‘I’m Dying But I Want to Be in Love’

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Dear Polly,

I feel like a strange amalgam of various others who have written to you, but nevertheless, here I am. I’m 28, single, and dying from a cancer that is breaking my body and spirit down at an alarming rate. Obviously, so many things about this situation scare and sadden me. But the thing that consumes me most, day in and day out, is the fear and heartbreak of not having a partner there with me through the two or so years I have left or holding my hand when it’s finally time to go. Having been confronted by mortality at a young age, I feel I know more about myself than many 28-year-olds do, and one thing I know is that I am a relationship person. I was in one relationship from age 20 to 25, and another from age 25 to 26, and while neither were perfect, I felt whole and truly like myself in both of them. And it’s not just because I love the feeling of being loved (though obviously I do), but I truly love giving my love to someone else. It feels like the thing I was meant to do, and the reality that I may never have that again is devastating.

Despite the fact that my days are mostly spent in doctor’s offices or lying in bed (or, frequently, both), I do the whole Tinder thing occasionally just for a sense of normalcy and, yes, male attention. I’m okay with most of these dates being one- or two-time things. It’s a salve, sure, but it’s fun, it gets me out of the house, and no one owes each other anything, which means I feel no need to disclose the fact that I’m a ticking, tumor-ridden time bomb. But when I do come across a guy where there’s some real potential (as is the case right now), I find myself both weaving an intricate web of lies to keep things cool in the present and steeling myself for the eventual parting of ways when I either tell them who I really am or break things off before that even happens.

So my dilemma is this: How do I square my desire for a loving partner with my reality as it is? I want to believe there’s someone out there who I could not only open up to about my health but who would accept and love me in spite of it. But that feels like a fairy tale (FUCK YOU, FAULT IN OUR STARS etc.). And even if it’s not a fairy tale, and that guy materialized, I would be wracked with guilt at the idea of even asking someone to get pulled into this terrifying, morbid mess. So, Polly, do I keep chasing the fairy tale? Do I give up entirely? Is there some other alternative I’m missing? Or is the salve the best I’m going to get until things are so bad that I no longer have the physical strength for any of it?

Sincerely,

Dying Girls Need Loving Too, Right?

Dear DGNLTR,

I’m sure you don’t want to hear how sorry I am, but I am sorry. It’s still dark out, and I feel too small and stupid to offer you anything of value. I always tell people to just show up and be honest when people are in crisis (as opposed to trying to fix anything or unloading their big barrel of forcedly optimistic clichés on top of someone’s head). But just showing up and being honest feels inadequate, too.

I’m sure having terminal cancer feels socially oppressive that way. Particularly in the middle of a sea of feeling shitty and confronting the breakdown of your body and spirit, it must be horrible to watch everyone you know flattened and emptied out and inadequate in your presence. I’ll bet that’s why Tinder feels like a giant reprieve from the heavy looks and the weighty silences of other people. Finally, a bubble of mundane chatter and raw attraction where you can encounter someone without the weight of this absurdly unfair diagnosis.

But I’ll bet there are also people who can show up without feeling inadequate. I’ll bet you know people who bring their best, who relish the chance to be there for you. I’ve been trying to trick one of my friends into hanging out on her chemo days or while she’s recovering. I just feel like I could play the role of a good partner, fun or quiet or barely there if necessary. She questions why I’d want to be there, and I guess I don’t really blame her. Even though I see it as a way of showing up and offering her something I’m good at giving, maybe there’s also a little of the ambulance-chaser, disaster-gawker in the mix for me. Even if that’s a side effect of being drawn to the ugly truth at all costs, it can still feel a little suspect. As with any other personality trait, there are good impulses and bad impulses dancing together there.

If you decided to embrace the fairy tale, this would be part of the beauty and the danger of locating potential partners who wouldn’t run away or be dismantled by the prospect of standing by you to the end. Whether you start to tell people your diagnosis very early or mention it to someone you like, there’s still this question in the room: What kind of person might be willing to be there for you? Would it be someone who’s real and true and recognizes something in you that feels vital to his continued existence? Or will it be someone who loves the idea of himself as some kind of a savior or merciful saint, like the Virgin Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta?

My suspicions on that front are probably distinctly parental. As a parent, I would want to be there for you all the time. I would want you to have a partner if you wanted one, but I’d also want you to know that I would give you everything I had to give. And frankly, that kind of parental devotion and worry might be irrelevant here. What you’re talking about is sex and romance and devotion and someone who’s in love with you, holding your hand at the end. A parent isn’t a suitable substitute when romantic love is what you’re looking for. Moreover, getting hung up on the intricate web of motives that live in any potential partner’s personality is almost always a mistake. Why bother? Are your own motives pure? Can you distill just the love out of a mix of a million different human needs and preferences and urges? No way.

And should you feel guilty about wanting someone to be by your side, or putting someone through such a potentially difficult experience? Hell no, as long as you’re honest with them. In fact, you can balance your own guilt at putting a partner through this against his guilt for having a perfectly human blend of good and bad traits that make him capable of going through it with you.

Obviously, the bottom line is that you should do exactly what you want. No one is going to argue with that. But I think you’re also wondering if it’s a good idea to focus on this, and if it’s a good use of your time to look for love. Your timeline is condensed, after all. You’d have to tell potential partners and watch them react and maybe run away, and that might be harrowing. That said, posting an honest “I’m Dying” listing on Tinder would attract the ambulance chasers.

