Of those topics sensitive to my heart, discussing my father’s past illness tops the list.
Though I may display my love, dating, and sex life for the entire web to find and read, when opening up about what it feels like to watch the man you’ve loved the most wither and weaken for six years, helpless to do anything to help him – is an entirely different experience. Maybe blood runs deeper than water, but I’d like to think the love between a daughter and a father is one no one can really understand unless they’re part of it. Especially when it becomes strained with questions that even the best doctors can’t answer.
There was a time during my sophomore year of college where my mother asked me not come home for Easter break because she didn’t want me to see my father in the debilitating state he was in. Not one to be banned from anything – especially my own family – I insisted on trekking two hours down the mountain, regardless of how bad-off my dad had become.
The next few days were spent in and out of waiting rooms, drowning in coffee, and investing in waterproof mascara. My mom and I shared conversations over a box of tissues and collectively lost about 10 pounds on the worrying diet (not recommended or FDA approved). We found refuge in these quite awful chocolate cake sundaes at the hospital’s cafeteria and one afternoon, as we were waiting for results and the start of visiting hours, I couldn’t help but ask her a burning question:
Mom, why do you stay? I mean, I know you’d never leave – you love Dad so very much, but that isn’t the man you married. We don’t know if he’ll ever get his mind back to how it was or what’s even causing his troubles. What are you going to do if he never gets well? Aren’t you afraid?
With her dark-circles and the few wrinkles she has, she closed her eyes briefly, and I watched brittle tears trickle down her flushed cheeks, and through the sadness she smiled at me. She placed her hand, which is identical to mine, just 30 years older, over my fingers and squeezed. As I usually do when dealing with an extremely emotional experience, I found myself unable to cry anymore, but I could still feel my heart wildly pounding, begging for a reason to stop moving, and I wondered if she could feel the intensity through our grasp. I gave her a hopeful grin in return and with the strength she’s given me since I was a child, I clutched tightly back.
Lindsay, my little sunshine. That’s not your dad in there. That’s not the man I fell in love with, you’re right. But he’s my husband and I love him. I love him even when he’s like this and when he’s better. When I decided to make a life-long commitment to him, I meant it with everything I have, knowing that there could come a time when I’d be sitting here, with our child, wondering about the results of a test. This is my test – the test of my love and loyalty. And even if things don’t change, I won’t leave him. I know he wouldn’t leave me, if I was in there, lying in that damn bed. When you fall in love one day and you decide to get married, make sure you know that you’d stand by him through it all. Because, really, you never know what can happen.
At this time I was 19-years-old and though I had been “dating” guys for four years, I knew I hadn’t felt that kind of obligation to someone yet. I was overwhelmed with balancing my contradicting sentiments toward my dad and getting through the semester, so I didn’t focus heavily on the advice she gave me.
But now, as I experience more and more dating experiences and the occasional relationship, I always hear those words in the back of my head when I encounter someone I could see myself with in a long-term fashion. If I decide to actually take the step from casual to serious, from dipping into different flavors to tightening up a jar of monogamy – what would I do if this person became someone else? If an illness out of their control changed the things I loved the most about them: their dynamic, their energy, their personality? Would I still want to stay? More than the prospect of want, though, would I do it regardless of how I felt or how it affected me?
Can I really love someone unconditionally?
In terms of “no matter what” – I’ve generally believed that sort of love only applies to parent/child relationships. I’m pretty positive that regardless of what I do, what I decide, who I marry, where I live, what mistakes I make, or what I engage in – my parents would still love me. They may not agree with my choices and they may not like my actions, but their love would remain a constant force.
In a relationship that’s claimed it’ll stand the test of time, what happens when something goes wrong? When one partner is weaker than the other? When sickness and health become an actual factor of day-to-day life? Or when someone strays or has an affair? When someone wants something more than what their partner can give them? When one wants to travel and one wants to grow roots? When opinions and desires, like everything else in life, change?
The love I’ve found, partaken in, given, and shared has all been quite conditional. I will love you as long as you love me; I will stand by you as long as you stand by me; I will be crazy about you, as long as you’re not crazy; I will be faithful and true, as long as you never look another’s way. I will be in love with you, but do I love you, for you? And not just for what you can give me, but what we can create and withstand, together?
Before I can love without stipulation – if romantic love can truly be such an unqualified emotion – I need to learn to love myself unconditionally. Because there is no foundation between two people that can completely claim it’s unbreakable or shatterproof. While we may make a promise for better or for worse and truly mean it, what we’re really pledging is “I love you right now and I believe I will still love you, no matter what happens.”
When we decide to full-heartedly love who we are, we ca n promise without prerequisites, without rules to be met, without conditions or terms, this love will make it through anything. Even failed attempts of unconditional relationships with other people. Even when you’re tempted by the fruit of another or faced with decisions that we should never have to make. Even in sickness and health. Even in singleness. Even when love doesn’t seem to be enough, but unrestricted acceptance, is.
Because maybe, the key to being able to love deeply, is knowing that even if your partner becomes a stranger or the roles in your relationship change, you still have someone to depend on. Someone who’s presence is unconditional because it’s part of you. Or really – it is you – no matter what, forever and ever, and always.