Several months ago, a man called my radio program with a story that included three small children, a terminally ill wife now living with her own parents, and a new girlfriend who got along wonderfully with the children.
His question for me was how soon he could move his girlfriend into the family home? After all, he said, he needed sex and companionship and the kids would benefit from having a mother.My answer wasn't what he had hoped, I'm afraid. I wondered aloud exactly what messages his behavior was sending to his children - that "for better or for worse" really meant only for better, that personal gratification was more important than compassion and commitment, and that even loved ones were disposable and replaceable?
If and when he became infirm or weak, I asked, how did he imagine his children might see their responsibility to him?
I suggested that he find a nanny or someone to help with the children, and arrange if necessary for specialized therapy to help the kids learn to deal with the realities of illness, death and loss. For him, I suggested more socializing with friends and more discretion in any intimate behavior.
I felt that this covered all the challenges, without compromising his children's understanding of commitment and sacrifice.
I immediately got a slew of faxes chastising me for my insensitivity to his needs for companionship and sex:
"Do you expect him to go without sex forever?"
"His wife is a vegetable - that's about the same as dead."
"She's helping out with the children, which reduces their pain - are you so rigidly moralistic that you can't see that?"
Letters came as well. One I won't forget came from a woman named Sharon:
"On September 15, 1995, we were all presented with an ultimate pain and a `What do we do?' decision," she wrote.
"My youngest daughter, vivacious, adventuresome and responsible, hit a semi truck when her car went out of control on her way to work. She ended the day on total life support in the intensive-care unit.
"As we gathered, the family committed to do all that it would take to support Carolyn's recovery. We committed ourselves to walk with her, not abandoning her in her greatest need - 24 hours a day, at least one family member is with her.
"One of the earliest writings I placed on her wall was a tribute to her and my family. It had come from you, Dr. Laura: `We all have needs, wants, dreams and pain. What we do to meet our needs, satisfy our wants, accomplish our dreams or deal with our pain shows our character.'
"Several professionals have said to me, `Your family is so lucky that you could do this,' " Sharon concluded. "This is not a `could,' it is a clear choice. We are in as fragile condition as any family can be financially. We gave up jobs, vacations, life styles and school to put our priority on some-one we loved.
"My question is, `How could we not?' "
Another letter came from a woman who recounted everything her father had sacrificed to take care of his children in the face of her mother's ongoing, serious mental illness.
She spoke with tremendously moving respect of his tenderness with this "crazy woman," and how he became both mom and dad for his children. She recognized his pain and sadness - it did show, which made his commitment all the more special.
She said she'd learned a lot about love, responsibility and character from her dad. I think we all can.
When the going is easy, everyone looks like a good guy. Difficulties call forth the noble and show a person's character . . . and humanity's promise.