Quaker Theology #28 - Spring-Summer 2016
One Yellow Door: A Memoir of Love and Loss,
Faith and Infidelity,
by Rebecca de Saintonge.
Darton Longman And Todd Ltd., 192 pages.
Reflections by Alice Carlton
This memoir tells the heart-wrenching story of a marriage brought
through dark days over a decade from 1984 to 1996 due to the husband’s
illness with Lewy Body Dementia. What an awful disease. It took him, an
Anglican priest, in and out of lucidity with unpredictable
fluctuations. It is often confused with Parkinson’s with its movement
slowness, stiffness and tremor, and also with Alzheimer’s with its
visual hallucinations, delusions, and progressive mental confusion.
The coming of this disease and its impact also raised in author Rebecca
de Saintonge all sorts of spiritual questions. Her faith had been a
conventional Christian one, relying on the assurance of atonement from
original sin with God as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving. She
watched her husband (referred to as Jack in her book) suffer and could
not make sense of it, despite his grace in his suffering.
Her struggle is vividly described. “So now, my love, I know the worst.
Your brain is shrinking inside your skull. You are going to
disintegrate very slowly, mind and body. You will know what’s happening
to you. You will see your shit on the floor, on your feet, but you
won’t know how it got there. You will see me distraught and distorted
and know that you have made me so, and not know how to stop it, or how
to help. You will feel our loving in rags and your God absent and I
will hold you to my breast and cradle the shell of your skull, for you
will have gone, my lover, my dear one. But not quite.”
Jack was the love of her life. He had brought her into his joie de
vivre when her life had been shattered by an abusive first marriage,
undertaken to escape the obligation to take care of her difficult
mother. They had six glorious, adventurous years. They moved to
Zimbabwe in 1982 where he worked as pastor of an Anglican congregation
and she wrote and helped organize programs for women in the community.
They were true intimate partners.
Then the shadow of Lewy Body Dementia fell across their bright joy
through Jack’s increasing anxiety and moments of confusion. At the
urging of her brother, a doctor, they returned home to England.
As Jack’s illness was finally diagnosed and his functioning
deteriorated, the effects shocked her out of her conventional beliefs.
How can the Loving God she worshiped allow such suffering? “Damn
you, God,” she cursed. What agony to have the man she knew and loved
come and go as his disease progressed. In a moment of despair, she once
asked Jack why he should suffer so much. “He looks at me with such
gentleness and says, Why should I not?’” At times she wanted to
run away, to die herself, yet she could not leave his care to others.
Then, near the end of her rope, she met a man (she calls him Nick) with
a different but similarly dire family life: he had an adult autistic
son who was severely impaired and a wife he no longer felt connected to
except as a co-parent. He inserted himself into her life and became a
lifeline for her. She resisted his attention at first. Finally, the
desert she inhabited required her to drink a bit from the cup he
offered. When her husband went to visit his adult children
occasionally, she got a much needed break with brief interludes of
pleasure and companionship. Enough to keep her from hitting bottom, but
nothing that vanquished her love for Jack. It brings to mind the old
saying: Some people come into our lives for a reason, for a
season, or for a lifetime. Nick came for a reason and for a season.
At the end she got some help for Jack, first at home and later in the
facility he was moved to. And finally, in September 1996, he died.
Saintonge then entered another void: what would fill her life now? How
could she make sense of it all? What did she even believe anymore? It
was another kind of dark night of the soul.
“I sat in silence and confusion year after year, the loss of spiritual
understanding feeling even more painful than the loss of Jack. In the
end I came to see that, once again, God had to come to me, to find me
and teach me not to believe what anyone else believed, but to take me
into a space that I could find authentic.”
She read Richard Rohr’s Things Hidden
and embraced the idea of original blessing. She read Marcus Borg who
described the incarnation of Jesus as revealing, not the dichotomy, but
the oneness of the finite and the infinite. “We can become more fully
human by connecting with that of the divine within us,” she writes.
“That made perfect sense to me.”
I resonated with her search. I left my Presbyterian upbringing and
wandered a while until I found my spiritual home among the Quakers. As
for theology, other than God is Love, I cannot make much of the concept
of God. I agree when she says “we cannot name the unnameable.” The
Spirit, the Infinite, God, whatever name we use, seems to me too vast
for our small minds to even begin to comprehend.
Six months after Jack died, she and Nick parted. Three years later, her
mother died but not before they reconciled. “From being always rather
spiky and manipulative, she mellowed and became truly tender, Saintonge
writes gratefully. “For the first time, I think, since I was a child, I
could love her as a mother, without reservation. It was the most
healing experience.” Saintonge went on to get a Ph.D. and to fill her
house with books. She doesn’t say so in the book, but in later
interviews she makes it clear she also found a religious home among the
As she writes at the end: “I do not know what I mean by ‘God.’ I
dislike the word because it is hung with connotations I think
unhelpful, even harmful, but I live in a growing trust that we are, as
Jung would say, related to something infinite. More than that, I
believe this relationship can be intimate. I turn towards a moment of
light, and it vanishes. But if I don’t move, don’t try, if I just rest
in complete internal silence, then I think sometimes, for the smallest
moment, I sense the beloved stranger moving towards me.”
So do I.