up together over the years strikes him as perverse. Besides, we kids–all nine of us–would probably unintentionally (or not…?) make such a woman’s life a living hell, and I’m sure Dad knows that. So he would probably end up like my father-in-law’s father; he’s been a widower now for over twenty years. And though he’s become quite the cranky old man, I also can’t help but kind of respect his determination to stay right in the same place (in his case, literally as well as metaphorically; he still maintains their old Salt Lake City home) that he was in when the woman he loved and had committed to for time and all eternity left him–if only for, from an eternal perspective, a little while.
(Though I can see the opposite route as sometimes being necessary. One of my teachers at BYU was Paul Hyer, one of the grand, wild men of mid-20th-century Mormonism: a member of that posse–including Hugh Nibley, Marion Hanks, David Kennedy, Spencer Palmer, Truman Madsen and others–that seemed to have been everywhere and done everything as the church began to go global in the 1950s and 60s. He radiates independence and competence. Yet, when his wife passed away while serving as a temple president in Taiwan, he came home, morose and at a loss, and his kids got together and told him he needed to get remarried, if only to stop him from accidentally setting his house on fire or sneaking into North Korea and starting a war or some such thing. If I recall the story correctly, his kids vetted the potential candidates as well.)
I don’t have control over what will happen to Melissa and I, obviously. Maybe disease or disaster will leave one of us all alone with children still to raise, or other pressing tasks still before us, and maybe we’ll have to change things, perhaps even bring someone else into our lives. Is it wrong to say that I hope not? Not just that I hope my beloved sticks around as long as I do, but also that I hope I won’t have to face the expectation, or the obligation, to “go on with life”–take a wife, take a class, go on a mission, go on a cruise–if the one that I’m building my life around departs? Maybe that suggests a kind of selfishness, a perverse romanticism, even an idolotry. If so, so be it. With our marriage covenant, as I see it at least, Melissa and I promised to give up our selves, and make a new “self,” together. Should fate break up that self, leaving one half on Earth while the other half resides elsewhere, then what remains is something incomplete and broken. I guess that broken thing can be put back together, can keep on keeping on, if necessary or so desired; certainly God regularly makes use of broken things, and He might make use of one of us. But frankly, I’d much rather thing work out the way they did for my mother’s parents–a long and loving marriage, followed by first one and then the other moving on to the next stage of our eternal existence, with very little waiting in between.