Love, Actually?

20 May

Dear LetterBalm: My old boyfriend got in touch with me after decades. We have history together, including being each other’s first love. We’re now in our early 70s, and we both lost our spouses a few years ago. We’ve renewed our relationship – the feelings are still there. Recently, we spent the day with his sister and her husband. She told me that her brother has had serious, debilitating bouts of illness because of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. She said they’re getting worse and more frequent as he gets older. She said, “I’m relieved that you’re in his life because he’ll have someone he trusts to take care of him.” I’m shattered. I took care of my husband for three years before he died in my arms. Before that, I nursed my mother at home through two bouts of the cancer that killed her. I don’t want to do this again. I don’t have the emotional strength to nurse another person I love through their final illness. What do I say to him so that I don’t come across as selfish and callous?

–Nurse No Longer

It’s understandable that you are distressed. Ms. L.B. hopes your boyfriend hasn’t reconnected with you solely to have a nurse at his bedside in future years. Is it true love or true love with an asterisk? Presumably, you and he have had more than one catch-up conversation about the intervening decades. If you haven’t already done so, introduce the subject of the loss of your husband and mother, how you cared for them and the toll it took on you. (Consider for a moment if you have already told your boyfriend – he must be in dire emotional conflict right how. His feelings for you are rekindled, even as he knows he has serious health issues, his beloved has grappled personally with loss and probably doesn’t want to deal with it to that degree again.) What is the future for the two of you? You must establish his motivation while acknowledging your feelings, yet being true to yourself. Something like this:

Paul, when you and I visited Kate and her husband, she told me that you have recurrent bouts of illness from Agent Orange that are getting progressively more serious. I’m so sorry to hear that. It must be difficult for you. As you know, I lost my husband and mother to recurring sickness. But what you don’t know is that I nursed both of them at home over several years through their final illnesses. My husband died in my arms. Their lingering deaths took a great emotional toll on me. It was the deepest sorrow I’ve ever endured, watching someone I love waste away, and there was nothing I could do to help them. It left me with a profound realization: I never want to go through that again. I never want to nurse someone every day and watch them die. As much as you and I love each other, darling, your illness is in our future, and we must talk about this realistically, as painful as it is.

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