Irresponsible Words of Love

Getting a bit reckless in our love languages


in First Person • Illustrated by Kat Heller


I have made reckless pronouncements of love. These declarations are usually inappropriate, always unexpected, and often result in consequences I neither anticipate nor desire. 

I first realized this after I graduated from law school and started seeing a gastroenterologist at the University of Chicago hospital. As a law student, I’d seen the specialist in Student Health, a gently alcoholic woman who was quite capable before 5:00 p.m. but less reliable after hours.  In contrast, Dr. Glassman was an expert in the field.  He was a short, bouncy Wallace Shawn of a man with hair like a tonsured monk and a heh-heh-heh giggle.  

Dr. Glassman was treating me for ulcerative colitis, an intestinal disease that caused chronic abdominal pain that was sometimes so acute it doubled me over. I was on high doses of steroids, which ballooned my face into a human moon and made me so irritable I yelled at young lawyers who used the wrong font on legal briefs.  Ulcerative colitis controlled my life. I had to cancel plans with friends at the last minute.  I had to leave movies and dinners before they were over. I had to sit in the aisle seat when I flew to avoid repeatedly stumbling over people on my way to the bathroom. Dr. Glassman patiently absorbed all my complaints and problems, even when I called him in a panic at 10:00 p.m. one night about pain that turned out to be indigestion.   

Dr. Glassman was always upbeat, but he was also straightforward. When I asked him whether UC would complicate a pregnancy (an academic question since I had no social life), he said, “You won’t have any problems in the first three trimesters, but that fourth trimester is going to be a doozy.” A few years after he began treating me, he told me I was at high risk for developing colon cancer. He suggested I have a recently developed type of surgery that would allow my digestive system to function as if I’d never had ulcerative colitis. I decided to have the surgery before he finished describing it.  

He recommended a surgeon in New York City, saying, “They’d love to get the chance to try another one of these operations here, but you need someone who’s done a lot of them.” I had the operation several months later. After I returned to Chicago, I saw Dr. Glassman only a few times. I no longer needed a gastroenterologist because I no longer had much of a gastrointestinal tract. At the last appointment, I thanked him for helping me survive five years of misery and, as I’d done at nearly every appointment, I said “goodbye” by impulsively throwing out my arms, hugging him, and telling him I loved him. 

Several months later, Dr. Glassman called and asked me to dinner. I stood nailed to my apartment floor, my mouth hanging open. Dear God — what was he thinking? Could he honestly believe this was what I meant when I’d said I loved him?   

I agreed to dinner because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. It was not a pleasurable experience. Dr. Glassman’s Long Island accent reverberated throughout the dimly lit bistro. He spent half the evening talking about his recent divorce and the other half complimenting the waiter on the restaurant’s mashed potatoes. “These are great! You use real potatoes!” Every time the waiter passed by, “Not everyone uses real potatoes these days. Most places use flakes! These are amazing mashed potatoes!” I focused on the bad art on the bistro’s walls and the chalkboard menu’s misspellings of French words. I wanted to slink from my seat, onto the floor, and slither out of the restaurant. That was the last time I saw Dr. Glassman and the last time I went to that restaurant. 

That I learned nothing from my experience with Dr. Glassman became obvious after I got married and moved to Boston. My husband and I have had the same housecleaner for 15 years. Carlos is a chubby, genial, middle-aged South American man, and I’ve known him long enough to consider him a friend. He gives me help that goes beyond the remit of the usual housecleaner by fixing broken appliances, securing dangling cupboard doors, and disposing of desiccated mouse corpses. There were times when he helped me and I exuberantly exclaimed, “I love you!” and gave him a hug. What I meant was, “Thank you for doing things I am physically and mentally unable to do.” However, my feathery declarations of love gained mass through sheer repetition. Carlos started giving me neck rubs when I sat at the kitchen table. This faced me with a dilemma. I am a weak woman when it comes to neck rubs. I carry tension in my neck, and the massages felt wonderful. However, the neck rubs crossed the awkward, unacknowledged barrier between employer and employee. The next time he started rubbing my neck, I told him my husband would be upset if he learned that he wasn’t the only one giving me neck massages, which was an understatement. The neck rubs stopped.  

Even after my experiences with Dr. Glassman and Carlos, I continued to casually express affection as if I were a flower girl strewing rose petals before a bride. My carelessness had the most embarrassing consequences when I was on senior counsel at the Boston office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, investigating and prosecuting fraud.  In one many-tentacled case, I spent several days in Richmond taking sworn testimony from men who’d stolen millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme. One of their attorneys, Joe, was big ol’ southern boy with a deep drawl and a wicked sense of humor. When Joe learned I’d been eating lunch at McDonald’s he took me to a local barbeque dive. I was half-surprised there weren’t any Confederate flags on splintery wooden walls. After my first bite of one of the sauce-slathered ribs, I said, “Joe, these are so amazing that I am swooning. I love you.”  After that, we made small talk, discussed our families, and the raging Clinton sex scandal.  

After I’d wiped most of the barbeque sauce from my face, I asked for separate checks. Joe protested, saying Southern hospitality required him to pay. I refused. The SEC prohibits employees from accepting as much as a cup of coffee from other parties and I had gone to many a meeting lugging a heavy box with a teetering cup of coffee on top. In a total non sequitur, Joe asked me if I liked pottery. “Yes,” I said, and I thought “What the hell?” The question came out of nowhere. Joe said the next time I came to Richmond he would take me to a place half an hour outside the city that made great pottery. This unexpected invitation set off alarm bells in my head. Why would opposing counsel think I would be interested in seeing handmade Richmond pottery? Why would anyone think I would be interested in seeing handmade Richmond pottery? I thought back over our conversation, and our discussion of the Clinton sex scandal stood out. I realized that like a lot of men, Joe had interpreted our discussion of sex as an invitation. My heart sank.  

