The Second Love of Her Life: A Sunday Morning Story

Yesterday I met with a family regarding a new matter. These days I try to avoid Saturday appointments – but I was told these clients “really needed” to get in. I’m not sure the case warranted emergency status, but I’m glad they got in. The story I heard touched me. It was a sad story. And since Sunday mornings are sometimes a good time for sharing sad stories, I thought I would share their story with you.

Three children came in: two daughters and a son. The daughters brought spouses. We were talking about Mom – call her “Mary” (not her real name). She is 81 years-old and suffering from significant dementia.

Mary had been married for 25 years to the father of the three children I met. Their marriage ended when he died. Mary later met “Joe” (not his real name), and had, at the time we met, been married to Joe for 25 years. Joe had also been widowed when he met Mary. Joe is now 89, physically frail, and probably suffering from some level of undiagnosed cognitive decline – but not as “far gone” as Mary.

Mary had the three children I met with. Joe had four children I did not meet, but who were the topic of our discussion.

Love. Mary and Joe were living comfortably in their own home, enjoying life until last summer when the several children from both sides realized that as a result of Mary’s condition things were getting dicey. As a result of this family meeting, it was agreed that Mary and Joe should move to a senior facility where Joe could live independently but Mary could get some assistance. As a result, Mary ended up in a secure memory care unit in a facility where Joe lived in an independent-living apartment. Joe could, and every day he did, navigate the long hallways to sit with Mary and hold her hand. Mary’s daughters reported that while Mary was becoming more and more disoriented, when they visited with her, her conversations always highlighted those portions of the day when Joe was by her side, and during which she and Joe would each profess their undying love to one another. I was told that recently, in a moment of clarity, Mary was able to articulate to one of her daughters that she had been uniquely fortunate in her life by having been given two true loves.

Money. Joe had always told Mary’s children that he had enough money to provide for Mary’s care whatever came their way. But things had changed recently when Joe’s children announced that the Mary and Joe’s funds should be split and that Mary should not rely on Joe’s money to pay for her care. In one interaction, Joe’s children were so bold as to explain that their father had guaranteed them an inheritance, and that Mary’s care costs were now threatening it. After that, some of the times when Mary’s children saw Joe, he became strange, referencing unspecified wrongs that Mary’s children had committed against him. At other times, Joe was his normal genial self. In those instances when he was agitated, Joe did not suggest that the issue was about money, rather he had been led to believe that there was something devious that Mary’s children were doing to, or with, Mary that somehow violated his rights as her husband. Joe’s cognitive confusion was becoming more evident through this process, and his behavior suggested that his children were using his confusion to make him distrust Mary’s children and ultimately to distant himself from Mary. Joe’s visits to Mary became less frequent. Then came a complaint for divorce served on Mary and signed by Joe.

Advice. We talked about whether the law could provide a remedy to this unfortunate situation; whether the likelihood of a positive outcome would be justified by the expense, financial and emotional, that would be involved in litigation. They left the office with a lot to think about.

As a lawyer, I am sometimes forced to recognize how the rough tools that a lawyer has to work with are ill-suited for addressing the delicacies of human interactions. This was one of those times. Dementia is a horrible disease and the court process is awkward, often painful, and almost always cumbersome. Further, even successful litigation might never repair the cracks that had already been imposed on the love between Joe and Mary, and certainly nothing a Court could order would reverse the diminishing abilities of either Joe or Mary. In the end, whatever comes of this consultation, it is sad to accept that Mary had two great loves in her life; she lost the first one to death, and has probably lost the second one to something even more tragic.