In the summer of 2002, my father was riding his motorcycle on a local street, where my three siblings and I happened to go to grade school decades before. According to the societal timeline, it was the ides of his midlife crisis, but we knew him as reserved and responsible. He wasn’t a crisis cum motorcycle type of guy. This was one of the few times he did something for himself.
No one is sure exactly what happened, but he fell off and his head came in fast contact with a rock. His helmet broke in two and for four months, my father was in a coma. He died, leaving my mother and the four of us. I was fourteen.
When I arrived to the hospital the day he died, my uncles told me my father’s death would steal my childhood, that it would launch me a decade ahead mentally. What they didn’t tell me was how much my father’s death would stunt my ability to form a functional, romantic relationship.
My family lived in a big pink house in the suburbs outside of New York. It was expensive: the house, kids, private school. For years after my father’s death, I would lie awake, thinking about insurance claims and worrying about my mother, working late into the night broken, alone, and sad. For years, I was exhausted.
Over the years, my mother switched from one high profile accounting job to another. Hailing from Wharton and strapped with an impressive work ethic, she found comfort in the structure and logical outcome of a spreadsheet. She also had to provide for the family. To her, a partner wasn’t a distraction, it was a painful memory. She read books, took classes, spoke to peers. She understood the importance of time in healing. I didn’t.
On the heels of my father’s death, I entered my first serious relationship. I had just entered high school when the accident happened, and sophomore year was about to begin. I was told how important it was to grieve while maintaining a semblance of normalcy, but I chose a distraction over the opportunity to grieve, and distraction came in the form of an effervescent classmate named Rosie.
For the next three years, Rosie and I would sit in the corner of our high school lounge, staring at each other, keeping the world out. At night, we would hole up in her apartment in the east 80’s watching reruns, eating take out dinners with her family. Eventually she wanted to go out with the other kids. I said no and she stuck with me anyway. I thought I was making strides, interacting with a person on a deeply connected level, but it was all wrong. I was sinking into a long and distracted depression. I chose to busy myself with this girl and confront none of my glaring issues.
My mother dated on and off over those first few years, but she was still very much healing. On her commute to work she would listen to the same few songs, breaking into tears every time. I can’t imagine how many times she had to pull off of the highway because she couldn’t see the road. It was just me, her, and our housekeeper, Merla, in the house for those first few years after his death. My three older siblings were in college or Israel for their gap year. To say it was depressing would be severely underselling it. I was the only child to witness her pain in its full and ugly glamour, sitting across from her on Friday nights, watching her cry so hard it made me physically ill.
Gradually, her crying in the Volvo slowed and after taking time to properly heal, she put herself on the market, even signed up for JDate. My question was always, how rich are they? I didn’t see myself getting anything out of her equation so why not get some monetary comfort? Today I see how hard it must have been for my mother to field that query, having her youngest son show interest in her finding love again, then asking, only asking, how much the guy makes. I was a kid, I was hurt, and I was definitely avoiding her finding love in a man other than my father.
During our gap year in Israel, I realized how unhealthy of a relationship Rosie and I had. More importantly, for the first time, I realized that I was very much the perpetrator. I was jealous and controlling. She would act out by flirting with other boys. I never cheated on her, but for a long time, I abused her kindness and attention. During that time, I thought of myself as a teenager in the throes of a tumultuous, yet fun, relationship. But after five years of emotional exhaustion, we were both tired. We broke up my freshman year of college. Weeks later I wanted her back and told her she tore my heart out because I couldn’t bear losing someone I cared about. To this day I am sorry that I told her that our breakup was tougher than my father’s death. It wasn’t fair to saddle her with that youthful bombast. She had already moved on to the man to whom she is now married.
After Rosie, I met Stephanie, a beautiful girl who refused to date me but was always there to talk. Just walk and talk and enjoy each other’s company. She illuminated my flaws and I was grateful for it. For the first time in years I saw how depressed I actually was. Only now do I realize all of my energy was going toward Rosie and my mother’s recovery, leaving none for myself. I realized my mother was right in waiting to date. Eventually she met a man whom she dated for five years. On the eve of marriage discussions, she broke up with him, realizing that he was actually a prick. She had followed a relationship through to its logical conclusion in a far healthier way than I.
Since college-- four years of lust anchored in a sea of beer-- I have had one relationship I consider a punctuated foray into emotional availability. I was set up by my best friend with a smart, gorgeous girl. The first few times we hung out, we were both drunk or high. I was rusty and nervous. More probably, I didn’t want any part of it, didn’t want to get hurt, but I kept trying. Over the next three years, Izzy and I tried to date. We would last a few months but it would invariably end with me, emotionally unavailable. Like other women I had bumped into over the last eight years, she tried to show me that being vulnerable was ok. I would open up then close, tight as a trap. I knew my father wanted me to be happy, but I couldn’t afford getting hurt. And so the cycle continued.
My mother met Ben soon after the therapist. A product of the seventies tech revolution, Ben was funny and quirky. A math genius with an infectious smile, he and my mother dated for five years before they were married. She has found not only a match for herself but has managed to piece two intense and emotional family units together. As I said in my wedding speech, in the end, our families came out ok. It just took my father’s death, Ben’s divorce, both our families moving to Manhattan, years of therapy, three storage lockers full of memories, adoption of different religious customs, and time.
I’m 25 now and their marriage has given me a palpable example of emotions mended and love found. All these years, I have been worrying about my mother and her pain. It kills me how off track I was. I was terrified to confront my own issues, so I took up in hers, ultimately stunting my ability to heal.
The other week, I went on my first set up date in two years. It went well. I won’t see her again but not because of my predisposition to detachment. We just didn’t click. And I’m happy that I can see it for that. I am single and very happy, ready to enjoy the fruits of my struggles and look forward to exploring the future, be it happily by myself or with someone.
I even look back on the accident with understanding. He bought the wrong bike. A Yamaha F1 street racer. He was 48, bald, muscular, and played guitar. He was designed for a Harley.
Here’s to choosing the right one this time.
Jacob loves few things more than a great conversation over a beautiful beer. Herring is one of those things. He lives in Alphabet City.
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