The day I returned to Boston, the receptionist carried two dozen long-stemmed roses into my office. The flowers were from Joe and the attached note read, “Looking forward to seeing you soon.” The reaction was as if a bomb had exploded. The Director, Associate Director, and Ethics Officer materialized in front of me. “Why the hell did he send you flowers?” the Director demanded. I said I had no idea; Joe and I had joked around and gone out to a Dutch-treat lunch, but that was the extent of our interactions. I did not mention the pottery invitation or the discussion of Bill Clinton’s genitals.  

“You went to lunch with him?” Spittle shot out of the Associate Director’s mouth. “You NEVER go to lunch with opposing counsel!” I was forbidden from having further contact with Joe, and the Richmond part of the case was assigned to another attorney. The roses were dumped into a trash can on the street. The next day everyone was treated to a lecture on appropriate behavior between SEC employees and opposing counsel.  

Unlike the uncomfortable incidents above, there was one time when I impulsively told someone I loved him but never regretted it. I made this avowal to Dr. Weiss, the New York surgeon Dr. Glassman had recommended to perform my colon surgery.  When I met him in his New York office, one of the first questions he asked was, “How many times have you used the bathroom today?”  

“Eight.” It was eleven o’clock in the morning. 

“My guess is you’re ready for a change,” he said. 

Dr. Weiss was one of those rare people you trust as soon as you meet them. He radiated warmth and confidence and treated me as an equal as he explained the complex two-part surgery. The first part was major surgery to remove my diseased colon and create a new one out of my lower intestines. After a week in the hospital, I would go home to let the newly-fashioned colon heal. Six weeks later, I would return to New York and have the second part of the surgery, which would connect my new colon to my remaining intestines.  

This surgery was innovative; I would not have to wear a colostomy bag, an inestimable benefit for a single woman in her twenties. Neither would I have to beg colleagues to cover court hearings for me because I needed to spend all afternoon locked in the bathroom. I would never again have to cut short a first date, claiming the sudden onset of a stomach bug, and I would no longer have crippling abdominal pain that left me moaning on the couch in a fetal position. My body’s whims would no longer control my life.   

I waited two months for an opening in Dr. Weiss’s surgery schedule and was obliviously upbeat when I checked into Mt. Sinai Hospital in late January. It did not occur to me that there could be complications that would keep me in the hospital for weeks. I walked down the hospital corridor the night before the operation and looked into other patients’ rooms. I rolled my eyes at the eighty-year-old woman cuddling a teddy bear. I felt embarrassed — for her she had become so infantilized that she found comfort from a stuffed animal.   

The surgery went well, but recovery was a hell I was not prepared for. Busy nurses rushed by me in the recovery room as I mouthed, “Help, help,” into dead air. Back in my room, pain shattered my gut when I moved, coughed, or breathed deeply. An intravenous drip dispensed morphine into my arm, but the hard truth is that morphine does not remove pain. It just makes you care less about it.   

Four days after surgery, I developed complications. Adhesive scar tissue twisted my intestines, blocking anything from passing through and causing me to throw up uncontrollably. The complication eliminated any possibility of recuperating at home between surgeries. I was stuck in the hospital indefinitely while my new colon healed. I couldn’t eat or drink, and a foot-long nasogastric tube pumped bile out of my stomach. I was attached to multiple intravenous lines that pulled at my skin. And the blockage caused exquisitely brutal spasms that almost broke me. The nurses told me to breathe through the pain, but you can’t breathe through pain if you can’t inhale. 

I became deeply depressed. I did not want to talk to anyone, and I didn’t want any visitors. I spent most of the day staring at the ceiling. When I walked down the hall, I supported myself with my wobbly IV pole.  If I made it to the end of the corridor, I looked out the window at grey February days and wondered if the IV pole would hinder any attempt to jump out the window. 

Dr. Weiss’s visits were the only thing that relieved my depression and growing anxiety. Each day, he examined the raw stem-to-stern incision railroading down my stomach. He spent a few minutes chatting with me, explaining why I couldn’t go home even if I promised to eat nothing but milkshakes for the rest of my life. I confided that I was worried I would be like the 35-year-old mother of three in the bed next to mine. We had become friends and she told me about her many previous surgeries and long hospital stays. Dr. Weiss leaned toward me and said, “She has more serious problems than you do, Kate.  Do not compare yourself to her. You are going to be fine.  It will just take time.” When my friend left the hospital, she gave me a teddy bear of my own, which I held on to as tightly as the 80-year-old woman down the hall had held hers.   

After a month, my colon had healed sufficiently to have the second operation to stitch everything back together. I was prepped and sedated, and as I was wheeled into the operating room, Dr. Weiss held the door open and said, “Hey, babe. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”   

“I love you,” I replied, dreamily, and passed out.  

Several years after my surgery I received a letter from Mt. Sinai informing me that Dr. Weiss had died of a heart attack. I dropped onto a chair, stunned. I couldn’t absorb the fact that the person who had changed my life so drastically had died. I had never had a chance to tell him that when I murmured that I loved him on my way to the operating room, I was thanking him for caring about me, for curing me of a disabling disorder, and for allowing me to regain control of my life. I was so accustomed to making weightless declarations of love that even I didn’t realize how deeply I meant it when I told Dr. Weiss I loved him. •


Kate Poverman practiced law in Boston and Chicago and is now Town Moderator in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and dog, Sweetie Pie. She recently began creative writing and this is her first published piece.