Help! My Wife Died in an Accident Years Ago. Can I Marry Her Sister?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 15 2013 6:15 AM

Keeping It in the Family

How do I explain to people I’m marrying my late wife’s sister?

(Continued from Page 1)

Dear Prudence,
When I started junior high a classmate never missed an opportunity to taunt and make fun of me. In class she would laugh hysterically and make disparaging remarks while the teacher sat silently. I never knew why she targeted me except possibly that I was quiet and nonconfrontational. In the halls she would shove me into the wall or a locker and I was black and blue because of her abuse. No adult ever helped me, my parents didn't believe me, and it continued until we graduated from high school. We went to different colleges and I haven't seen her since. Now it’s more than 30 years later, I'm having surgery next month, and she is a nurse at the small hospital where I'll be. I know from friends who work there that she works on the floor where I'll be a patient following my surgery. I can contact the nursing supervisor at the hospital and request that she not be assigned to me, but I suspect it would lead to a lot of questions, and in spite of everything I have no desire to cause her problems. There's a pretty good chance she's changed since then, seeing as how she chose a profession that is associated with caring and compassion. But when I think of the hell she put me through, I don't want her to touch me or participate in my care. What should I do?

—Panicked Patient

Dear Panicked,
I have gotten letters over the years from people who are anguished by their bullying of an innocent classmate. Often they have said they were abused at home and were acting out their own troubles on someone vulnerable. I’m betting there’s a good chance this is the case with your classmate, and not that she’s a Nurse Ratched who went into her line of work so she could turn rectal thermometers into instruments of torture. Thanks to your friends’ inside information, you know the place of employment of a classmate you hated and haven’t spoken to in more than three decades. But even if you live in the same area, it's obviously big enough that you've never run into each other, and if you've married and changed your name it's possible your identity won't even register with her. If you were to call the nursing supervisor and say you don’t want a particular nurse to touch you because she bullied you in high school decades ago, it would likely only tag you as a head case. You were treated terribly by this classmate, but just as appalling is how the adults in your life enabled this abuse. I hope you’ve worked through this experience of abandonment. Instead of worrying about nursing shifts, bring a good book, line up some friends to visit, and focus on your recovery at home. If you get your old nemesis as a nurse, you don’t even have to acknowledge you recognize her. But if she says she knows you, keep the conversation brisk and focused on your needs.

—Prudie

Update, 3:19 p.m.: Mea culpa. I agree with my many critics in the comments section that no matter how much time has passed, the patient shouldn't have to worry about her former bully. She should contact the nursing supervisor prior to her surgery and say that for personal reasons she doesn't want Nurse X caring for her during her stay. She doesn't have to elaborate beyond that. Thanks to those who've pointed out my error.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a 24-year-old woman living in New York City. Recently, a longtime family friend of my parents came through town for business, and we made plans to go to dinner to catch up. Afterward, he wanted to see the new apartment that my parents helped me buy. After talking for a while "Dan" began steering the conversation in a strange direction, bringing up things like his disbelief in monogamy (even though he has been married for 45 years). Before I knew it, he was coming onto me. I refused his advances and we awkwardly parted ways. In a few weeks, my parents are coming to town to cheer Dan on in the New York City marathon, and they plan to throw him a celebration at my apartment. I cannot decide if I should tell my parents that Dan, a grandfather in his 60s they’ve respected for more than 30 years, tried to cheat on his wife with me. I fear that telling my parents will cause more trouble than it's worth. It will be very uncomfortable to be around Dan, but certainly not traumatic. Should I let him off the hook or turn him in?

—Confused

Dear Confused,
Grandpa Dan sounds plenty confused himself. All these years he’s been assuming that ever since you were a little girl, you’ve been dreaming of the day you would be grown up enough that you two could be together, sharing your mutual disregard for monogamy. Dan is probably just your run-of-the-mill creep who makes passes at uninterested young women (even those he’s known since they were born). But since he’d have to be crazy to think you would respond, I’ll put out the possibility that he may be exhibiting signs of some neurological problem. That latter assumption gives you the perfect opening to raise this with your parents. You can say you had such a disturbing experience with Dan that you’re worried there may be something wrong with him. Then tell your parents what happened. You can say that because of this encounter, you hope they understand it’s impossible for you to host a party for him at your place. Yes, this will be awkward for everyone. I hope your parents let the old goat wheeze to the finish line, uncelebrated by your family. But be prepared that maybe they’d prefer to paper things over and have the party in a private room at a restaurant. However, if they insist on going through with it at your place, you’ll truly understand what it means to have someone help you buy an apartment. If that happens, tell them you’ll be out enjoying the city.

—Prudie

More Dear Prudence Columns

Identification, Please: I’ve been offered a scholarship for Hispanic students—but it turns out I may not even be Hispanic. Does it matter?” Posted April 19, 2012.
Daddy Dearest: My husband is wonderful, but he rages at our kids. How can I quell his anger?” Posted April 12, 2012.
Loss and Forbidden Love: My stepdaughter hit on me after my wife’s death. What should I do?” Posted April 5, 2012.
Not So Proud Papa: Our son is an unmotivated lunkhead. How can we light a fire under him?” Posted March 29, 2012.

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

Double Helping of Hate: In a live chat, Prudie advises a mother hit by an anti-adoption remark—that's also implicitly racist.” Posted April 30, 2012.
For No Eyes Only: In a live chat, Prudie advises the sister of an underage girl making sex tapes with her boyfriend.” Posted April 23, 2012.
My Daughter To Be My Daughter-in-Law?: In a live chat, Dear Prudence offers advice on a surprising dating arrangement, birthmark removal, and mistresses at funerals.” Posted April 16, 2012.
Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone: In a live chat, Dear Prudence advises a man who cheated and is so afraid his wife will leave that he stalks her every move.” Posted April 9, 2012.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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