As her father struggled with cancer, a flirtation provided distraction — and then something more.
I chose my college based on the vibes of the people in the school’s accepted students Facebook group. This one blonde boy commented on my introduction post saying he also liked a favorite artist of mine, and my friend told me that was proof enough — if there’s one, there’s bound to be more.
My father thought making a decision based on “vibes” was a little silly, but he supported my choice. This was on our drive to New Hampshire in August, when he told me about his first year of college and all the nicknames his new friends gave him. He was so excited for me. It was around then that he learned he had pancreatic cancer, so we started spending more time together.
My first year of college, during the first year of the pandemic, was awful and isolating and all about making the best of it; my classes were online, and I ate soggy takeout meals from the dining hall on the floor of my dorm with my two friends. I felt guilty that I was away from my father and not even enjoying it.
That spring, I used Tinder for a few weeks because I felt ashamed that I had not yet experienced a Great Love. I matched with that blonde boy, and we had a dry exchange about our hometowns, then stopped talking; I forget who didn’t respond to whom.
Summer was baseball games with my father and beach days spent almost forgetting that he was even sick. But then summer ended, and I shipped myself back to school.
Fall of my second year, Covid restrictions loosened. I devoured my time in cafes. I saw blonde boy in front of the library when I was on the phone and again in my dining hall while his friend played Taylor Swift. I went out to parties in tiny tops. I saw him selling records on the quad for his radio show and laughed at a joke he made while he awkwardly tried to sell an album to someone else.
I called my father, who was recovering from a big, unsuccessful surgery, and told him my classes made me feel giddy. He was glad. He wanted me to be at school, so I was — knowing he had my mother nearby. Even though they were divorced, she had been by his side since his diagnosis.
But then Thanksgiving came, and he was hospitalized, and it became obvious that taking it day by day now had a time limit. There was nothing left but hospice care. I arranged for remote finals and booked a flight home to hold his hand.
My life became spending time with my father and also waiting for him to die. I crushed ice, filled syringes and watched him sleep. I listened as my mother directed his nurses, and I whispered to my sister about where his cat would go. I ate takeout food and more ramen than I ever did in college. I picked at my face. The four of us watched movies, listened to music, made jokes and did a lot of crying. I did not sleep. Everything was wasting away.
On Christmas Eve, I posted a song I liked on my Instagram story. It felt dishonest to post something so insignificant; I was supposed to be in anticipatory grief. That blonde boy, the one with the radio show, responded, saying he liked the song and asking what I was doing.
“Watching a movie,” I replied. I did not mention the hospital bed in front of the TV.
He told me about his family traditions, which sounded lovely; they sounded like things my family used to do.
I worried each message would be the last. And then I would have to sit by my father’s bedside and fill syringes and adjust pillowcases and cry without distractions. I felt a horrible shame that I was taking the edge off his two months in hospice care by having a text flirtation. But our texts made me laugh.
When my father died, I was showered in condolences. Radio boy was the only person I texted back. Something about an article he had read, the new Big Thief single, or any silly thing we thought of. He sent me a voice memo to tell a story too long to text, and if calling him hadn’t felt like breaking some texting rule, I would have done it right then just to hear more of his voice.
Radio boy asked me to coffee for when we would be back on campus. It would be a week and a day after my father died. I flew back to school, armed with pictures and mementos from my father’s home, including a jacket of his I had grabbed during a last, hurried sweep for essential keepsakes.
I stood in the bathroom for 10 minutes before our coffee date and felt like throwing up. I worried about the sound of my voice and the pimple on my forehead. But we stayed there sipping lattes for three hours, and I liked the way he laughed. Leaving the cafe, I looked down at my father’s coat and noticed the zipper was broken. The only coat I had for the winter was my dead dad’s broken one.
I told radio boy that it was broken, and he asked why I was wearing it then. I didn’t have an answer for him. We didn’t hug, but we lingered outside the cafe for another half-hour while I shivered.
Our first kiss was on our third date in a snowstorm. I had been hesitant to kiss him because that would mean I was starting something I could lose. A few days later, I told him I was terrified to hang out because my father had just died and everything scared me.
I don’t think he had any idea what to say, but he told me that was OK. He said he was sorry. Then he said something to make me laugh.
Everything about him felt light, like he was holding my hand and pulling me into a world where people didn’t die and everything was interesting. But it didn’t feel like my world, so I stood there, torn. I needed my grief, but I also couldn’t stand it.
My mother is devotion itself. She was the one with my father at every doctor’s appointment, the one who sat with him in every hospital, who made him laugh, who held his hand. My parents ended up coming back together just in time to lose each other. As we were cleaning out my father’s basement, she told me that I should marry someone I can laugh with. She said that’s what she always had with my dad.
Radio boy started showing up everywhere, and I started looking for him. Between classes, he would pop up to say hello and walk me to my next one. He would bring me the best focaccia on campus, or we would go get coffee. He played guitar for me in his dorm, because of course that boy plays guitar, and I listened — painfully aware of the trope we were both playing into and wondering if it all felt a bit too good.
I worry that I am rushing my grief, hurrying it along, pasting the parts of me that have cracked back together so I can continue — trying for “just like before” and realizing that doesn’t exist. I worry that someone like this boy I care for will be careless, and I will shatter.
My grief doesn’t look right to me; it’s a little blurry when I stare at it in the mirror. It’s not dressed in all black; it’s wearing my boyfriend’s sweatshirt. My grief is imagining the way my father would poke fun at my boyfriend’s name, ask him about his favorite band, and tell him not to hurt me. My grief will be missing my father for the rest of my life and will be prodding at me whenever something is good, telling me to worry, because anything can waste away.
Early into knowing him, there was a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, and I hate thunder. Radio boy told me he wasn’t going anywhere, which made me feel safe and a little sick. Even though I was scared and wanted him there, I still felt I knew better than him. I didn’t think he had any right to declare that he was staying put. There was no for sure, and that was worse than thunder.
But he isn’t going anywhere for now. I’m home for the summer and miss him no matter how much we FaceTime. We have told our mothers about each other. I know he orders a dirty chai when he needs to study. He has seen me fold my laundry, and I am still terrified of loss.
Tatiana Jackson-Saitz, a sophomore at the University of Chicago, is a finalist in the Modern Love college essay contest.
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