Tagged Love (Emotion)

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Relieved About a Friend’s Failure’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words

Looking for Someone, Maybe You

My boss at the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS wanted me to meet Susan. He said that she, a hardworking designer, needed to get out more. Imagining that meant “couldn’t get a date,” I felt more resigned than happy. “How will I know you?” she asked over the phone. “I’ll be the 5-foot-9 woman who looks like I’m looking for someone.” She replied, “I’ll be the 6-footer looking for you.” Susan entered the Noho Star, now permanently closed, in a cloud of colorful fabric. I was agog, thinking, “I’m not introducing her to anyone.” I’m still agog. — Rosemary Kuropat

Susan, at right, and me traveling through Italy in 2016.
Susan, at right, and me traveling through Italy in 2016.

When Snow Melts

Wonder Woman’s eyes on my ninth grade journal illicit sharp memories. I purchased the notebook when I was 14, a new student in a new state. Hounded by an internal villain wielding a whip of self-doubt, I tried to emulate Wonder Woman’s strength. The pages describe a young dancer fearful of being “an ugly, stumbling little snowflake who you could miss in a blink.” Now, at 18, I look at the trees unfurling after a long New Hampshire winter. Though I have learned to appreciate snow, I am always grateful when it melts. And this is a story about spring. Victoria Chen

Holding my notebook as Concord, N.H., opened itself to spring.

Oh Dearling, My Nar-Dar, Est-Est-Est!

Our terms of endearment have always evolved. Once, after a movie, “dear” and “darling” morphed into “dearling.” During lockdown in Prague, the evolution accelerated: “Darling” became “Dar-Dar,” then “Dar,” followed by “Nar-Dar” and “Nar,” and finally “Nar-Nar.” Meanwhile, “Dearling” transformed into “Dearlingest,” then “Est,” then “Est-est-est.” It makes sense: Working from home for a year and stuck in a second lockdown as the Czech Republic battles one of the world’s highest Covid death rates, we’ve had far more time together than usual. I just wonder: In what other ways has humanity evolved faster than usual this year? — Melody Rose McClure

A photo we took of ourselves with a tripod.

Blowing in the Wind

Recently we toasted with champagne in your newly purchased East London flat. Three years earlier, I watched your red nails scratch thin hospital sheets, brought you cans of Coca-Cola and coloring books after you tried to overdose. I have never been so relieved about a friend’s failure. On the first anniversary of your attempt, we traveled to Puglia, acquiring parking tickets at an alarming rate while enjoying gorgeous seaside towns. Friendships hold uncountable sorrows and joys, like toasting your new life or eating Ikea hot dogs in the store parking lot, our masks blowing like flags from our wrists. — Xan Pedisich

My friend, whose shadow you can see, took this picture of me in Torre dell’Orso, Italy.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

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My Choice Isn’t Marriage or Loneliness

I thought I had a classic fear of commitment, but it’s more complicated than that.

I broke up with my boyfriend of five years during quarantine, but not because we had fallen out of love.

I sent him an email with the subject line, “My Terms,” and proceeded to outline why I wanted to be single. In an effort to impose order on my decision, I included subheadings like “Why I Need This,” “What This Change Means For You” and “What We’ll Say To the Outside World,” followed by a trail of bullet points.

Under the subheading, “What This Doesn’t Mean,” I wrote: “That I don’t love you anymore.”

We were three months into the pandemic, and most of us couldn’t fathom the devastation to come. By then, though, we could begin to see our loneliness stretching into the future with no end point. Singles stared absently into the eyes of strangers on Zoom, longing to be touched.

And here I was, alone and equally desperate for connection, breaking up with my boyfriend of five years, even though nothing between us had broken.

For months afterward, I struggled to understand why. It was only when I looked back on flash points throughout the relationship that I realized my singleness was inevitable; I was simply building the vocabulary to explain it to myself.

