She knows she’s dying, but that hasn’t stopped her from wanting to find love.

Lee Haywood/Flickr

As one woman wrote to Ask Polly, at age 28, she is living with terminal cancer. And while her diagnosis comes with its own worries, the most frightening part is the prospect of being alone at the end. She wrote:

[T]he 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.

Because her illness has forced her to examine what is most important to her in life, she understands she is, “a relationship person.” In other words, she feels most complete when she can give love to someone else (and receive it as well). She added:

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.

She explained that — in the effort to maintain “normalcy” — she has gone on a few Tinder dates. The casual nature of the dates saves her from having to reveal the truth about her condition.

But that doesn’t answer the question about what to do when she finds herself genuinely interested in someone. She wrote:

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.

Despite her illness, she can’t help but hope there is someone out there … even while she acknowledges her wishes might be unrealistic:

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.

What’s more, even if she did find that elusive perfect guy, she would feel guilty about bringing him into the, “terrifying, morbid mess,” that is her life now.

Which leaves her with the question: Can she still look for that fairy tale ending, even though she’s dying? She wrote:

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?

In the face of such a heartbreaking question, “Polly” (written by columnist Heather Havrilesky) promised to be honest, regardless of how, “inadequate,” any answer might feel in the circumstances. And she immediately identified the unspoken worry behind the letter she received:

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?

But is there really any point in examining the motives of someone in a romantic relationship with someone who is dying? As Polly wrote:

[G]etting 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.

Polly quickly dispenses with any notion the letter’s author should feel guilty for wanting a relationship, saying it only requires her to be honest with any potential partner.

Ultimately, the letter’s writer can (and likely will) do whatever she wants. And there’s nothing wrong with looking — at least for as long as it continues to feel good. Polly wrote:

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.

But while Polly wants the letter writer to feel free to chase the fairy tale, she also wants her to recognize the beauty and completeness of her life without a partner. Though Polly also acknowledged her wish can sound a bit irritating for someone facing the reality of death:

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.

The sad fact is that there is no easy answer to the letter writer’s question. Because it wasn’t just a question about dating, but about life, relationships, love, and the search for meaning. Polly wrote:

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.

Regardless of whether the letter writer ever finds that fairy tale relationship, Polly wants her to understand that the love she is looking for is there: “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.”

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