Friday, March 30, 2012

Death of a Self-Made Couple

Charles and Adrienne Snelling died yesterday at their home near Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Snelling had been murdered.  Mr. Snelling killed himself.  They were each 81 years old.  And with that information, you can tell what happened.  Only this wasn't any ordinary murder-suicide.

Adrienne had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years.  Not only was it killing her, it was killing her husband, Charles.  A man used to being in control, and who loved his wife dearly.  As he watched her degenerate from being a vivacious spouse, mother of five, grandmother of many more, and a celebrated photographer, into a shell of her former self, hardly recognizing anybody except her beloved husband, Charles couldn't take it any more.

61 years of marriage, and it ended yesterday in a relatively modest house on a hilltop among the fields near Allentown.

"Relatively modest," considering that Charles had been born into American privilege.  The son of a chemist and inventor who got rich selling patents to the likes of John D. Rockefeller and the founder of Conoco-Phillips,  Charles became an inventor in his own right, parlaying the brilliant entrepreneurial spirit he'd inherited from his father into an array of companies from cryogenics and thermodynamics to restaurants and orchards.

Charles and Adrienne Snelling
Adrienne's life had a flair of Americana, too.  Her father was an Italian immigrant who came through Ellis Island and started a marble business that became the premiere contractor for major marble installations along the East Coast.  The soaring panels of white marble encasing the massive mezzanine-level elevator banks in the original World Trade Center?  Adrienne's father built those.  The green marble wall behind the speaker's podium at the United Nations?  Adrienne's father again.

But coming from accomplished families didn't lure Adrienne and Charles into any sort of complacency.  They met while both of them were in college in Pennsylvania, and they got married - and started their family - before graduating.  Something that was hardly ever done in the 1950's.  They became fixtures in Pennsylvania's Republican circles, despite Charles' pro-abortion views.  In 2003, then-president George W. Bush appointed Charles, a private pilot, to the prestigious Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He was still a boardmember when he committed suicide yesterday.

If a suicide note has been found, authorities aren't saying.  The Snelling's children are shocked and saddened, of course, but considering the love their parents held for one another, they're not entirely surprised.  This is part of their statement to the media:

"After apparently reaching the point where he could no longer bear to see the love of his life deteriorate further, our father ended our mother's life and then took his own life as well. This is a total shock to everyone in the family, but we know he acted out of deep devotion and profound love."

Their father was resisting the suggestion to move their mother out of their home into a specialized care facility, yet the deterioration of both her physical and mental capacities were becoming even more painfully pronounced.  Whenever Charles had a board meeting in Washington, he drove down with Adrienne and two professional caretakers who would all stay at the same hotel.  Family friends quoted in the media today have called the couple virtually inseparable.

Indeed, it's not difficult at all to understand how devastating his wife's Alzheimer's was to Charles, and how he could develop the mindset that death - even death by murder - was the only "out."  And while it will sound calloused of me to point this out, Charles' advocacy for abortion obviously gave him the mindset that since our country doesn't yet find honor killings honorable, he would be charged with a felony were he not to take his own life as well.

Because of the mental diseases that are afflicting my own family, I struggle with condemning this man, because I have experienced a taste of the anguish he must have been living with for the past several years.  I don't know how long it will be before my family will be in his shoes, grasping for faith to understand how a once-vital life can still have value after being decimated by Alzheimer's.

So while I grieve for the Snelling family who today are planning funerals for their parents, at the same time, I spit with disdain at the corrupt ideology which casts human flesh, devoid of conventional functionality, as worthless.  I have to.  Frankly, it doesn't feel natural to do so, but intellectually, I know I have to spurn our society's construct of life's only value as being defined by the sum of one's abilities.

Society tells us that human life is valuable only when it can perform certain functions; to recognize, to interact, to compute, to reason, to love, to react, to work, to produce; to respond to our own needs.

Yet doesn't life have even more components that define it?  Life is even more than the manifestation of created order in a form representative of God Himself.  Yes, the nature around us has been created by God, and we are to respect it as part of God's creation, but we humans are indisputably more complex; we have been made in His image, and are the recipients of God's greatest gift:  salvation through faith in Christ.  And what part of us is saved?  Sure, we'll have a body in Heaven, but what will that body contain?

It's our soul, isn't it?  The life-force God gives every human being.  That intangible engine that can only be measured by being alive or dead.  Our parents start it.  But the Bible - and most civilized morality - teaches that no mortal should send it to Heaven by murder.  Even though sometimes, we think we want to.

Charles Snelling held about 20 patents.  He was friends with governors and presidents.  He raved in a poignant New York Times article last year about his wonderful family.  Yet when his wife literally lost her mind, his own life was over.

Hard-core, aching, brutal sadness is torture.  When this life is all there is, it must seem like such bitter relief to think that ending it by ourselves is the humane thing to do.

Knowing that this is God's realm, however, I have to believe His ways are better than our ways.  Maybe that sounds like a cop-out.  Maybe I'll feel differently six years into this Alzheimer's journey upon which my family has unhappily yet trustingly embarked.  But if you don't believe in the sanctity of life at the outset, you've no reason to agree with any reason for my hope.

And yesterday's tragedy near Allentown appear to make sense.  Which itself, is a tragedy, isn't it?

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