I had met Malcolm my freshman year of college at a luncheon for honor students. He was wearing a blue plaid button-down and his voice was a startling baritone. Everyone compared him to Barack Obama, and the comparison was fitting — he was similarly warm, what some might call magnetic. He seemed like a reasonable person to trust with your life or your love.

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My friend and I had been talking idly about starting a dating service on campus, but first we needed to create a database. I walked up to him and asked if he wanted to be our first client.

He laughed. “OK, sure. How does it work?”

I pulled out my phone. “First, I have to take your picture so girls can know what you look like.”

I positioned him before a wall and gave him unhelpful guidance on how to look appealing. The picture came out awkward and blurry. Still, I sent it to my mother, giddy about the cute guy with the deep voice who looked like Obama.

After the luncheon, he and I circled each other for two years until one night I called to see if he wanted to hang out. What followed was a relationship plucked from romantic folklore. He sent me flowers with handwritten letters and arranged for my favorite ice cream to be delivered to my hotel room while I was at a conference in New York.

After four months, he followed me to France, where I was studying abroad my junior year. That’s where our relationship became official. On a call several weeks before he arrived, I said, “I guess we should get together or something.”

He said, “We’re kind of already together, aren’t we?”

“I know. But I should probably be your girlfriend, right?”

He laughed. “OK.”

Our exchange felt like a conversation between two third graders in the playground. I understood that I was supposed to care about this milestone — he was my first boyfriend. Yet when I grasped for the significance of it, I came up empty.

When he left France several weeks before I did, I was surprised to feel relieved. I longed — not to be alone, not to be without love, but for freedom and autonomy. Since we had gotten together, I had felt our identities weaving into a beautiful quilt, and I didn’t see how to disentangle myself without alienating the man I loved.

I was somebody without him. I knew this, but others didn’t seem to. Even when I was by myself, people always asked me about him, their remarks dropping me into a future — of marriage, children and muted desires — that I had not signed up for. I wanted my identity back. I wanted to unravel.

As soon as I got back, I suggested an open relationship, something I had wanted from the beginning. I saw it as a step toward establishing myself as a romantic and sexual entity outside of my relationship.

The following year, after leaving college in Atlanta, we moved 2,000 miles apart — Malcolm home to California, me home to D.C. — with no plans of either of us moving to be with the other anytime soon. We saw each other several times a year.

By the time the pandemic hit, we had been long-distance for three years, and I saw no problem with it. When the travel restrictions began, co-workers said, “It must be hard not being able to fly to see your boyfriend.” To which I replied, “I actually like the distance.”

Many times, I thought I had a classic fear of commitment, but I knew it was more complicated. I was resisting something greater than our individual relationship, and my resistance was political.

A day before I sent Malcolm the email saying I wanted to break up, I came across a term online: solo polyamory. It described a person who is romantically involved with many people but is not seeking a committed relationship with anyone. What makes this different from casual dating is that they’re not looking for a partner, and the relationship isn’t expected to escalate to to long-term commitments, like marriage or children. More important, the relationship isn’t seen as wasted time or lacking significance because it doesn’t lead to those things.

I wasn’t comfortable identifying as polyamorous then. My desire for something nontraditional was a source of shame and questioning. But for once, in the vast literature on love, I felt seen. I liked how solo polyamory cherished and prioritized autonomy and the preservation of self, and I found its rejection of traditional models of romantic love freeing.

When Malcolm and I first told friends and family about our open relationship, we were met with verbal lashings and gross generalizations, including that this was “not something Black people did.” Much later, I realized they viewed our arrangement as a personal attack on an institution they wanted to believe in. In some ways, this attack was the rebellion I had been seeking.

My entire girlhood had been consumed by fantasies that were force-fed to me. Love and relationships were presented as binary, and in this binary, the woman must get married or be lonely (or, in classic novels, die). The path to freedom and happiness was narrower still for Black women. Even in our extremely loving relationship, I had felt confined.

I knew my mother would be devastated by the breakup. A divorcée of 20-plus years, she often warned against “ending up like me,” a woman untethered to a man.

