03/28/2008 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dr. Mona Knows: Unrequited Love

Q: Let me tell you a true life O'Henry story. I had a secretary who worked with me for fifty years as I climbed the corporate ladder in a variety of manufacturing plants. I depended on her for business, personal, health, and emotional support. I lent or rather gave her money when she needed it to buy an apartment in a safe neighborhood. She knew everything about my life and my family, but I knew nothing about hers. For instance, when I asked her if she wanted to invite her sibling to a family celebration, she rejected emphatically the notion.

Soon after my husband died, my secretary began to fail physically. After a while, I took her in as a roommate. When she needed a nurse's aid, I supplied it and I paid for it. If she needed to go to the doctor, I paid for the appointment and transportation. I took her with me on vacations and bought her clothes for the trip. And when she ended up in the hospital, I paid for all the doctors, room, medicines, etc. I always felt that she had been there for me and it was time for me to be there for her.

As she was dying, she asked me to go to her apartment and bring her a plastic shopping bag. But before I could do so, she died - the very night she had made her request. As soon as I could, I went to the apartment. She hadn't lived there for all the years she had lived with me. The place was mostly bare. It could have been anyone's apartment. It contained nothing personal - just a bed and a chest of drawers. I went through it, packing bags to take back with me and others to throw away. As I was leaving, I remembered the shopping bag request. It had been a dying woman's wish. I had to find the bag.

I looked all over and finally resorted to dump out everything I had put in the bags. Inside one was a pile of cheap costume jewelry. That I knew. But when I looked under the junk, I found some papers: U.S. Savings Bonds that had matured in the 60s. With compounded interest, they totaled over $500,000. There was also a safe deposit key. Inside the safe deposit box were two diamond rings worth over $10,000 and a savings account with another $500,000. In addition, and quite shocking to me, there was a letter written to me about 30 years ago professing love - a love she said despite the fact that she found me "distant." She said she would stand by me forever.

So, Dr. Mona, my question is, Why would a woman with so much money have let me pay for everything? Why didn't she tell anyone about all her assets?

A: You know the answer! Money was not what was important to your benefactress. She probably didn't even give it a thought. Something else was her primary focus. YOU! Having a relationship with you is what she treasured, hoped for, and ultimately realized. That relationship never would have materialized if you thought she had the money to live on her own.

When you began to take care of her, she could feel and enjoy the kind of dependency that she didn't have anywhere else in her life. She was being rewarded for her years of devotion to you. And even if she couldn't get a declaration of love from you, she was able to role-play-- as if you both had a committed relationship, the one she fantasized. I don't think she was conscious of it all nor do I think she was trying to take advantage of you. She didn't want to think about it; she just wanted to enjoy the relationship. You were living together, you were taking care of her, your lives were combined and she could embrace it as the most important relationship for you both.

You, on the other hand, are trying to avoid the reality of how she felt about you. Your warmth and kindness toward her is something you did instinctually and without thought. Now that you know what her feelings were, your discomfort makes you question the financial aspect of the relationship. Would you have helped her if you knew she had money? Probably yes. Embrace that. And, guess what, being a good person sometimes pays off.


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