Myodicy, Issue 15, December 2001

Mary Elizabeth Plantinga

by Theodore Plantinga

In October of 1964, when I was a 17-year-old freshman at Calvin College, I met a girl named Mary Masselink. I found her in my math class, of all places. We fell in love.

She was an unusual girl, in a number of ways. One was that she had committed herself to the Confucian ideal of filial piety, or devotion to one's parents. And hers were special parents indeed. A number of you have met Mary's mother, Mrs. Clazina Masselink, during her visits to Mary. She is with us here today.

Her father, Rev. Edward Masselink, a retired minister in the Christian Reformed denomination, did not visit during the time of Mary's affliction, for he was ailing. He died in July of 1999. During the last four months of his life he grieved over what had become of his daughter. How I wish he could have passed on before Mary's trauma and brain injury.

Rev. Masselink was a very honorable man, as I discovered when he sent me a letter dated October 21, 1964. He wrote that letter just as soon as he became aware of my interest in Mary. In the letter he informed me that his daughter had "convulsive difficulties" -- in other words, epilepsy. He wanted me to realize this before I got too serious about her. But I already knew. In fact, I knew about Mary and her epilepsy before I ever met her. A friend had told me about her: she came well recommended.

Mary was deeply committed to her parents, and they loved her in a very special way that Mary's children later noted with appreciation. By then they, too, had come to bask in that same parental love, now turned grandparental.

After her brain injury, Mary's feelings about her parents fluctuated because she had lost the capacity to know and remember them normally. At first she remembered her life history fairly well up to 1970, but in the final weeks and months there were many times when the early years were also completely washed away. On such days the only person she still knew was me. And on one very sad occasion she no longer knew that I was her husband. She thought I was a recent acquaintance who, for whatever reason, had decided to be nice to her by bringing her some hugs and kisses. She also made it clear that she thought I was being too familiar with her in physical respects. A Christian lady has to keep some boundaries, after all!

Now, a girl who understood the central role of the love between children and parents in ancient Chinese society could be expected to grow into a loving mother herself, and that's just what Mary did. I believe her very best days on this earth came when she was a young mother, before some of the crises of later years, when seizures caused her additional brain damage and memory loss.

The worst episode prior to 1999 occurred in 1986, when doctors at Henderson Hospital in Hamilton, unable to stop her seizures and knowing she would soon die if they were not stopped, sent her by helicopter ambulance to the Hospital of the University of Western Ontario in London. There the seizures were stopped abruptly, but at a tremendous cost. Mary lost a great deal of the content of her memory, although she retained the capacity to remember and relearn. In the year that followed she also had to rebuild basic cognitive skills, especially reading. But rebuild she did, even to the point of eventually being able to homeschool two of our children, Michael and Abigail. Of course I was involved in that effort as well. We divided the subjects, but Mary did the bulk of the teaching.

By that point she had one teenager in the house, along with two younger children. She was deeply devoted to all three of them, even though her energies flagged at times and she couldn't always keep up with them. Her love for them was the greatest gift she could give. That love lives on and will help sustain them throughout their lives.

During the final years, when Mary so often despaired of being of use to anyone on earth, I said to her countless times: "But you can still give and receive love." Visitors can testify that this was indeed true. Yet, sadly, her capacity to love shrank as her mental capacities declined. In the final couple of months there were times when she told me that she did not love me. When I asked why, she would say: "I don't know you." Once I had the presence of mind to ask: "Do you like me?" She responded that she surely did. I asked why. "Because you are nice." Well, our children are also nice, but Mary did not always respond to them in the way one would expect. And the reason was simply that she could not. She no longer knew them -- or knew who they were.

And that has left me, as her husband, to speak for her, assuring David, Michael, and Abigail that she loved them dearly. I share in that love; in having you the three of you with me during this ordeal, and also in the days and years to come, I retain something of her love and spirit in my life.

Many of you know that Mary gave birth to four children -- not three. There was also Elisabeth, who died in 1976. David remembers her, but Michael and Abigail never knew her. Elisabeth was the one subject I could not discuss with Mary during her ordeal. I did bring up her name on two occasions, but each time it cost me so much pain that I resolved to stay away from the subject altogether. Yet Elisabeth remained an intermittent presence in Mary's mind. I know that at least one other visitor did talk with Mary about her.

As the children grew up, Mary looked for avenues of service outside the house. She served the Town of Dundas in volunteer committee work related to "heritage buildings." She taught a friendship class at Calvary Christian Reformed Church, giving spiritual instruction to mentally challenged young men. She was deeply involved in environmental protection, especially through the Dundas Conservers Society. And she was active in Amnesty International, writing letters on behalf of persons who were wrongly imprisoned in countries in various parts of the world, or were being held without trial, or were undergoing torture.

Of the causes for which she worked, environmental protection meant the most to her. It hurt her that so many Christians are indifferent to this cause. She often told me that many of her closest associates in the local environmental movement were rooted in faith communities other than her own. I think especially of Rashne Baetz, a dear friend who visited Mary at Chedoke and Parkview but is presumably not here today because she moved to Louisiana this past summer. I'm sure Mary would encourage people who wish to honor her memory to work for the causes she supported.

Mary longed for the earth to be whole. To her, its ecosystems and manifold creatures, all of them good gifts to us from our Creator, were to be treasured. She longed for wholeness and was aware that the words "whole" and "heal" and "salvation" share a common etymological root in the German and Dutch languages. She was acquainted with both of those languages and was herself half German and half Dutch.

When wholeness was lost in her own life because of her cardiac arrest and subsequent CPR on March 9, 1999, which left her with an anoxic brain injury, she began to long for the deeper wholeness that God promises us in the life to come. After a time, I joined her in that longing. My prayer, uttered innumerable times, was: "Lord, make her whole, or take her gently away." And the Lord did provide, through the loving care she received in the Christian environment of Emmanuel House, where she spent the last twenty days of her life.

Thank you to the Emmanuel House community, to the doctors and nurses and volunteers who ministered to her needs while she was there, and also to the many friends and relatives and fellow believers in various congregations who visited Mary and supported us throughout this lengthy ordeal. Among them were various pastors who encouraged us and prayed with us and for us.

And thanks finally to you, Jim, for giving voice to the thoughts of my heart. Mary never stopped grieving over the loss of her voice. She loved to talk, and she loved to sing. And now she may sing God's praises forevermore. Thanks be to God!

NOTE: These remarks were prepared for a memorial service which was held on November 24, 2001, in St. James Anglican Church in Dundas, Ontario, Canada.

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