"FOR BETTER OR WORSE": UNCLE JESSE'S MARRIAGE
Cascade Books just published a collection of my sermons. Here is a shortened version of my story about my Uncle Jesse and his response to his wife’s mental illness.
I always called him “Uncle Jesse.” As a teenager, I thought of him as that friendly uncle with the shock of white hair and warm smile that everyone in my home congregation respected. We all knew that Uncle Jesse had to raise his two daughters by himself because his wife had been institutionalized for mental illness for as long as any of us could remember. But I never thought much about that—as a teenager, that is. His warmth and joy seldom betrayed deeper pain.
But several decades later, I decided to interview him.
Jesse and Lydia had been friends since childhood. After a five year courtship, they finally got married.
The first seven years of life together were good—"for both of us, as far as I know,” Uncle Jesse said. On the morning of December 30, 1935, a second daughter, Ruth, was born.
But the next morning, something was obviously wrong. Mental illness had invaded a happy marriage.
For two and a-half years, Lydia was able to live at home. She was clearly not normal. Her careless housekeeping and lack of concern for the baby were new and strange. For a time, however, she remained fairly stable.
Then in the middle of 1938, Lydia “really let loose” and just became quite unmanageable at home.
Uncle Jesse finally took her to the Hamilton hospital, one of the best psychiatric hospitals in Southern Ontario. The government would have covered the costs. But Uncle Jesse wanted to pay it himself. And he did—for thirty years.
At first, Uncle Jesse kept checking with the doctors each week when he visited Lydia, believing that his wife would soon be better.
One day the doctor called him into the office. “Your wife is not going to get any better,” he announced grimly. “I think what you should do is go home, and make a new home. Take care of your girls, and forget about this woman. The girls don’t even need to know she ever lived.”
“Well, Doc!” Uncle Jesse protested. “I can go home and take care of the girls. But I can’t forget her. She’s part of me.”
For thirty years, Uncle Jesse drove the two hours to Hamilton every two or three weeks to visit the woman he had promised to love for better or worse till death them would part.
After Lydia had been in the hospital a long time, the doctor again called Uncle Jesse in. He said, “Lydia says she wants a divorce.”
“Well, if she had her right mind she wouldn’t want a divorce,” Uncle Jesse countered. “But I brought her up here to get help. So if you think a divorce is the answer—I’m sure in my mind it isn’t, but if you think it is—I won’t say no. If you think it’s needed, then, go on with it.”
The doctor never mentioned the subject again. Jesse thinks the doctors may have been testing to see if he would take a very rigid stance against a divorce. “Perhaps they were trying to determine whether or not I was contributing to Lydia’s illness.”
For many years, Uncle Jesse hoped and prayed that God would heal his wife. “Why she couldn’t get healed, I don’t know. That’s one of the mysteries of this life.” In 1953, the doctors suggested performing a lobotomy. (In this surgical operation, used for treating serious psychological disorders, a lobe of the brain is cut.)
When Uncle Jesse saw Lydia the next day, he marveled at the change in her. She asked questions about home, and other things she had never talked about in years. “This was the first thing that ever showed any signs of really helping her.”
After a little while, Uncle Jesse tried having her home for a week or two, but it didn’t work well. One time Lydia wandered away from home and walked to my Mom’s and Dad’s farm about four miles away. “Some people were scared of her. It was a long pull there.” My Dad went along as Uncle Jesse sadly returned her to the hospital.
Months later, he tried again. This time, things went much better. The doctors had been testing various kinds of medication for Lydia. Finally, they found the right combination. After twenty-nine years of separation, Lydia was home again. She was “not quite normal, but livable.” Her sloppy appearance and religious indifference were painful reminders that Lydia was still not the woman he once knew. But she was far more reasonable and cooperative.
For three years Uncle Jesse gently cared for the woman he still thought of as his youthful sweetheart and bride.
“Then, one Thursday, Lydia got sick to her stomach. Four days later, she died of a ruptured appendix. Because of the operation on her brain, she never felt the pain that otherwise would have warned her that something was wrong.”
The day before she died, Uncle Jesse visited her in the hospital. “Would you pray for me?” Lydia asked.
This was a bit unusual. “I’m sure she was a Christian before her mind got warped, but after that she could think most anything. While she was home those last years, she never showed any spiritual emotions at all, that I could see. And now she said, ‘Would you pray for me?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll pray for you.’” The next day she was gone. Uncle Jesse said, “I felt as if this was the Lord’s time to take her home. It all went so peacefully.”
I cried as I listened to Uncle Jesse tell me his story.. And I cried often as I listened later to the tape and wrote this story.
“Did you ever feel angry at the Lord?” I asked.
“I did right at first,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t fair; she was twenty-nine years old when this happened.’ But that doesn’t get you any place. All those years, never once did I feel that she was a burden. Oh sure, she was a burden, but I never felt that it was anything I should be relieved of. I loved her, and I did all I could.”
“Do you think it would be harder today, to do what you did?” I asked him. “Thirty years back, divorce was seldom heard of, but today men abandon wives for far less reason.”
“I can’t understand the modern attitude,” Uncle Jesse replied. “I chose a wife who I thought was it. Now why, after ten years, would I want to get rid of her for somebody else?”
“It looks like a very very difficult road to have been asked to walk,” I suggested softly.
“Yes, especially if I had seen those thirty years ahead,” he agreed. “I took her up there [to the Hamilton hospital] with the feeling that, like others I’d seen, she would be returning in three months or so. It just didn’t work that way with her. We walk with the Lord one day at a time.”
Uncle Jesse made a vow before God with the woman he loved to live in lifelong covenant for better or for worse. And it got much worse. But he kept that covenant, by God’s grace, one day at a time.
You can read the full story as well as a number of other sermons and speeches in my new book, PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL: COLLECTED SERMONS ON DISCIPLESHIP, MISSION, PEACE, JUSTICE, AND THE SACRAMENTS (Cascade Books, 2021). You can order it from www.wipfandstock.com or Amazon.
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