I waited nearly six months to tell her. When I did, she said, “What if he finds someone else?”

“He could’ve found someone else when we were together,” I said, puzzled.

But relationships do give the illusion that we exist in a bubble with another person, insulated from the rest of the world — that’s part of what makes them feel so intimate. But if this year has taught us anything, it’s that none of us are insulated from each other, even in isolation, and that, at any moment, our bubble could burst. I no longer see this rupture as a bad thing.

After I sent Malcolm my breakup email, he and I spoke on the phone.

“I have to be honest,” he said, “I was a little sad when I read it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It just seemed more final in an email.”

“You know, we can change the terms whenever we want,” I said.

“I know.”

“You’re still my best friend,” I said.

He made a joke about being friend-zoned, then said, “Yeah, you’re my best friend too.”

I recently listened to a conversation about polyamory on Clubhouse — a new voice-based social media platform. All the faces in the chat were Black.

“You have to own your choice,” one guy said. “You have to remember you chose this for a reason.”

I thought of my choice to be single and not looking but still very much loving.

What I want are relationships that operate with a spirit of possibility rather than constraint. Shedding the identity of “girlfriend” has allowed me to experience the expansiveness of love. It has challenged me to stretch the limits of my relationships to see what they can be when relieved of social pressure.

As humans, we’re always going to reach for certainty using the few tools we have, and sometimes that tool will be a label like “girlfriend.” But in a year of crippling loss, canceled trips, delayed milestones and a charged election, I have found strange consolation in knowing that nothing in our lives has ever been certain. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I am just here to enjoy this, whatever this is, for however long it lasts.

Haili Blassingame is a producer of the 1A show at WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘I Didn’t Want Her to Stay Long’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Our Seder, a Year Later

“Why is this night different from all the others?” Last Passover, there were more ways than usual. My father was hospitalized with low oxygen. My mother and sister, also sick, spent the holiday clutching their phones in case he called. I was with my partner, crying over chicken broth, gripped by fear. This year, I remember the virus that passed over my own blood, sparing my father as the Israelites were spared from the final plague. I find new meaning in “Dayenu,” a Seder song of gratitude with the refrain: “It would have been enough.” My family’s health will always be enough. — Amanda Glickman

My family at Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, N.Y., one of our favorite hiking spots. My fiancé and I are on the left, my parents are in the middle, and my sister’s on the right.  
My family at Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, N.Y., one of our favorite hiking spots. My fiancé and I are on the left, my parents are in the middle, and my sister’s on the right.  

Sowing a Future

Midway through 2020, I started planting seeds in my backyard. My daughter said, “You’ve wanted to do this for years. Do you like it?” “Yes,” I said. “I love it.” At the time, I didn’t realize I was growing more than tomatoes. Overwhelmed by the pandemic, my mother’s worsening dementia and the painfully quiet demise of a decades-long relationship, I was sowing a future. My head down and hands busy, I could hope. “You seem calmer even though everything is more difficult,” my daughter said. Yes. Planting new seeds is hard. Realizing old seeds are no longer growing is harder. — Karen Amster-Young

The tomatoes I grew.

Hello, Old Friend

Grief was that relative I heard stories about. I knew her in the way I knew Uncle Gerald, someone I never met but learned so much about. Then my husband died, and there Grief was, shaking my hand. I offered her the guest bedroom, scrambling to make it comfortable, but not too comfortable because I didn’t want her to stay long. Instead of the guest bedroom, she marched right into my bedroom and dropped her heavy bags. Years later, she’s still with me, now an old friend, someone to sip martinis with and remember. — Barbara Phillips

A picture of me and Bob, my late husband, on a trip to Peru.

