24. The Boy I Loved and Lost

24. The Boy I Loved and Lost

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The Boy I Loved and Lost

When you’re a nurse you know that every day you will touch a life or a life will touch yours.

~Author Unknown

“You’ll make a great nurse someday,” Helmut said as I helped him out of his sweat-drenched hospital gown and washed his back. His words were meant to be encouraging but they tugged at my heart. How could I hope to be a great nurse when I couldn’t even save the one person I loved most in this world from the cancer that had been slowly destroying his twenty-one-year-old body? Helmut was in the end stage of osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer that, in 1971, resulted in death for more than 95 percent of its victims.

I was eighteen years old and because of his illness and my desire to care for him, I had changed my college major from English to nursing. In the twenty-two months we’d been together, Helmut and I had talked about his cancer but had never spoken about the fact that, barring a miraculous cure, he was going to die from it. Now it was obvious to both of us that his death was imminent. He was emaciated, too weak to walk or bathe himself, required oxygen to breathe and had constant pain in his bones. Physically, he looked more like a concentration camp inmate than the strong, healthy construction worker he’d been when we’d started dating, but to me he was still as handsome as ever.

I poured lotion into my hands and began massaging his back, wishing I knew the “right” way to give a back rub. Lacking clinical training and skills, I made random motions with my hands, trying to transmit the love I felt for him through my fingers and concentrating on my desire to take away his pain.

He sighed and said, “You have a great touch, so gentle and soothing that it brings me more comfort than the pain pills. That’s how I know any patient you care for will be blessed to have you for their nurse.”

He paused then, and his voice cracked as he struggled to say what was in his heart but had never given voice to before this moment of uncharacteristic verbal tenderness. “I never thought that you’d stay with me through all this and be there for me the way that you have been. It means so much to have you by my side. I love you and want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you’ve done for me.”

Hearing the words I’d longed for was bittersweet because I knew they were his final goodbye. He simply couldn’t die before uttering them. Fighting back tears, I whispered the words I said every time we were together: “I love you. There’s no place else I’d rather be than with you.”

I knew the reason he’d doubted my commitment to stay was the fact that his first love had left him a week after he told her he had cancer. But there had never been any doubt in my own mind that I was in this for the long haul.

I was still by his side when he slipped into a coma the next day and took his last few breaths.

For a few months after he died I felt like my whole world had collapsed. I became depressed, angry and mired in self-pity. I wallowed in grief and even considered suicide to put an end to my own misery. One particularly bad day, while lashing out at God for allowing suffering in good, gentle, loving people like my Helmut, I realized I had two choices. I could either add to the misery in the world by remaining depressed or I could alleviate the pain and suffering of others by finishing college and becoming the kind of nurse that Helmut predicted I’d be. I chose the latter course and pursued my nursing studies with passion, silently dedicating my future nursing career and professional life to the fine young man I had adored.

In nursing school, several instructors commented that I had a “gift” for alleviating pain and for nursing. None of them knew that gift came from my love for Helmut and from the prophetic words he’d spoken to me. In becoming a nurse, I’d found my life purpose and it helped me move out of the intense grief I felt and get beyond my own wants and needs.

Having a life purpose also gave me a sense of direction and helped bring joy back into my life. During my senior year of college I met my husband, Fred. He too had found his life purpose in the midst of misery. Fred had served two tours in Vietnam and lost army buddies in the war. During his second tour he made the decision that if he survived he would go to college and become a teacher, because the thing that brought him brief moments of joy during the war was spending time with the young children who had sometimes followed him around in Vietnam.

Fred earned his teaching degree the same year I earned my nursing degree and we got married that summer.

That was thirty-nine years ago, and though we’ve had a lot of challenges to overcome during those years, our love and commitment for each other have given us a solid foundation to build on and great happiness in our lives.

A Soren Kierkegaard quotation beautifully sums up what I learned from the two great loves of my life: “When one has fully entered the realm of love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful; it consists solely of opportunities for love.”

~Gail Sobotkin

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