Magazine | September 26, 2016, Issue

When the Deal Gets Broken

Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away, by Victor Lee Austin (Brazos, 160 pp., $19.99)

It’s the deal we all hope for: career, raising kids, vigor, and twilight years. For men, the actuarial tables tilt the deal. They usually die first, having been cared for by their wife in sickness as in health. For women, especially in the case of someone vibrant, creative, and with the heart and ability to raise children and manage adults, the deal is that they give life at home and in society and care for those in whom it is ebbing away.

Most times, anyway.

Victor Austin was a budding intellectual, an Anglican priest and writer with a beautiful wife and two children. After 15 years of marriage, his wife, Susan, developed a brain tumor. The cancer was eventually arrested, but the damage from the tumor and the treatments (in cancer treatment, as in lawsuits, the process is the punishment) meant that her ability to care for husband, children, short-term foster-care children, and herself gradually slipped away. Over the 19 years of her illness, the usual deal was canceled. Plans were put on hold, vigor fled, and Victor had to care for her physically and emotionally, not only doing unpleasant and somewhat embarrassing physical tasks for her but supervising her care and taking over the “executive function” that Susan’s brain refused to provide. He had to watch her slowly diminish and die.

A bookish young man from small-town Texas, Austin found his way in the mid 1970s to the St. John’s College great-books program in Santa Fe, N.M., where he met other students interested in the life of the mind. One, Susan Lanier, was an intellectual who actually attended church on Sundays, at an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church. She invited Victor along, and the two began to walk five miles each way to Holy Faith parish, where Susan introduced the Presbyterian-raised boy to liturgy and Marian devotion. Victor found that desire for a woman and desire for God did not have to be in competition; they rather seemed somehow united. After Susan’s breakup with her boyfriend and some (Jane) Austenian confusion, the two married shortly after college, and he became a priest.

Readers will think of C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, but a better parallel is to For You Departed (1969) by the South African novelist Alan Paton. The marriage of Lewis and Joy Davidman was a late-life and relatively short, though eventful, one. The Austins’, like the Patons’, was long, and full of personal, political, and cultural change. The Patons’ personal life included children, but also his brief adultery, while the Austins’ had childbirth, subsequent infertility, and, to Susan’s delight, temporary foster children. While the Patons faced apartheid in mid-20th-century South Africa, the Austins faced the large and negative changes in abortion and family law in the United States.

The third child of a mother who later campaigned for women to stop at two children, Susan experienced some cognitive dissonance about such issues. In wrestling with the issue of abortion, Susan found she sympathized with mothers terrified by the prospective child. At her husband’s behest, she wrote an impassioned letter to William F. Buckley Jr. in which she acknowledged that “merely to carry a child is to have your privacy invaded, not now and then, but at every moment of the nine months, and inescapably.” The problem was not the unborn child’s lack of personhood, but that “he has too much.” She proposed for overwhelmed mothers a court in which a jury would hear both the woman and an attorney who would give the child “a say in the matter of his own life and death.”

WFB thanked her for the “charming and bright letter.” He was forwarding her letter, he said, to James McFadden of The Human Life Review. And thus began a habit of writing about abortion, family, and children, in which Susan examined the important truth that the community creates the conditions for individuals to experience the rights they have.

Susan was a writer, but also the whole package. She was, to use what is today an unpopular term, a homemaker. Victor loved that she kept, rediscovered, and created traditions that made Christian faith real for her children throughout the year, especially at Christmas. She was able to have only two biological children but desired the deal in bigger doses, to care for the weak and small again. So as her own children grew, she and Victor took in temporary foster children, often crack babies, so that, as “Susan would say, deep in their souls they would have a memory of being held, touched, cradled, cleaned, fed, and in general being loved.” This ended when the brain tumor that would eventually kill her began to disrupt the Austins’ lives radically.

Austin’s account of her slow decline presents the difficulty caregivers face in having to deal constantly with the crisis of the moment rather than “the longer, wider perspective” or even the gift of the present moment. He talks about the painful effort to preserve and acknowledge the equal personhood of the one for whom you are caring — and the difficulty that this world of evil presents to religious believers.

Early on, Austin writes about the “second-best book in the Bible,” the Song of Songs, which tells him about the divine gift of the love of Susan, “a person I could touch and embrace and speak to and have unbounded intercourse with.” But the end of the book is about the “greatest” book, Job, which talks bluntly about the reality that God takes gifts from us, brings “evils on us,” and yet makes his strange presence known. In the wake of Susan’s death, Victor discovered that his Christian faith did hold him up. He realized he had neither been alone nor been tested beyond his capacities by the burdens of a sick, dying wife. He realized that though he had cared for Susan for so long, now he could see her as equal, not “needing him” as she had, but being cared for by God just as Victor is. The real deal, as he discovered, was how the “strange character” we call God changes our lives, through love and suffering bound inextricably together.

– Mr. Deavel is the editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and teaches at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).

David P. Deavel — Mr. Deavel, the editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, is a visiting assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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