The old man from room 125 had been one of the hospitals patients for almost a year now. When he was brought in, he seemed impolite and angry and somewhat ungrateful. They told us that he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer about eight months earlier. While most other people would have complained about their disease and all the struggles and pains connected to it, this particular old man didn’t. He complained about many other things – like some of the doctors or some of the other nurses – but he avoided mentioning the real reason why he was brought to our little hospital. At least he did so in front of me. Weirdly enough, I was the only person in the hospital, the only nurse who got along with the old man from room 125. Although we were friendly towards each other and occasionally enjoyed the company, we weren’t exactly friends. Or that’s at least what I thought until one beautiful day in October.
I already knew that Henry – the old man nobody else seemed to like – had been married for forty years, had three children and that his wife had died a few years ago. I knew his children lived all over the world. I hadn’t seen one of them in the year Henry spent at the hospital. He had been a business man for most of his life, although he never said what kind of business he had been involved in. He seemed to be like most other men his age, just a little bit grumpier and a little more suspicious towards others – I supposed it had something to do with his former job. And yet, when we talked on that day in October, I did not expect to hear such a story.
‘Do you have a few minutes for me, Kate?’ he asked as I was just about to leave his room again. Since nobody else got along with Henry, my daily work consisted mainly of taking care of him. I didn’t have many other patients and thus I always had a few minutes to spare for him. ‘I would like to tell you something. And I think now would be a very good time to do so. I can feel it in my body and in my heart that you need to hear this now.’
‘Of course I do, Henry,’ I said, taking a few steps back towards his bed and sitting down on one of the chairs. Although he had asked me politely, I knew it hadn’t actually been a real question. He knew he was one of my very few patients and thus he knew I wouldn’t object. And yet he chose to ask me rather than to tell me to stay and listen. I liked that about him. ‘What is it that your body and your heart think I need to know immediately?’
I smiled at him and waited patiently as he thought about the best way to start his story.
‘I would like to tell you something about life and about love,’ he finally said after a moment of deep thinking. ‘You are still young and I think this will help you see things in a different light and will help you understand a thing or two about love.’
Although he didn’t say such a thing, I knew he wanted me to stay quiet until he was done telling me his story. I knew he wanted me to wait until everything was said before I could ask my questions. It was obvious to me that he not only thought it was important for me to hear his story, but that it was also important for him to tell it. And so I kept quiet and listened as Henry, the old man from room 125, told me the story about his first and only true love.
He was twenty when he met her for the first time. The way he described it, it was a beautiful, golden autumn day with red and golden leaves glittering in the sunlight. He had just started working for the company he would spend his whole life with and he had never been in love until that autumn day. The woman had long, dark curls and pale skin. Her eyes – he could see them even from afar – were a light green and she was tall and skinny. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and she moved with more grace than he would have thought possible. Nothing compared to that woman and he knew it.
And yet, he didn’t approach her.
Although he truly wanted to and although his heart told him that it would be the right and only thing to do, he couldn’t walk in her direction. Not only was he nervous and somehow scared because of the mere idea of talking to her, but she was also not alone. The woman Henry fell in love with was accompanied by another man. The man was handsome and seemed to charm her and something about their behaviour told Henry that they were closer than he would have liked. The man and Henry’s one true love weren’t just friends or siblings, they were lovers. He was sure of it and thus couldn’t approach her despite his feelings.
His heart was broken and he didn’t think he could bear to look at her again. It didn’t feel right anymore. Nothing about looking and thinking about the woman of another man was appropriate. Henry was a gentleman and his mother had raised him to behave in such a way. He wasn’t supposed to care for or even fall in love with a woman who was taken. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t honourable and it wasn’t what a gentleman would do.
But still, he couldn’t look away. Not on that day or on any other day he met the woman again.
They lived in the same town so he saw her more often than he would have liked or maybe not often enough. His mind and his body and his heart were confused and he didn’t know what to do or what to feel. He couldn’t talk to her but he also couldn’t avoid her. He couldn’t be with her but he also couldn’t be without her. It was tiring and exhausting and depressing.
And yet, he never approached her.
It went on like that for a while until she finally got married to the handsome man and left the town with him. They moved to some other place and left Henry behind in a world in which he would never see his one true love again. Life for him got even more difficult than before. Everything got harder and more depressing. It took him years to get over the loss of his one true love. Years he spent working and searching for another woman he could love in such a way.
One day he met another woman who was almost as beautiful as the first had been. She had long blond hair and golden eyes. She was small and curvy and the only similarity between her and Henry’s one true love was their skin which was pale. Although she didn’t look a bit like the first love of his life, Henry soon found out that looks don’t actually matter that much. She was kind and caring and laughed a lot. Her character was as beautiful as a golden autumn day.
Shortly after they first met, the woman and Henry got married. Although she wasn’t his one true love, she was as close as it could get and Henry loved her dearly. They got married and had a family and lived a happy life until his wife got very sick and died. His children had already left their home and moved to other countries, even other continents. The children and their father reunited once more to say goodbye to their mother and his wife.
And then Henry was alone again and it was even more depressing than it had been after the other woman had moved away with her husband.
‘Oh, I am so sorry, Henry’, I said, not knowing what else to say. Although his story was a sad story, I could finally understand why he behaved the way he did. Henry, the old man from room 125, was sad and lonely and full of emotions even he couldn’t understand.
‘Don’t be, dear Kate. I’ve lived my life and I’ve been happy. I was married to a wonderful woman and I have three kind and happy children. I don’t think there is much which my life might have missed.’ Henry smiled at me slightly. He was still lost in his thoughts and I was sure his one true love, his first love was on his mind as well as his wife. ‘I never found out what happened to the woman from that beautiful autumn day. But I guess it is none of my business.’
I left room 125 shortly after six o’clock. It had taken more than just a few minutes for him to tell me his story. But I didn’t mind. Henry and I got along quite well and I was able to understand him better afterwards. And listening to his story had been a nice change from all the suffering human beings I saw each and every day.
When I entered his room the next morning to check on him, Henry didn’t wake up. That night he had fallen asleep with a smile on his face, surely knowing that he would never wake up again. The cancer had taken his life just a few hours after he had talked to me about love. Although his death made me sad and I could feel a few tears running down my cheeks, I knew he was in a better place. He must have been because I was sure any place would have been better than the one which was filled with pain and suffering due to stage 4 colon cancer. And I was sure he was with his wife again. Maybe he even saw the woman from the beautiful, golden autumn day as well. Either way, I knew Henry, the old man from room 125, was happy and relieved because he at least got to tell his story once.
Whenever I thought about him afterwards, I remembered his story and the lesson it taught me. Henry had been right, I was still young and his story helped me to see things in a different light and to understand a thing or two about love. I knew then that, although you could fall in love with somebody and could feel like nobody else would ever be enough, true love could exist more than once. Although he had never really said it, I knew he had loved his wife just as much as he had loved the idea of that other woman. She might have not been his first true love, but she was still his true love. The true love for one person could differ from the true love for another, yet that didn’t mean it was not as beautiful or as important or as real.