I think you should experiment with what makes you feel good. It sounds like you’re into someone and it might be time to tell him. So tell him. You don’t strike me as someone who’s going to be traumatized by the wrong reaction. But it also sounds like you want to keep looking if this doesn’t work out. That’s okay, too. If it feels good to look, look. If it doesn’t feel good, stop. I do think you’d want to watch out for control freaks, who immediately want to sign onto all of it and take over everything in your life. But you’re probably a decent judge of character, having lived the life you’ve lived.

The real question is whether the fantasy of love will be a salve or not. Personally, I’m a big fan of choosing your illusion. I think every big, overwhelming event in life — sickness, kids, marriage, death — demands some suspension of disbelief. Fantasies and fairy tales present themselves to us culturally as modes of escape, but sometimes they’re actually a way of savoring the present; it just depends on how we use them. When I was young, I used my fantasy of love to judge all of my moments alone as Not Good Enough. I’d see something beautiful and think, “If only I had someone here to share this with.” I don’t do that anymore. I savor my life in a pretty solitary way, for the most part. Even though I tell my husband a lot, I never feel my moments alone are less worthy than the moments I spend in his company.

But I’ve dramatically changed my view of how love should function in a person’s life. I value my private perceptions and adventures in ways I never did before. And I guess that even with a partner in my life, I didn’t really feel whole until I landed here, in a place where I could treat my solitary trajectory as a romantic one.

That’s what I want for you more than anything else. I think it could bring your life a lot of joy and warmth to have someone who loves you like crazy and is there for you in spite of all “terrifying, morbid messes” to come. You should pursue that if you believe in that, and you shouldn’t feel guilty or embarrassed about it. But I also think that you should cling fast to the fact that this is your life and yours alone, and it’s beautiful already in its own rough, ragged way. It already matters. It doesn’t matter more if someone is there with you. It matters now. I want to challenge you to dare to see yourself through that lens, whether you find someone worthy of your love or not. I would hate for your search for love to rob you of what you already have. I want you to be able to take every fucked up, scary, morbid moment and every glorious, divine, irreplaceable moment and every mundane setback and dreary wait and imperfect, faintly satisfying moment in between and add them up to something truly romantic.

I get that this might sound obnoxious. I sometimes talk like this to my friend who’s going through chemo, and even though she’s a skilled novelist capable of capturing the most heartbreaking moments with a few well-chosen words, she’s not into my pep talks. She’s like, “Fuck you, I’m bald and I feel like shit.” Flowery words of inspiration just make her feel worse. So I give her shit and make jokes now. That’s what she likes.

That would also be one of the toughest aspects of having a relatively new partner under your current circumstances. You need someone capable of major shifts in key and tone and tempo. A person like that is hard to find. And even WITH this very sensitive tonal shifter along for the ride, you will still want some space to savor and honor your private experiences. Understanding that your solitary experience of the world is important, it matters, it’s romantic: This lies at the heart of all happiness as far as I’m concerned. And it’s a challenge we all face no matter what our circumstances are. It’s not easy. But happiness, even within the comfort of a partnership, is impossible without it.

I’m not saying you should milk every last drop of nectar from life even when you’re going through hell. You don’t have to overachieve your way through the time you have left. Just try to view yourself and your life through the eyes of a devoted partner whether you find that person or not. Because the jagged edges of who you are, the sharp corners of what you’re going through, even when they’re sad or chaotic or lonely, are everything.

It reminds me of the very first note of Beethoven’s First Symphony. I can’t get enough of that first note, hanging there like a question mark.

Imagine, sitting down to write your FIRST goddamn symphony at the age of 25, and thinking, “I’ll start with a sudden, jarring, unresolved chord in the wrong key! But then it will resolve quietly, and then I’ll add another jarring chord! And my third jarring chord will repeat and repeat, like a slightly sad, haunting question that hangs in the air a little too long!” I mean, what an arrogant, bold, brilliant choice. And even though it’s incredible how Beethoven manages to move so smoothly from that sweet, melancholy question to this lilting, graceful dance through the countryside, followed by a bouncy triumphant conquest, followed by a strange dark shadow where things get terrifyingly morbid and a little messy, he starts it all with this insistent, melancholy inquiry. And the battling themes, with their absurdly conflicted moods, combine to form a kind of rough, uneven attempt at an answer.

But no matter how much comfort it gives us to cling to the last, forceful note Beethoven offers, it’s clear that he doesn’t really have an answer. He wants us to stay close to the question, to hear the grace in those notes, to hear the anguish and the longing there. That’s what those first chords say to me: Even when your life feels incomplete, suspended, unresolved, your task is to relish that imperfect, unnervingly unfinished space as much as you possibly can.

Anguish and longing live at the heart of every life. We are all totally alone in some ways, but we can believe in love and love it like crazy even in our solitude. I might die alone. We all might. The Earth might stop spinning in the next second. Cultivating the belief that every sigh, every breeze, every melancholy, uncertain moment alone matters: This is my work and yours and everyone else’s. These things are tiny and stupid and inconsequential, yet they matter more than words can capture.

I’m still conflicted about your question. I want you to have the fairy tale and live inside a fantasy and live in reality and savor being alone, too. I want you to have everything.

Most of all, though, I want you to know that this world loves you more than you can possibly imagine. I want you to believe that. Even though the most terrifying and morbid evidence would seem to suggest otherwise, the truth is that this world adores you like the most devoted lover. I can’t prove it, but I know that it’s real. When you struggle, the leaves on the trees shudder, the sun weeps, Beethoven’s violins cry, and the spirits of the dead and the living are on your side. We are all living inside the same terrifying, sweet, sad question with you. Do you feel that? That part is not a fairy tale. That part is real.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘I’m Dying But I Want to Be in Love’