I recently learned of the death of Robertson McQuilkin, former president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary (now Columbia International University). He resigned from his post in 1990 to care fulltime for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer’s. He was 88. Thus, he must have been about 62 when he left the presidency of his institution. His wife died thirteen years after he resigned to care for her.
His story has interest to me because I left my full-time teaching position at age 64 to help care for my dad. I didn’t make as radical a change as McQuilkin did, since my mom was dad’s main caregiver and I just assisted with what she couldn’t do. I continued to work part-time. After two years, dad had deteriorated sufficiently so that this arrangement no longer worked. He spent the last three months of his life in a nursing home. What would it have been like to do what McQuilkin did and stop working entirely to care for someone? The limited change I made was nothing in comparison to his sacrifice.
McQuilkin said at the time that it was not a difficult decision. He cited his marriage vows, his promise to be there for his wife “in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part.” He also said the following, as quoted in Christianity Today’s notice of his death: “She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”
In his resignation speech at Columbia McQuilkin said “It’s not that I have to, it’s that I get to.” I, too, saw caring for dad as an opportunity rather than a burden–at least I did on my good days. On my bad days, I lost sight of the privilege it was to care for the man who did more than any other to shape who I am. McQuilkin said. “It’s a great honor to care for such a wonderful person.” My thoughts exactly.
What was it like for such a highly regarded professional to leave his career entirely–not just cut back, as I had done? Six years in he wrote the following:
“What some people find so hard to understand is that loving Muriel isn’t hard. They wonder about my former loves–like my work. A college freshman heard that I had resigned as president of Columbia International University to care for my wife. “Do you miss being president?” Scott asked as we sat in our little garden. I told him I’d never thought about it, but, on reflection, no. As exhilarating as my work had been, I enjoyed learning to cook and keep house. No, I’d never looked back” (Christianity Today, Feb 5, 1996)
Robertson McQuilkin, on behalf of caregivers everywhere, I salute you. We all aspire to show to those we care for the sort of unselfish love that you showed as you gave of yourself to Muriel.