Where’s the Joy in an Unimaginable Tragedy?

I remember the moment when, after 25 years of marriage, my wife’s bright blue eyes turned dull and gray. 

We were sitting in the doctor’s office, peering across a vast desk, waiting for him to speak. The doctor could have been a perfect stand-in for Mr. Spock on “Star Trek.” Stiff and formal, he turned to Martha and said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but it appears that you have early onset Alzheimer’s disease.” 

His voice was calm, ice-cold calm. His words were harsh beyond belief, freezing our hearts and minds. 

Martha and I looked at each other in pained bewilderment. Her confident bearing crumbled. She seemed to have retreated into her shadow, her eyes dulled gray. Me? Who knows where I went. Maybe into Dante’s fifth circle of hell. Our world wasn’t turned upside down. It was imploding before our eyes. 

The date was September 23, 1997—just twenty days after Martha turned 50.

So began the last seventeen years of our life together. And our family, desperate and lost, was left to wonder: “Just how do you find anything good in the worst tragedy we could ever imagine?”

You may or may not be aware of our family’s crisis with Alzheimer’s. By almost any measure, it’s an insidious disease. And I suspect Alzheimer’s ranks right up there among a Baby Boomer’s greatest fears as this generation surges into its sixties and seventies.

But deep traumas don’t just strike in our later years. Two of our children, David and Rachel, were in college when their mother was diagnosed, and Kathryn was a junior in high school still living at home. Two decades earlier, I was 28 when my mother died of brain cancer at age 56.    

I’ve been writing a book trying to describe what we’ve gone through over these seventeen years, trying to make sense of it for me and for our children … and for their children. 

While also trying to make sense of it for anyone wanting to see how our story may echo with theirs.

Our story, however, is not about the fallout from this degenerative disease. Rather, it’s the story of a path that emerged during our darkest hours, a path that we neither planned nor foresaw. 

Shortly after her diagnosis, Martha and I traveled to the backwoods of Kentucky where the quiet presence of a Catholic nun revealed to these two lifelong Protestants this path’s opening. I was forced to slow down as I traced this path halfway around the world to Australia; retreated weekends to a nearby monastery; learned to embrace meditation; and landed all alone one week in the cabin of Thomas Merton, the popular monk and prolific writer. 

Maybe you’ve had your own crisis—whether it be Alzheimer’s, cancer, another health issue, financial issues, loss of a loved one…whatever. What have been the obstacles you’ve faced? What successes have you experienced? If you’d like to share any of these, please go to #APathRevealed. Or feel free to email me at carlen@carlenmaddux.com (Subject line: My Story). 

Thanks. I bet we can learn from each other. 

Carlen Maddux

P.S. If you’d like to share more stories with each other, please sign up for my free newsletter if you haven’t already.