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Reuters/Shaun Best
We finally realized that this might just be the new normal.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH

“After he was diagnosed with MS, our love only grew stronger”

By Helena Bala

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala started meeting people via Craigslist in 2014 and has been documenting their stories ever since. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Elizabeth, 60s

We’d been dating for about three months, and I was not pushy at all. I told him that as long as we were enjoying ourselves, there was no pressure from me to make this a “thing.” After all, we were both rebounding from a divorce. But I remember, one night, we were sitting on the couch and looking at a firearms book (we both really like guns) and his watch beeped. It was 10PM. I knew he didn’t have to work the next morning, but he left anyway. I was so devastated—I loved the closeness of him. I had been looking forward to our first kiss so very much. So I was confused: I was getting mixed signals. 

The next time I saw him, I decided to check in with him. I asked him, “How are you feeling about what we’re doing here?” And he said, “Well, there’s something that I’ve been meaning to talk to you about but I have to go to work, so let’s schedule a time to talk.” And of course, that just freaked me out even more. That night, before I went to bed, I checked my email. He’d written because he didn’t think it was fair to leave me hanging. 

And then I read: “I have MS.”

It hit me like a ton of bricks. He was the physical specimen of health. Because of his work in law enforcement, he was constantly subjected to physical fitness tests. He didn’t have any symptoms. He was, to me, perfect. He wrote that he was hesitant to get seriously involved with someone in a deeper way because he didn’t know how his disease would progress. Essentially, he was giving me a way out. 

I told myself that I could take as much time as I needed to think it through. Ten minutes passed and I wrote him back. I said that I was devastated and very sorry to learn that he had anything wrong with him, but that I thought that he was just as deserving of love and affection as anyone else—and that if he felt that I was possibly the person that he was interested in building a life with, that I was all in. And I said, “If you don’t know yet, that is okay, too. You don’t need to make me any promises.” He had written that he’d stopped taking his medication because it was too expensive, so I told him that I’d love the opportunity to be his lifelong friend, and I wanted him to consider letting me pay for his medication, no strings attached, until he could figure something out. 

Twenty years have passed since that night. We’ve been married for 15 of them. I’ve never been bored. I’ve never been unhappy. I’ve become a much better person since I met him. He is a hero. An American hero. And not just because of his work, but also because of the honor system that dictates his life—the character that’s the backbone to everything he does, the humility and kindness that permeates his actions. He was a Marine, and I keep a photo of him in his dress blues on me at all times. He takes my breath away. 

Three years ago, I noticed that he was sitting down more in the middle of the day. Mind you: This is someone who hiked and biked and ran miles upon miles every single day. We used to run errands together—he began to sit some of them out. He was walking very slowly and his gait changed. And I just couldn’t believe that this was the same man. I was always on the verge of tears but I had to smile—I had to keep his feelings afloat. 

So I got him to doctors and specialists and anyone and everyone. We tried cutting-edge medication. We tried physical therapy. We tried everything, and after three years of an all-consuming search for something to make him better, I think we realized that this might just be the new normal. We got him a cool-looking hiking stick. We used to hold hands—now he holds on to my arm and it looks like we’re strolling. I see the muscles in his legs get a little thinner and his jeans get a little baggier.

You wake up one morning and something has happened, overnight. He can’t feel the top of his foot anymore. And now we’re in a crisis and the whole world has stopped to exist, and we are submerged. And I suggest that we do something stupid and normal like go get ice cream at Dairy Queen. As we’re eating it, my throat tightens and I feel like I can’t breathe, but I look at him and smile. And inside I think: “This is the reality, Liz. Look at him. That’s your hero. That’s your big, strong guy.”

Watching this happen to someone I love—my dearest friend, my partner, my love, my rock, the most kind man who has never done a bad thing to anyone—it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My mind wonders about what’s next and I often tell myself not to “go there”—but I have to, it’s self-preservation in a strange way. I have to prepare myself for the worst. At night, though, I put all those thoughts aside and I move in a little closer to him so that I can still be with him. If that’s all I can have, that’s still enough. I’ll take it. 

I often think back to my parents’ friends—old timers who lost a spouse. I would ask them, in my youth, why they didn’t “get out there” and start dating again. And many of them would say with a smile—something along the lines of, “Nobody will ever compare.” And now I finally understand them. There will never be another man who could ever compare to him. So the weight of the possibility of him not being around anymore is crushing. 

Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at craigslistconfessionalqz@gmail.com.