Teacher of the Year

In March 2009, two weeks after my students voted me teacher of the year, I learned I wouldn’t be returning to school after summer break. State budget cuts had threatened hundreds of thousands of public schoolteacher positions around the country. I finished the semester, teaching five high school Spanish classes with a total of 110 students. When they discovered that I wouldn’t be returning, a clandestine plan was set in motion. They surprised me, arriving at school wearing custom T-shirts that read “I support Ms. Minsky.” That expression of affection helped carry me through a dark time. — Connie Minsky

Years later, I still have the T-shirt.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: Expecting Long Distance Relationships to End

I kept telling myself not to believe in him. And yet, believe I did.

It started with a Facebook message from a boy I had known peripherally in elementary school lunchrooms, passing through the halls of our high school, and — the main event — seventh grade dance class.

In our school, dance class was a special horror because we weren’t paired up by the teachers, which at least would have reduced the anxiety. Instead, boys were told to choose a girl — a humiliating experience for those chosen last or not at all. In seventh grade, I was already 6 feet tall, the tallest girl in my entire class, and taller than nearly every boy, putting me at risk of being among the unchosen.

Well, he chose me, even though we hardly knew each other. That dance class was our one significant encounter, one that we each walked away from believing the other had been the rescuer.

Now we were no longer schoolchildren; we were 27. And here, out of the blue, came a Facebook message from him reminiscing about the trauma of us being forced to learn ballroom dancing during our most awkward years. The anxiety of being lined up against the wall, waiting to see if someone would choose us or if we would be randomly assigned to join another couple when the numbers didn’t even out. The relief of a friendly face to make the experience a little less harrowing.

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Maybe that’s all it was supposed to be — a moment of gratitude for being each other’s friendly face. But it wasn’t.

We started talking more, about where our lives were now, where we were headed, how he ended up moving to Australia, my plans to make the jump out of the United States the following year.

When I said I didn’t know how I would carry over my career abroad, he sent me a dozen different ideas. When I told him that I didn’t want to miss out on some of my family’s eventual milestones — weddings, babies and so on — he argued those milestones never have an end date: “You come back for what’s important.” When I sighed over visa eligibility, he sent me information on all the places I was currently eligible and encouragement about how worthwhile it would be.

He chipped away at all of my excuses. At the time, I didn’t have anyone in my life who understood the unconventional path I wanted to take. I had more people tugging on my shirtsleeve telling me to hang around for at least this last bachelorette party, or through that next promotion, or, from my then roommate, just one more year on our lease. He was the first one to call me out for dragging my heels.

And maybe that’s all it was supposed to be — a spark of inspiration from someone who was doing what I wanted to do and encouraged me to follow through on my own dreams. But it wasn’t.

He was coming back to the United States in a few weeks and would be in Chicago, so we decided to meet for drinks and catch up on old times we never had. He took the train downtown from his parents’ house in the suburbs. His mother had made him change his shirt and take an earlier train so he wouldn’t be late to meet me. We sat at a bar and ordered flights of craft beer, and he reluctantly played along with my beer flight rules of sipping each one and voting on our favorites.

We talked about his life in Australia and his plans to go to New Zealand and then Antarctica and then Ireland and then Norway and then Germany and then the Falkland Islands. He gave me more advice and seemed genuinely excited for me, a rare investment from a guy who, despite our being in the same grade growing up, and the same dance class, was essentially a stranger. I noticed that I decompressed around him, that I could be myself without consequence.

And maybe that’s all it was supposed to be — a mini middle-school reunion. But it wasn’t.

I left him at the train station, telling him to get home safe as he recited back a very friend zoning “yes, ma’am,” wishing he had tried to kiss me. It was almost something.

A week and a few flirty texts later, we decided to meet one last time before he got back to his life in Australia. He again came in by train, we went out for drinks, talked, then more drinks and more talking.

This time I did not get left standing on the platform wanting more. He stayed over and we had a great night. A perfect night. A spontaneous night with no expectations or early-dating confusion or time to overthink things. It was comfortable and natural and just happened.

And maybe that’s all it was supposed to be — a one-night stand. But it wasn’t.

I kept waiting for the moment he would move on. He returned to Australia, and now we were trying to keep in touch across a massive time difference, and nothing more was ever promised. How long would it take him to get bored?

