Is bigamy always illegal? As I recounted to Barbara in my office her proposed chemotherapy program and potential side effects, I noted that her attention was wandering. Didn’t she realize what I was saying was important? I stopped and shook my head. Barbara, realizing I caught her looking away, said, “I wasn’t zoning out. I was listening to what you were saying – I can multi-task.

“But I was wondering: How do you think Paul would feel if I told him I was a bigamist?” I was shocked. Paul was Barbara’s second husband – Barbara had been a widow for 10 years. Did she have some mystery third husband no one knew about? Barbara could see I was stunned by her revelation. I could understand why she thought this news was important enough to interrupt my explanation of her cancer treatment! Was it because the police were coming for her at any moment? Barbara continued: “I don’t mean I’ve married a third time in secret.” I was relieved. “But,” she said, “I mean I still love my first husband. Is that OK?”

Barbara told me she had grieved over the death of her first husband a decade ago. Since that time, her loss had become more tolerable and less central to the course of each day. But the pain of his death had not gone away completely. “Does it have to?”

Barbara pined. Though Barbara had a new life with her second husband with new experiences and challenges, she still remembered the life she had together with her first husband: finishing college, starting jobs, having children and building a home. Most importantly, Barbara remembered how her first husband treated her, worked together with her in all their life experiences, and encouraged her with her career after the kids were off to school. “These experiences have made me what I am now and have equipped me to be part of a new relationship. I love my first husband for all that. I don’t want to give him up.”

Barbara’s comments made me think of the rich Bible passage so often part of a marriage ceremony: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-serving. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8). I realized these were the characteristics Barbara and her first husband shared and were supporting her in her new relationship.

This Bible passage then turns to human endeavors that will not last: “But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13: 8-9). So is anything permanent? The passage continues with these stirring and encouraging words: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13: 13).

Barbara caught me with my attention wandering and remarked, “Doctor, you’re not saying much.” I told her what I was thinking about her relationship with her first husband and how it related to this famous Bible passage about love. “So the answer is?” she prodded me.

I answered, “Of course you can be a bigamist, and I’m glad you are.” Barbara was living out the concluding words of this passage from Scripture: “Follow the way of love” (1 Corinthians 14:1).

“Barbara,” I added, “you’re doing the right thing – the thing that lasts.”

When Barbara left the office that day, I had not covered all the issues about her treatments – that could wait until the next visit. But I was glad I had the opportunity to witness in my patient the true love she had in her relationship with her first husband and to realize how that love had not been diminished or extinguished by death.

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, playwright and director, columnist and consultant to the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.