The last time I saw Ann-Marie she was standing in front of a blackboard conducting an English class during Parents Weekend. She was a well-known scholar in the field of Elizabethan drama and had published a number of erudite treatises and books on Shakespeare. The next time I saw Ann-Marie, she was stooping over a frail, glassy-eyed elderly man in a wheelchair at the Cumberland Fair.

Ann-Marie exhibited the patience of a saint as the man kept bobbing his head whenever she dipped a spoon into the small jar of food and raised it to his lips. When I spoke to Ann-Marie, she stood up and wiped her brow, relishing a break from her tedious effort to feed her husband, who developed Alzheimer’s five years ago.

Born six months earlier than Ann-Marie, he looked 20 years older than his wife. Frustrated at the interruption of his meal, he yelled out, “Mother, feed me!” Ann-Marie turned to me and lamented, “He doesn’t recognize me anymore. Last week at his doctor’s appointment he looked at me with fright and shouted, ‘Did I come here with you?’ “

Her husband’s illness had forced Ann-Marie to retire early from her professorship at a prestigious university and from her prodigious scholarship. It also compromised her pension and Social Security. Looking with love at her severely debilitated husband, Ann-Marie sighed, “My husband’s my job now. It’s what God has given me. God’s turned my world upside down, but I’m blessed I can care for my husband. If I couldn’t, he’d be in a nursing home, living alone.”

As Ann-Marie excused herself and resumed feeding her husband, I considered a woman in the Bible much younger than Ann-Marie who also had her life turned upside down by God.

Mary, a teenager betrothed to a local carpenter, lived an unassuming life in the unremarkable Galilean village of Nazareth two millennia ago. One day Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel who offered a startling announcement, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:30-32).

She was perplexed how this could be, since she was a virgin. The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

Mary realized how difficult the rest of her life would be if her betrothed, Joseph, did not believe this extraordinary revelation. Immediately she would be accused of being unfaithful and the marriage contract dissolved. The consequences of these actions would be harsh and devastating. Mary risked stoning or exile to another village for a life of despair without any means of support. Ann-Marie’s response to her new circumstance reminded me of Mary’s response to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Both Ann-Marie and Mary faced serious challenges as their lives were radically changed. Nothing in the future for either of them looked easy. Yet they accepted their new lives with dignity and grace, and moved forward with a commitment to serve. Later Mary would sing, “From now on all generations will call me blessed ” (Luke 1:48). Ann-Marie, too, considered herself blessed though her selfless love and commitment to her husband were given without any expectation of recognition or remuneration.

As Ann-Marie served the last spoonful of baby food to her husband, he burped and regurgitated copious amounts of his lunch over his red plaid shirt. Embarrassed, he started to smear the semi-digested applesauce over his chest with his hands. With a compassionate smile, Ann-Marie encouraged her confused husband, “It’s all right, dear. I’ll clean it up.”

Bending over her husband and dabbing the applesauce with a clean paper towel, Ann-Marie looked as radiant and engaged in the presence of a husband who could no longer return any affection, as she did in the classroom standing upright in front of 50 bright, admiring college students.

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist-oncologist, writer, playwright and consultant to the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.