The men I dated always timed out at about two months — usually in concert with a statement of having met someone new. But with this man, two months passed, then six, then nine, and we were still talking almost every day. Never in a way that pointed to a serious relationship, but certainly as more than just friends. I now knew his 15-year plan, his thoughts on marriage and past relationships, how he spent his summers on the farm, his poetic prowess and his irrational hatred of the movie “Frozen.”

He knew about my dream to ditch my job and travel the world, my depressing music obsession, and every phrase that made me blush. It felt like this could actually be something. It felt like maybe, just maybe, it was even becoming something. I hoped that one day we would get a chance to find out.

A year later, in February 2020, we saw each other in person again, meeting at a hotel in Chicago, a pit stop before his next contract sent him somewhere else far away. This time there were expectations, confusion and plenty of time to overthink — at least on my end. But once we were together, I got swept into that comfortable space again. We wasted no time and fell into bed, only leaving the room to meet the takeout delivery guy in the lobby.

When we decided to go to sleep, he kept checking to see if I had dozed off yet; he wanted to avoid drifting off on me while I was awake. In part, I knew he was seeing if he was in the clear to uncuddle, since he has the body heat of a bear.

Early on, I’d told him on a call that I understood how cuddling turns to sweltering really fast, but that I’m a sucker for holding hands. I could almost see his eyes roll through the phone.

That night, I pretended to be asleep for one of his check-ins, so I was aware when he unfolded himself from me, then fumbled around under the covers until he found my hand and held it for the rest of the night.

A few weeks later the world was in Covid-19 lockdown, and he shipped out to New York to work as a travel nurse. Our communication started to get spotty as he worked long hours in a job so intense that I am unable to fathom it. And it stayed that way for months, with me trying to walk the line between pick-me-up texts and not being annoying, and with him politely replying every so often.

And then it happened. The moment I had been anticipating for the first two months, then six, then nine. He met someone new. Someone he was really excited about who he could see himself traveling the world with and trying to turn into a real relationship.

Just like that, I was right back at the train station, watching him walk away, wondering if this is all it was supposed to be. Another almost something.

From the start, I had tried to keep my expectations in check, telling myself there was a 99.999 percent chance it would end exactly this way, with him meeting someone and moving on. After all, for me it had never not happened that way. And this relationship was more logistically challenged than any I’d had before. But that .001 percent chance had never felt more possible. And I gave myself permission to be excited about him.

And maybe that’s all it was supposed to be — me actually opening my heart again. Because in the end, that’s all it was. Another almost something. And I’m so sick of almost somethings.

Jessie McNellis is a writer living in Chicago.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Mommy, Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

My Mother, My Friend

My first semester of college, I only called my mother twice. At my house, I felt generally misunderstood and judged for my weight; at school, I was finally free. But the pandemic forced me home. I spent the first months in my room. Then, my mother and I started watching Chinese competition shows together, bonding over the contestants. Now I make sure she’s eating even when she avoids meals to stay thin. We converse in simple Mandarin, a language I hadn’t bothered to learn before. I buy her flowers and cry when I think of leaving her. — Annabelle Wang

Me and my mother in matching vests we bought from Costco.
Me and my mother in matching vests we bought from Costco.

‘Love Endures Without Fresh Photos’

I take a lot of photos. My house is filled with images of places I have visited and people I love. I rotate the photos, taking new ones, making more prints, slipping new pictures over old ones in frames. But I have realized, six months after my partner’s sudden death, that the photos I have of John are all I will ever have. So I conjure up memories of him — hiking in the Sierras, enjoying a party, reading at the kitchen table. Love endures without fresh photos, but oh how I miss stealthily snapping him. — Ellen Greenblatt

John in his uniform as a volunteer at the Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

Lean on Me (When You’re in Heels)

Our pace slowed as Monica’s feet started to hurt in her blue velvet heels. I was wearing sneakers and offered to switch. I stumbled along, leaning most of my weight on her shoulders. We only made it one city block before switching back. This wasn’t the first or last time she would prop me up as I floundered uncomfortable in femininity. Later she would help me change my legal name and gender marker. She still loves — and can rock — high heels. But next time the night gets long, I will probably offer a piggyback ride. — Nat Mulkey

I’m on the right. Monica is on the left, wearing her blue velvet heels.

