Ann Patchett Tells Everything She Knows About Love

After learning that her boyfriend of 11 years has a potentially fatal heart condition, the author wonders—is it possible that anxiety ends at the moment when we no longer have time for it?

By Ann Patchett from original
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine November 2013

Heidi Ross

Whatever had been wrong with Karl’s health before, the Coreg made worse. He had trouble catching his breath, he had a hard time going up the stairs, he wasn’t to lift anything. Literally, he was gray.

Karl’s illness gave us an enormous get-out-of-jail-free card where a wedding was concerned. We told our families that we were going to get married but that there would be no party. No invitations, no dress, no lists or rentals or presents, which blessedly meant no thank-you notes. My stepsister Marcie listed my house, and four hours later it had sold. I moved what I owned using four boxes. I filled them up, drove to Karl’s, unpacked them, drove home again, filled them up, drove back, unpacked them. I looked around Karl’s house now as a resident instead of a regular weekend guest. For the first time, I noticed how much empty space there was, empty closets, entire empty rooms. “It’s like you never actually moved in,” I said, though he had been there for nearly ten years.

“I didn’t want to do too much before you got here,” he said.

We asked a friend of ours, a Catholic priest who ran a homeless shelter, if he would marry us. He said he didn’t marry people.

“Perfect,” I said. “Just swing by the house and sign the papers, or I can bring them to you.”

We got the marriage license, which in the state of Tennessee is good for a month, and then one day our friend called and said he was going to a Kentucky Derby party in our neighborhood. He could come by. He sat in the living room with us for a few minutes and said some nice things about love, drank a glass of cranberry juice, signed his name, and went off to his party.

Is it possible that anxiety ends at the moment when we no longer have time for it? I had waited to marry Karl until I thought he was going to die. At night, we’d lie in bed in the dark holding hands.

“I’m such an idiot,” I said. “We should have done this a long time ago.”

“It’s exactly the right time,” Karl said.

Two things about marriage surprised me. The first was that I discovered Karl had been holding out on me. He actually loved me more than he had led me to believe. This is not to say he hadn’t loved me for the past 11 years, he had, but there was a portion of himself he kept to himself, thinking that if I wouldn’t marry him then chances were, at some point, I would go. It was like finding another wing in a house you had happily lived in for years. It was simply a bigger love than I had imagined. The second thing that marriage changed was that it opened up an enormous amount of free time. We no longer had to have the conversation about why we weren’t married, neither with each other nor with the world of people who constantly inquired. I’d had no idea how much time we’d spent on this topic until it was abruptly removed from the lineup.

Other than that? We were pretty much the same.

He had stopped taking the Coreg.

“You’re supposed to take it for the rest of your life,” I said, feeling a wave of panic building far, far from the shore, a wave that by the time it was fully realized would be big enough to crush the city we lived in.

Karl shrugged. “I really didn’t like it.”

“You probably wouldn’t like dialysis either, but that doesn’t mean you can stop.”

“Well,” he said, “I stopped the Coreg.” Frantic, I went to talk with one of the cardiologists in Karl’s practice, who backed up Karl like a brother-in-arms. “I never thought Mayo was right,” he said.

Mayo wasn’t right? Was that even one of the options? Karl was supposed to go back to Rochester for a follow-up appointment, but he never seemed to get around to it. Finally, after a great deal of begging and foot-stamping on my part, he agreed to have another treadmill test and echocardiogram in Nashville. The results were normal. Ejection fraction normal. Heart normal. “Everything’s fine,” he told me. Dinner is on the table. The phone call is for you. Everything is normal.

I blinked. “We have three absolute truths,” I said, holding up three fingers for visual reference. “Absolute truth number one: Half of the muscle tissue in your heart is dead. Absolute truth number two: Heart muscle tissue does not regenerate. Absolute truth number three: There is no dead muscle tissue in your heart.”

“Correct,” my husband said.

“But it can’t be correct.” I wasn’t the doctor, but this did not strike me as complicated. “One of those three things can’t be true, and I want to know which one it is because if it’s the third one, that’s a problem.”

“It’s not a problem,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”

We continued to have some version of this conversation for a long time, and it never came out differently. As far as Karl was concerned, the news was good, and he didn’t care why.

Karl’s complexion pinked up. He had no problem going up and down the stairs. He started carrying his own luggage again. “Why do you think you finally changed your mind and decided we should get married?” he asked me one day.

I looked at him. “I thought you were going to die,” I said.

“You married me because you thought I was going to die? It wasn’t because you loved me?”

“Of course I loved you. I’ve always loved you. But you asked me why I married you.”

In fact, even as Karl’s health continued to mysteriously improve, I still found myself lying awake at night, worrying that he was going to die. Stay like this, I would think to myself as I watched him sleep. Stay here, in this exact moment. I tortured myself over what awful thing might happen in the future instead of being wholly present and thankful for this moment. I realized that by not marrying Karl, by never allowing myself to be in the position to divorce him or to be divorced by him, I thought I had tricked fate. But in the wake of this commitment, I was flooded with thoughts of what I wouldn’t be able to control.

I wish I could say that we came to a point where the matter of Karl’s heart condition was properly resolved, but really, it never was. I once told the story to a doctor who explained that if the parvovirus was still active when the tests had been done, the heart could have been stunned, rendering the muscle tissue temporarily paralyzed rather than dead. Another doctor, a cardiologist I sat next to at a post–bar mitzvah luncheon, told me that it sounded to him like Karl wanted to get married and had run out of ways to ask me.

“He didn’t fake it,” I said. “I went to Minnesota. I saw the films.”

“I didn’t say he faked it,” the doctor told me. “But the heart wants what it wants.”

  • Your Comments

    • vcbelle

      :) Amazing. Somehow in all that journey of finding true love, you just have to do your part and let love and unexpected things flow on its own..

    • Annie Valentine

      A wonderful message of Love !