Addressing illness openly and naturally is extremely important in a relationship.
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What you’re about to read is an unusual love story that is still unfolding. In fact, talking about it feels a little weird because of how recent everything is.
My name is Andrés, and I live in Venezuela, a chaotic tropical country located in South America. I am a 29-year-old gay man who’s out to 80 percent of his family, but still in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of situation with some of them.
I met my current boyfriend a little less than two months ago. We started talking on Tinder and bonded over our similar music taste and the fact that we both work in the same field: writing. We decided to hang out after a couple of weeks. Luis (that’s his name, by the way) invited me to his house to watch something on Netflix. His charming personality and appearance were attractive, but I didn’t think of his invitation as a date because we never openly flirted before.
Josh and Ben – Please Like Me
We settled on a random episode of an Australian TV show, Please Like Me, where Josh (the main character) hooks up with a guy – Ben – who he met on Grindr. Art imitating life?
In the episode, Josh talked about regretting having the man over before he even showed up. So Luis joked about him lamenting to invite me, a kind of witty comment he continually makes, as I (eventually) learned.
A couple of minutes later in the episode, Josh and Ben were in that strangely vulnerable time after sex when some people (myself included) feel like they have shared a big part of themselves with another person. These moments either make you dare to say things you usually wouldn’t, or you remain in silence, planning an exit. For the couple, it did the former and Ben confesses to Josh that he had a brain aneurysm.
To get back at Luis for his joke, I asked if that was the part where he’d tell me that he could die in any second. To my surprise, he pressed pause on the episode, and a clock-like sound grabbed my attention. He told me he was born with a heart condition, and I was listening to his heartbeat at that exact moment.
Aortic stenosis – a roll of the genetic dice
He was born with a genetic malformation of the aortic valve, known as aortic stenosis. This prevents the heart from pumping enough blood out to the rest of the body. He continued to explain how he had two surgeries. The first one when he was three years old to solve the stenosis by widening the aorta temporarily. The second one when he was my age (he’s 31 now). This last aortic stenosis surgery resulted in a prosthetic aortic valve made out of titanium and plastic and a ticking noise for every heartbeat.
I was quick to apologize for, what I felt, was an insensitive joke. As far as I knew, someone else’s health wasn’t something to speak of lightly, but Luis took it with the same wicked sense of humor he uses in his everyday life. I was still uncomfortable though, probably because of all the years that my mom warned me about my big mouth getting me into trouble. I couldn’t help but read too much into the whole thing: What if he was secretly mad at me? Would he hate me from there on?
However, my initial shame was immediately replaced with admiration. How brave was Luis was to open his heart (pun intended) to a total stranger in that way? I’m sure that sort of information could have been too much for some people to digest on a first date, but it had the opposite effect on me. I was only more attracted to him after he told me, something I didn’t think was possible.
Stop talking – this is not about Josh and Ben
When he stopped talking, I dared to kiss him, without knowing what his reaction was going to be. Thankfully, his response was positive, leading to a make-out session that lasted for hours, feeling like sparks were flying around. Since then, we kept seeing each other regularly until he asked me to be his boyfriend. We’ve traveled (going to Mexico soon!), met each other’s friends, gone out and there haven’t been awkward moments of silence between us.
The fact that he was so honest from the very beginning inspired me to do the same in return; committing to a truthful relationship were we aim to be as open with each other as we can. I have seen his scars, and he knows some of my emotional wounds. He motivates me to do things that I’m passionate about. I support his crazy ideas and remind him to take his pills.
Some of the “collateral damages” of his heart condition are not being able to go through metal detectors, having to take pills on a daily basis and avoiding amusement parks. Nonetheless, he has an optimistic attitude that is contagious, living with a carpe diem approach.
A commitment to honesty
Even though I can’t compare his aortic stenosis to other diseases, I do believe that addressing illness openly and naturally is extremely important in a relationship. After meeting Luis when I now talk about my health concerns, or with my loved ones, there’s a bigger space for communication between us that takes the negative connotations of “difficult” topics away.
Now I try to encourage my friends and family to speak up about their issues; regardless of how big or small, they may seem. As a result, conversations that used to be awkward are slowly happening more often, leaving any judgment behind. Instead of creating a gap in our relationships, let’s embrace vulnerability. By letting our guard down, we are that much closer to each other.
PS. Now I can’t sleep without the ticking of his heart (and the cuddles!).