A Man Who’s Just Right

From the back seat, my 5-year-old son, Jack, said: “Mommy, why don’t you have a boyfriend?” Freshly divorced and unsure how to answer, I asked why he asked. Jack replied, “Because you’re really nice. You should be with someone nice.” I realized the troubles of my previous marriage had not gone unnoticed. Jack said I should look for someone kind, respectful and of medium height — like Grandma. Eight years later, Jack calls my husband, Greg, “Dad.” I tease Greg that it’s a good thing that he’s on the shorter side, just like my mother. — Clara Koschnitzke Hoffmann

Jack and Greg on the day they met.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

The Dress Promised Me Something the Doctors Couldn’t

My obsessive online shopping wasn’t really about the clothes.

The dress was black with shiny buttons at the wrists and an oversized bow in the back. I said to my friend, “I want you to bury me in this dress,” which I found funny because I thought I was dying. And then I thought it wasn’t funny at all.

Even if the doctors couldn’t pin down what was going on with me, I was so alarmed by my symptoms and the doctors’ gravest guesses that I felt anxious about whether or not I would have a future. I was 27.

What was certain is that I was shrinking. Rapidly, uncontrollably. It had nothing to do with me not eating and everything to do with me seemingly being eaten up. My clothes hung loose at the waist and sloughed off my shoulders as if they belonged to a stranger, so I bought a stranger’s dress. Kate Spade, $348 retail.

I found it for $50 at an online designer consignment store while on hold with the hospital; a nurse was checking on the results of my bone marrow biopsy. My laptop sat in front of me, casting a bluish light across my bruised legs. Online shopping was the sort of thing one might do if she were on hold with her cable company, not awaiting a possible blood cancer diagnosis.

I wedged the phone between my shoulder and ear, pulled the computer onto my lap, and started browsing. The pages teemed with runway castoffs: vintage handbags, red carpet gowns, scarves and coats by designers whose names I didn’t recognize and couldn’t pronounce. I filled my cart with a cobalt dress, a blush silk blouse, a slinky skirt.

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On paper, the doctors said, it looked like it could be lymphoma. The symptoms were classic: fever, night sweats, weight loss. But the scans kept coming back clean. A biopsy of my enlarged lymph node showed it to be benign. Blood cancers could be sneaky, they told me. They would have to search for it, and the searching would be painful. Two weeks earlier, a doctor had taken a surgical drill to my hip and hollowed out my bones with a syringe fit for a large horse. “Painful” was a deficient descriptor.

“Thanks for waiting,” said the nurse. “The doctor said there were some abnormalities with your bone marrow but no signs of malignancy, so we’ll have to keep looking.”

I sat still while my insides turned over. A cold sweat crept across my face. I closed my eyes, shook my head and returned to my shopping cart. I was not going to dwell.

No — I was going to shop. I was going to shop until I could think of nothing else. I punched in my credit card number and bought the Kate Spade.

Then I rushed to my closet, threw open the double doors and began rifling through Target impulse buys and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, tearing every tacky print and cheap polyester blend from its hanger. I hurled the clothes into boxes and garbage bags. They smelled like the hospital, all burned coffee and antiseptic. I didn’t want them. I didn’t even want to look at them. I wanted silk. I wanted velvet.

Within five minutes I had ransacked my entire closet. The carpet was hardly visible under haphazard heaps. My lungs seized up, retaliating against my quick, sudden movements. I sank against the door frame, hands pressed against my chest, and let fatigue overtake me. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t do illness anymore. I could only do this.

