Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I’ll never forget the date: It was November 12, a Sunday, and I was with my friend Morgan, watching the Buffalo Bills from our favorite bar in Chicago. The game was absolutely terrible. The Bills scored a single field goal in the first quarter, and the Saints were rolling us with touchdown after touchdown.
Eventually, with the game quickly losing its entertainment value, Morgan and I turned our attention to each other. I filled her in on the great first date I had been on earlier that week, after introducing myself to a cute guy in a striped shirt during a night out. By 2:30 a.m., I was dancing my way out of a dive bar with his phone number. We met for drinks a few days later.
Striped shirt’s name happens to be Nick, and I happened to be crushing very hard. During our date, he struck a good balance of taking things seriously, not taking himself too seriously, and taking genuine interest in me. I’d recently gotten out of a serious long-term relationship, culminating in a tough breakup, and this butterfly-crushing feeling was as lovely as it was novel.
I recall that Nick was texting me that Sunday during the football game, possibly about our upcoming second date — we were set to see each other again soon at a concert. I was probably smiling when a text came in, and Morgan was probably making fun of me for it. And then, at some point in the second or third quarter, my mom called.
I presumed that she wanted to catch up, like we do most Sundays.
“Out right now. I’ll try you later?” I texted.
“No,” she wrote. “Emergency.”
I was wrong.
I ran outside and called her back. I heard an ambulance in the background as she told me to get on the next flight home. My dad had had a heart attack.
I tried to calm myself down. People have heart attacks all of the time and survive. I tried listing some of those people in my head as I moved from the bar, to an Uber, to my apartment, to my roommate’s car.
My dad would die before I made it to O’Hare. “Died unexpectedly at his home,” the obituary would read. He had been raking the leaves. He had been a healthy, happy 54-year-old. He was my superhero, and he was gone.
I remember noticing the leaf piles in my front yard when I first arrived home, and how still everything felt. I remember lying on the soft, familiar carpet in my family room, wanting to somehow feel grounded. I remember piling into my parents’ bed with my mom and my four siblings to sleep that first night, desperate for some semblance of strength in our togetherness.
As the news spread over the next few days, I received hundreds of texts, calls, and messages from people in all corners of my life.
Friends and family started traveling from across the country and the world to be with us. But there was one person that I had to share the news with myself because he didn’t know anyone else in my life yet, and we had only spent three hours together. I had to tell Nick.
It felt strange, wanting to tell him — this person who was practically a stranger — when I was surrounded by everyone I loved. Stranger still was that I found myself worrying about what to say: How would I explain why I had to cancel our second date? Then again, how could a second date possibly feel like it mattered?
I have learned that in grief, everything starts to feel like a rhetorical question.
It’s true what they say, that losing someone you love causes you to reconsider what really matters. In making sense of the legacy that my dad has left behind, I am constantly reminded of the importance of being gracious, being good, and sharing love with family and friends. It feels like the best way to honor him.
Devoting brain space to a new crush, on the other hand, felt frivolous. So many of the preoccupations that come along with liking someone new — setting up good dates, crafting the perfect flirtatious Snapchat, worrying over when you’ll hear back from someone — seem innocuous in normal life, and ridiculous in the wake of a parent’s death. The disappointment I felt after canceling my second date with Nick left me with a strange, guilty sort of discomfort, one that’s continued to confuse me as the months have unfolded.
Grief makes everything harder. Focusing at work is really hard. Getting through a playlist without crying is really hard. Receiving a wedding invitation in the mail, and realizing your dad won’t be at your own — really hard. It might make sense, with these things considered, for me to only make space in my life for the really easy relationships, only the people who lift me up. But when it comes to dating, at least, I’ve gone the other way.
Nick and I have continued, somewhat cautiously, to get to know each other, but “defining the relationship” has been far from straightforward. Over the past few months, I’ve subjected myself to a fair amount of frustration from him; there are moments when I feel like shit about whatever is going on between us, and when I wonder why I am wasting my energy. I’ve experimented with going on other dates (exhausting and weird), trying to talk to my ex over coffee (painful, do not recommend), and attempting to downplay my budding feelings for Nick and move on (also unsuccessful).
I thought I knew myself well before I lost my dad, but now, most days, I feel unfamiliar to myself — like part of me is holding my breath and the rest of me is waiting to come up for air. I am raw, I am sad, I am worried about my family, and I am rattled. It’s hard to believe that I’m the same person that Nick started getting to know on our first date in November, just days before the tragedy. But I guess he must see me in there somewhere, and I wonder if that is one of the reasons my crush persists — if it’s like hanging on to the person I was when I met him.
And it gives me a little hope to know that I can still enjoy the sometimes awkward, sometimes frustrating, always exciting moments of getting to know someone. These moments are like embers, reminders that finding a new normal is possible, and that all of the pieces might not be shattered after all.