Robertson McQuilkin and his wife, Muriel, spent their lives pursuing the Lord’s call to missions. Eventually God led them to Columbia International University, in Columbia, S.C., where McQuilkin served as president. In 1983 Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After years of watching her gradual decline, McQuilkin stepped down in 1990 to care for her full-time until her death in 2003. Through the years, this story of love and sacrifice has been an encouragement to many couples facing similar trials.
Q: Your missionary spirit to serve Christ was fueled at an early age, wasn’t it?
A: From about age 18, I had the great desire to see my life count for the maximum in world evangelization. Muriel was born to missionary parents in South America, but her father had died while she was an infant, and the family subsequently moved to Nebraska. We always had an interest in taking the Gospel to those who had not heard. We served in a couple of positions in the United States after completing school, but we kept praying for the Lord’s guidance in getting to the front lines. He led us to Japan where we spent 12 years in a church-planting ministry. Our four children ranged from newborn to 6 years old.
Muriel was fully involved in the ministry. Of course, she was a mother first, but in those days, our children went to a missionary boarding school, so she had time. She had incredible energy and creativity. She taught Sunday school and drew chalk-art for evangelistic campaigns. We entertained all the time.
In 1968 we came back to the United States, so I could serve as President of Columbia Bible College, now known as Columbia International University. Muriel had a big cultural adjustment coming back to the States after 12 years, but she wanted us to serve as a team, as we had in Japan. There weren’t any formal groups to support the increasing number of married students, so she created a food co-op and an informal real estate agency. She also provided job-placement assistance. She recruited the women of the faculty to care for the students. Muriel also had a daily talk show on our radio station and a segment on a local TV program for which she created puppets and scripted songs. She was always busy advancing the cause of the Kingdom.
Q: So you both poured your hearts and souls into leading the seminary?
A: God blessed! We had large expansion in every area. Although the graduate school of missions was established in 1936, the school was primarily an undergraduate Bible college. The graduate program didn’t really prosper until we put some muscle into it. When we did, the seminary became the fastest growing in the country. We were so busy, and Muriel was a vibrant part of that.
Q: When did you first notice that something might be wrong with Muriel?
A: In 1978 we were visiting friends of the school in Florida. Muriel liked to tell stories and to laugh at herself. She had just finished telling a lengthy story. About five minutes later, she started telling the same story again. I said, “Honey, you just told us that.” She laughed and went ahead with it. I thought, “This is funny; it’s never happened before.” But then it began to happen more frequently.
The first major function that Muriel lost was the ability to serve company a meal, so we catered meals. With any capabilities she lost, we’d try to find a different way to make it happen. She had short-term memory loss, and it was distressing. In 1983 we visited a neurologist friend, Dr. Joe Tabor, and Muriel was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. She knew something was happening, but she never understood that she had Alzheimer’s. When she would fail at something, she would just laugh and re-group.
We also met briefly with a specialist at Duke University. He asked Muriel if she could name the Gospels. She looked pleadingly at me for help. After that it was a gradual, slow decline. She lost one function after another. She lost her ability to paint as well, and she had been a wonderful artist.
Q: How did you handle your duties as seminary president while still caring for Muriel?
A: She became very restless when I was not with her and very contented when I was there. Sometimes she would walk the half-mile to my office, and my secretary would have to tell her that I was in a meeting. So she would walk home. A little while later she would walk back. She did that 10 times one day. That night when I helped her with her clothes, her socks and feet were bloody.
In February 1990 I realized that Muriel needed me full-time and that the school needed a full-time president. It was about the easiest major decision that I ever made, because I had already made it 40 years earlier when I said, “in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
The next day I told the faculty, students and board that it was a matter of integrity, but also a matter of fairness–that she had cared for me unstintingly for all these years. Now it was my turn. If I served her for 40 years, I wouldn’t be out of her debt. Integrity and fairness can be pretty stoic and heavy, but for me it was not–because I loved her. I didn’t have to care for her, I got to care for her!
Sometimes I’m reluctant to tell the story because people seem to take the story as prescriptive, and really it isn’t. Every situation and every person is different. Some individuals have the physical stamina and emotional strength to handle it, and others don’t. A few people asked me why I didn’t put Muriel in a nursing home when she no longer recognized me. I said, “She doesn’t know who I am, but I know who she is. I will put her under the care of someone else when someone else can care for her better than I can.”
Q: Did you ever feel you couldn’t handle it any more?
A: No, not that particular feeling. I just loved Muriel because she was lovable. God’s grace–and it’s all grace–was sufficient. The greatest problem in caring for Alzheimer’s patients is unrealistic expectations. People want to hold the one they love to the standard of what they were before the illness. It is extraordinarily frustrating for both of them. You’re playing catch-up all the time. Just when you adjust to a new dimension or loss of function, there is another change. It is a constant learning experience. Maybe my memory is dim because Muriel was in bed for 10 years. But I loved her because she was lovable.
Q: Could she express her love to you?
A: Valentine’s Day was special to us because we got engaged on Valentine’s Day. On that day in 1995–it had been a year since Muriel had spoken–I was on an exercise bicycle at the foot of her bed while she was waking up. At that stage she would often connect eyes with me briefly when she awoke and occasionally would smile. When she smiled, I put a flag in front of the house to let our friends and neighbors know that she smiled at me.
I was talking to her that morning: “Honey, they say we’re victims. We aren’t victims, are we? We love one another, right?” And with that, her eyes popped open, and she said, “Love, love, love.” Those were her first words in a year! I jumped off the bicycle, ran over, hugged her and said, “We really do love one another, don’t we?”
She couldn’t find the word “yes,” so she said, “I’m nice.” That was about the last she ever spoke before she died in 2003.
Q: How did you deal with the silence?
A: Most of the time Muriel would grunt if she didn’t like something. She let her objectives be known with sounds, but no words. I never went to a support group, because I know myself. I would have taken on all the burdens of the people there. Occasionally I have been asked to speak at these groups, and I find a lot of angry people. Just about all of them are angry at someone–some at God, some at the person they are taking care of for causing all this trouble and some at themselves for feeling angry. But I never felt that.
Q: What do you tell people who are angry?
A: I tell them that there is help and that this is what the Holy Spirit was given for. Anger, for the wrong reason at the wrong object, is sinful. Anger, in and of itself, is not sinful. God is angry at the wicked every day. But I discovered early on in life that for me to be angry and call it righteous indignation was wrong, because my motives aren’t all that pure. I don’t claim righteous indignation except at something outrageous, such as people who are destroying the Church from within or the evil of terrorists. I try to help people understand that God has forgiven them because He is faithful and just, as well as loving and kind. He is faithful and just in His covenant with His Son. If He didn’t observe that covenant and forgive me and cleanse me from all unrighteousness, then He would be breaking covenant with His own Son. When you can’t forgive yourself, you are saying that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was not adequate for what you’ve done.
Q: Your experiences through all those years of ministering to Muriel have encouraged so many.
A: It all came as a surprise to me. When I resigned from the seminary in 1990, I just thought I would take care of her 24/7, and that would be it. But the Lord chose to use that. Christianity Today insisted that I write about it, and one thing led to another. If God can use it, OK. I am glad the Lord can encourage others through it. One time when Muriel was still alive, a magazine that was telling our story came to the house. I ran in, showed it to Muriel and said, “Look, Honey! They say that you can’t speak or do anything, but you’re preaching all over the world!”