That long-ago love and I are recently back in contact. He tells me that his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago and, despite his hopes for a enjoyable retirement, he has accepted that his life is pretty much over – he’s 64. He’s a good person and I’m sure that he will be there for her. I know that he has hopes and dreams that are disappearing because of this.
My heart breaks for him and we’ve both acknowledged that our same connection is still there after all these years – I’m 58. What I know about Alzheimer’s is mostly off the the internet. I didn’t realize it was considered “terminal” but I know it can go on for many years all the same. I can be a sounding board and support for him and I know he’ll need that. I’ve encouraged him to start even now gathering a circle of caregivers other than himself so that he’s not alone in this and has breaks for himself.
Wendy, at the risk of sounding horribly crass, do you and your readers think there will ever be a time for “us”? — Waiting For Us
Maybe, but that time isn’t now. Paul took a vow when he married his wife to be there for her through sickness and in health, and those vows are being tested, just as they were when he fell in love with you and he chose to re-commit to his wife. Is it fair that his retirement dreams have been squashed because of his wife’s terminal illness? No, but life isn’t fair. Shitty things happen all the time. People get terminal illnesses, people fall in love with the right people at the wrong time, babies are born in war-torn nations and unable to find refuge anywhere safe. Life isn’t fair.
I believe you’re a good person who respects the sanctity of marriage, or at least the commitment and responsibility Paul has to his wife. I don’t think you would intentionally want to cause either one of them pain. You have to know that being involved with Paul at this time, even as a “sounding board” or as the “support” you know he’ll need, is inappropriate and could cause pain. Hopefully, Paul has friends and family members to fill the support roles he needs. Your feelings for him and your motivation for being in touch compromises the kind of support you can lend him, and his feelings for you would divert the care and attention he should reserve for his wife. He has a job right now and that’s taking care of his wife of more than thirty years. Is he entitled to breaks — hours or days when he can prioritize his own personal enjoyment? Yes, but connecting with another woman while his wife is dying shouldn’t be included in that unless he and his wife have an agreement that that’s ok. I’m thinking they probably don’t. And when there isn’t an agreement in place for a spouse to pursue an emotional and/or physical connection with a person he or she is emotionally and physically attracted to, and he pursues one anyway, there’s a word for that.
I can imagine how frustrating it must be to feel you met your soulmate and couldn’t have him because someone else met him first. But I have much more empathy for the woman who may also feel that she met her soulmate, invested decades into her relationship with him, built a life with him, survived who knows how many hurdles (including her partner falling in love with another woman), and also had hopes and dreams for her retirement years only to have that time stolen from her by a horrific disease that has or will rob her of much of her dignity and much of what makes her who she is. You say what you know about Alzheimer’s is “mostly off the the internet,” and maybe that gives you enough cognitive distance to keep this woman abstract in your mind. She can remain this person you don’t really know who has this disease you don’t really understand, and as long as she’s just this other woman occupying a space in the life you wish you could have had, it’s easier to withhold empathy. It’s also easier to convince yourself that Paul would have preferred you in the space his wife occupies, and thinking that — and maybe even being told that — gives you permission to look for a window into that space, to begin wedging yourself into it, so that if it becomes fully available, you’ll already be there, and if it never becomes fully available, you’ll at least have a hint of what it feels like.
That window is not open to you. That space is not available. Even if Paul holds a spot for you in his heart, there is not a space for you in his life as long as he has a wife living and breathing whom he’s responsible for caring for. It’s not fair that you didn’t meet him first. It’s not fair that his wife has ever had to share any of Paul’s heart with you. It’s not fair that she doesn’t get the golden years she dreamed of, and it’s not fair that Paul’s retirement is devoted to caring for a terminally ill wife. Life isn’t fair. But we make the best of the cards we’re dealt, remaining empathetic to the cards others are dealt (particularly when they seem like worse hands than ours), and look for spaces where we might fit without forcing ourselves into spaces where we don’t.
Will there ever be a time for you and Paul? Maybe. But that time isn’t now. This time isn’t yours. And you need to respect that Paul has work to do that your presence would interfere with. Since you are newly separated after a decades-long marriage, instead of jumping into a relationship with lots of baggage and some history, why not enjoy mingling a bit, meeting new people, and seeing what it feels like to be on your own again. If space becomes available for you in Paul’s life eventually, you will have had the time and experiences to make make more sound decisions, knowing what some other possibilities for you might exist. And who knows — you may find someone who’s not only the right person, but the right time, too.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.