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Carolyn Hax: Illness clouds this budding romance

By Carolyn Hax
Sunday, October 3, 2010; E11

Dear Carolyn:

For three months I've dated a man I like very much. We're both in our fifties. I have teens at home; he never married. He is bright, kind, generous and hardworking. There are some red flags about him (borderline hoarder) but I figured time would sort them out or we would break up. That's midlife romance for you.

One thing I HAD intervened in was his health: He hadn't seen a doctor in years, despite having had a small stroke in the past. To please me, he was just re-starting care with his GP.

He had a major stroke two weeks ago. He didn't 'fess up for days, so by the time I dragged him to the hospital it was too late to do anything but deal with the fallout. The outlook is grim.

He has an elderly mother and two sibs who live hours away and some close friends. He's in a rehab hospital, and his friends and I try to visit daily. I'm in an odd position: He doesn't want me to be too involved in medical decision-making, but he really needs my support and companionship.

I need some help sorting out my priorities, among my children's typical adolescent issues and my very demanding job.

My kids have to come first. Second, I have to support myself and them (I get no financial support from their dad). And then I will squeeze in whatever time and energy I can for my sweetheart. But Carolyn, my life was already full of obligations and duties before this happened. How am I ever going to take on another burden? Yet I don't want to desert this kind and deserving man.

Florida

It's understandable that you're torn up about this, for so many reasons:

What happened to him is awful;

You care, but don't know him well;

You were looking for light companionship, and what you got was a heavy entanglement;

Part of that bait-and-switch was just bad luck, but part was his own darn stubborn fault;

Yet taking a punitive stance feels like piling on;

Especially since, when this happened, he was rethinking his bad health habits, in a gesture of deference and concern for you;

Which further muddies your general (and probably accurate) impression that this relationship might never have progressed for various other reasons.

Add these up, and you have the stroke locking your relationship in as awkward a position as it has locked your friend's body.

Unless he wants to drive himself mad, he will have to approach his rehabilitation in very small steps. You, too, should think small in deciding your role. Visit when you think to, want to, and can, and don't complicate that process by staring down everyone's future at once.

Also, don't be afraid to set a minimum number of hours of you-time each week, to guard against dutiful exhaustion, and divvy up the rest of your free time the way your gut tells you is right.

And, finally, resist the temptation to see this as a beginning (of a new burden) or an end (of his ability to bring joy to your life). He may not be the companion he was, but you don't know yet the friend he'll be. Keep your schedule sane, your mind open, your heart full.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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