Last rights

Should I marry a woman I'm not sure about just because it's her dying mother's last wish?

Published August 25, 2003 7:28PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been involved with a woman for almost two years now. She's beautiful, passionate, smart and sexy, and we've had many good times together -- but she's also materialistic, selfish and often quite venomous, attributes that have created major problems in our relationship from the beginning. Several months ago, during a particularly good phase, we agreed that we'd get married, and that I'd start saving for a ring. Since then, the major problems have come back in full force, and I'm coming to the realization that although we love each other very much, we probably aren't right for each other in the big picture. (This is my first long-term relationship, and I'm still learning a lot about what my needs are.) I haven't told her this yet, though, for one main reason: Her mother has a terminal illness, and doesn't have much time left. This is obviously not the time to break up with my girlfriend.

However, one of her mother's last desires is to see her only daughter get married, and there's increasing pressure on me from several directions to speed up the wedding to grant her wish. I realize that this has been a terrible time for my girlfriend, and it's definitely exacerbated the qualities in her that I can't stand, but I'm not ready to marry her to see if they'll get better in the next few years. I'm not sure what to do now -- I love her, and care very much for her mother, too, but not enough to enter a marriage that I feel pessimistic about. Any ideas you could share with me would be appreciated.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear Between a Rock and a Hard Place,

Just because her mother is dying doesn't mean she gets to have her own way all the time. You are the only one who can decide who and when to marry.

These people who are dying, the way they act! They wreak havoc in our lives but do they stick around to clean up? Oh, no, they're off God knows where, we have no idea, they shuffle off this mortal coil, leaving us with kids we had because of them, wives we married because of them, houses we bought and funerals we arranged all because they were dying and we thought, Oh, it's her last wish! Just how many last wishes do you think she's got under there, handing them out like a general hands out secret orders? Just how many people has she got scurrying around trying to do her final bidding, moving stocks into bonds and bonds into stocks, deleting ungrateful parasites from the 37th draft of the will, making sure that she gets one last chance to run the lives of all those around her before she completely fouls everything up so she can sleep peacefully with the worms!

I say, Resist the meddlesome dead and dying everywhere and all their troublesome ways! It's time we put an end to the tyranny of the dying. Resist, I say! Align yourself with the legions of the technically alive! We are more numerous than you know! Arise, ye living, and defy the dead! It's our world as long as we can walk upon it! I say you march right in there and tell that dying old bitch ...

OK, so perhaps I have some death issues, or some mother issues.

But please, for one instant, put yourself in your own shoes. Just pretend that you yourself are the one running your own life. What would you do in a case like this? As a matter of principle, would you marry to please someone else? Would you marry to please her mother if she were not dying? I doubt it.

So consider that part of the case closed: You will marry when the time is right for the two of you. The time is not yet right. Death never comes at the right time for weddings. Death is on its own timetable. The sooner you get this clear in your head, the sooner you can begin to think of ways to soften the blow, to avoid causing insult and turmoil to this poor dying woman in her final months of life.

Depending on her receptiveness to the philosophical side of life, you might consider having a frank and forthright talk with her. I think the way to approach it would be to say that you want the best for her daughter, you want to be sure a marriage would last, and so you are going to wait until you're absolutely sure that the two of you are a good match. Tell her that, if she's concerned about her daughter's future well-being, that such an approach is more likely to ensure her daughter's happiness and safety than an approach that is hasty and premature. Tell her that whether you and her daughter ultimately marry or not, you will make sure that she is safe and happy. Tell her that you will watch over her daughter, whatever happens.

If she doesn't swallow that line, perhaps you'll have to come up with something tangible to offer her. How about a small "engagement party"? After all, you are sort of engaged. You can always break it off after she's dead.

On the other hand, having put yourself in your own shoes and asked yourself what you would do if you were running your own life, you may find yourself swollen with an unaccustomed courage of your own convictions. You may decide that the naked truth is all that matters at a time like this. If so, what's wrong with telling her that her daughter and you are fighting like cats and dogs, that she's a bit overbearing and demanding and materialistic and the marriage has been postponed?

Well, what's wrong with that, aside from that it's going to piss off her mother, is that it opens the case to argument. The great thing about invoking principle is that it brooks no argument. It's the closest thing a secular society has to religious law. There's no earthly power that can sway it. You just invoke the sacred principle of individual choice, say you're not ready and that's that.

Whereas when you argue from circumstance, that leaves interested parties an opening. They start thinking they can fix things. They start countering your objections like telephone solicitors. What are you fighting about? It can't be that bad. All couples fight. It's a part of marriage. Leave it to me. I'll talk to her. I'm her mother. I was married to her father for 47 years. But perhaps you're just too stubborn, just like her father. You're young and haven't learned how to get along yet. That's no reason not to get married. She's a great girl. You're making a big mistake. You'll never find another girl as good as my daughter. Look at you. I always thought you were a little peculiar, a little trashy. You're actually telling me to my face on my deathbed that you're too good for my daughter? How you think you even deserve a girl like my daughter is beyond me. You walk in here and tell a dying woman to her face that you think her daughter is dirt? Get out of my sight, you shitty little piece of garbage! You'll never be a son-in-law to me as long as I live! I could have you shot! I know people who could throw you in the river and you'd never be found!

So, OK, the direct approach has its risks as well. But the bottom line is clear: When you get in an ethically slippery situation, you need to follow some principles. And the dominant principle of our particular time and place is that individual choice is sacred. In another time and place, the assertion of choice you're contemplating would be a kind of social blasphemy; to even consider that your wishes supersede those of the family would be outrageous. You'd marry the girl in accordance with the wishes of your families and that would be that. So consider yourself blessed and cursed with the luck of freedom. And do not underestimate the resolve of the dying to make your life a living hell.

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By Cary Tennis

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