Several years ago, I was part of a community service group at my parish that visited the elderly in a nursing home once a month. I looked forward to these visits so much. I always felt proud of myself for doing something good for the elderly, but I never realized how much they could and would do for me. God introduced me one day to an elderly man that would radically impact my life and my outlook on love.
As I entered the nursing home one Sunday morning, I noticed a couple sitting towards the right hand corner of the common living area. I had been visiting this nursing home for a while at this point, and so had a good eye for noticing a new face. I did my rounds to my dear old friends, and then went to introduce myself to this new couple.
As I approached them, the woman was sitting on a big lounge-chair with her legs sprawled out at the front and her arms flung over the sides. She was staring at the floor, and was drooling all over her chest. She seemed lifeless. This was a confronting image for me. I introduced myself to the gentleman sitting beside her, and he told me his name was Antoun.
I asked him, “Is this your wife?”
“Yes she is.” He responded. “And I love her more today, than on our wedding day.”
He had my attention! What on earth could this mean? I remember thinking this could not possibly be true. She must have looked a lot more beautiful and a lot more ‘alive’ on her wedding day. His words pierced me. I wanted to know what this meant.
So I asked Antoun to share with me the story of their love. How is it that he could love her more today than back then? He told me that he and his beautiful wife had been married for 53 years, and had 3 wonderful children. Their marriage was arranged, and they only met each other the day before they said “I do”. With enormous honesty he shared that they did not love one another straight away, but worked first on forming a sincere friendship. It wasn’t until almost a year into their marriage that he became ill. “It was watching her take care of me when I knew she wasn’t in love with me, that made me truly begin to love her for the first time,” Antoun said.
Friends to Lovers
Their friendship rapidly developed into love, and then a passionate love. They welcomed their first of three children soon after, and lived a very happy life. During their twenty-fifth year of marriage, Antoun’s wife suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. His eyes filled with tears as he related the pain of not hearing the beautiful sound of her voice for twenty-eight years! “She still told me she loved me through her gentle touch on my hand. Or, she would communicate that she appreciates me through a tender smile with her warm eyes.”
Can you even begin to imagine the pain of this?
Tragically, on their 50th wedding anniversary, she suffered a stroke more severe than the first, which totally removed her ability to reason, recognize, or remember anything. For the rest of her life she would sit and stare into nothing. He had bathed her, taken her to the toilet, and fed her everyday since then. He took her everywhere they needed to go, on their routine dates, to the doctors, to church, and the grocery store for the past 28 years. But now she had no idea who he was.
Love is not Give and Take, Love is Give
He told me with such sorrow that his health had become so bad, he was unable to care for her anymore from home, and needed professional help. He had held off putting her into a nursing home as long as he could. Even still, he was spending each day, everyday, from 11am until 6:30pm by her side. Remember that he was doing all this, without her talking to him, looking at him, touching him, or giving him any form or expression of love or appreciation. This was a love I never knew existed. This was a love I wanted desperately and wanted to give to another desperately.
Tears began to trickle down his cheek as he wiped the remaining baby food from her lips. Before long he was passing me tissues as well! At this point I was crying tears of sorrow at his painful life, yet tears of amazement at the depth of his love and the beauty of their relationship. Antoun’s story and example of love rocked me to my core, as I sat there in awe of his commitment to his wedding vows, his wife and their love. I had never seen a love so inspiring as this in my whole life. He told me that day that “Love is not give and take; it is one hundred per cent give!” It doesn’t matter how much someone is giving back, or how much someone is capable of giving back; marital love gives everything without ever focusing on the self. Love never counts or keeps score, it just gives and gives and goes on giving.
4 weeks later I returned to see Antoun. After looking everywhere for him I asked the nurses where he and his wife were. The nurse told me that his wife had died peacefully a few days earlier, with Antoun, the love of her life, sitting beside her, holding her hand. Even as I write this today, seven years later, I am choked up with emotion. That man changed my life. I know that I still have much to learn about love, but I would hope that if handed the same circumstances as Antoun, I would love Madeleine the way he loved his bride.
It was only then, that I realised fully what Antoun meant by loving her more now than on their wedding day. On their wedding day they were strangers, but today, he loved her with a love so firm, so mature, so sacrificial, that he gave and gave and gave until the end, even when he received nothing in return. Even if she never knew it, she was loved so perfectly all the days of her life – and that is what Antoun promised to do for her on their wedding day!
This is the love we all yearn for. This is the love we were made for. This is the love that we must give! Love like Antoun!