Tough love

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 5, 2003

I’m involved with a woman who has a serious physical condition. Should I stay, even though it’s difficult?


Dear Cary,

I recently turned 31, and after a life of much less romantic and sexual success than I’d like, I’ve become involved with a wonderful woman. We’re a great match in terms of personality and interests.

The problem is, she has a medical condition she calls idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. There are times when it literally hurts her to breathe. She can’t lie down to sleep, and all she can do is sit in the bathroom with the shower on full blast, inhaling steam. These attacks occur at random, which means that making any kind of plan with her is contingent on her health. Recently, my big weekend with her faded to nothing. I went out, she stayed at her place, and early Sunday morning she shooed me out because she was in agony.

Another problem is that she also has a diminished sense of touch all over her skin. When we’re together sexually, she says her body doesn’t feel much, though her brain likes it. (This may or may not have something to do with the fact she was working as a prostitute at age 14.) I’m always wondering if she’s really enjoying it or if she’s just doing it for me and feels no pleasure herself.

I don’t know if I can handle being with someone who is that sick. I feel guilty for saying that, because people with illnesses need and deserve love as much as anybody else, but they’re less likely to get it. I believe that if you care about somebody, you’re supposed to endure problems like sickness. However, I fear that I’ll eventually come to resent her for keeping me from the fun I want to have with her.

Should I stay or should I go before I get more involved with her?

I Didn’t Think It Would Be This Tough

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Dear Didn’t Think,

Believe me, you can handle it. You love her. You can handle it.
That doesn’t mean you can breeze through it. You’re going to suffer and that is going to tell you who you are, what you’re made of, why you came to her door in the first place, selling flowers or greeting cards or whatever you were selling when you came to her door. This is what we’re given, this awful disease. This is why we need the support of others, so we can keep on doing the right thing even when we’re crazy.

And yes, you’re going to resent her. Before it’s over you’re going to resent God too, and the CIA, the AMA, her mother, her father and all their genes; you’re going to resent Dr. James Watson and all the science of genetics; you’re going to resent time and death and Woody Allen and Nietzsche and everyone in between who ever thought they could joke about mortality and fate. You’re going to resent the Greeks, you’re going to hate the hot shower and how it reminds you of her affliction, you’re going to hate your lungs for how they mock her own, you’re going to hate your freedom for how it breaks her heart, you’re going to resent everything that keeps her from gulping down the same delicious breath of air that the rest of us feel entitled to. But you’re going to keep loving her. After all, you rescued her.

You have to see this thing through. There may come a point where you have to leave her, but when that time comes, you won’t be asking my permission. You’ll know, and she will probably know, too, when that time comes.

But for now you have to know that even if it doesn’t make sense in some practical way, even if easier temptations glitter all around your head, there is some reason that you’re with her. To ignore that would be a hollow act of dishonor. Not dishonor to her — she’ll get by no matter what happens; she’s firmly in the grip of fate, and she knows it. But it would dishonor you, your soul, the deeper reasons that are guiding you to do what you do, and who knows how long it would take you to repair all that. You might limp along the rest of your life, having failed to learn the lesson she’s offering you.

So see it through. Be there. Watch her die if that is what it comes to. This life on earth is not some pretty little joy ride. It’s the real thing.