A few weeks later, the first dress arrived. I spun around in it, watching the hem rise and fall. Something about it made me feel less like a haggard patient and more like the kind of woman who went to cocktail parties dripping with perfume and family money. The fabric, heavy and thick, felt expensive and purposeful, unlike anything I had ever owned.

Over the next few months, I made it my mission to build a new wardrobe from scratch. The process demanded every moment of my free time, every spare thought. I scoured the internet for the best in secondhand glamour, pausing only when my energy gave way to fever and exhaustion. There are dozens of websites dedicated to discount high fashion: The Real Real, Saks Off 5th, Luxury Garage Sale. They sold Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Isabel Marant — designers whose names I had heard only on old episodes of “Project Runway.”

I texted pictures of a black-and-white patterned dress to my best friend, a sensible, no-nonsense beauty from northwest Iowa who has never heard of Oscar de la Renta and doesn’t particularly care.

“Do you like this?” I asked. “It’s 100 percent silk.”

“How do you even wash that?” she replied.

“I think it’s dry clean only,” I said, as if I had ever been to a dry cleaner.

We both knew it was impractical. The clothes were expensive and high maintenance, most of them over-the-top fancy for my modest life in nonprofit communications. But they felt vital. I told myself I was overdue for some frivolity, that I deserved to treat myself.

For my next doctor’s appointment, I picked out a Valentino pencil skirt that fit snugly against my new, withered body.

“I just don’t know what else to do,” my doctor said. She was my age. Young, but confident in her training. Confident in the scans and labs and almost-normal test results. “Can I see you again in six weeks? We can repeat blood work then and come up with a timeline for scans. Does that sound like an OK plan?”

I rubbed the pointed toe of my high heel against the linoleum. “I don’t know.”

“OK,” she said. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“Just that I live here,” I said, gesturing at my body. “I have to live here.”

That night I ran my fingers through my hair, and a clump of blond strands fell loose into my palm. “It’s just stress,” I told my cat. I brushed my hands together, letting my hair fall into the trash, and returned to my shopping list.

Every time a new item arrived, I would unpack it just to feel the weight and texture of the fabric against my skin. Some pieces were musty, others smelled like perfume. I liked to imagine where they had been — fund-raising galas, board meetings, socialite circles. Each one had lived a life before me. Now I held onto them in the dim light of my bedroom like tangible hope.

Time passed. Bruises appeared, disappeared and reappeared on my limbs. I shrunk some more. Most days my clothes covered the shrinkage and distracted from the exhaustion. I saw other doctors: two surgeons, three oncologists, an integrative medicine physician, a reiki expert.

Finally, in a move my former self would have called crazy, I enlisted the help of a sound healer. She was slight and lively, a 70-year-old in a child’s body. In her office on the day we met, she jumped from her chair and asked me to stand and extend my right arm.

“I’m going to press down on you,” she said, “and I want you to resist me with equal pressure, OK?”

She pushed me down, and I pushed back. My arm bounced at her sudden release.

She shook her head and scowled, then grabbed a bottle of hemp oil. “Hold this!” she said, shoving the bottle into my hand and pressing down on my arm again.

This time I was in sync with her, more agile, adjusting to her pressure.

“Yes,” she said. “Your body likes this product. You can buy it on my website.”

It was all make-believe, but I was desperate. Desperate, I told myself, but not insane — desperation and insanity were two distinct, if bordering, states. But this is where desperation takes us — the sick, the chronic, the dying, the grieving. We’re forced to find hope in what we used to mock: God, the afterlife, miracles, hemp oil. Healing, by any means. Healing, against all odds.

Healing, sometimes, in the form of a designer dress.

After every appointment, after every failed attempt to name my illness, I would prop myself in bed, choose new dresses and think of all the places I would wear them. I would wear the Derek Lam on a first date and the Marc Jacobs to a corporate meeting. I would carry a baby on my hip in the Burberry coat as I strolled down the street smelling the crisp fall air and believing in love and God and things to come.

The clothes promised me something the doctors, as they continue to search for a diagnosis, still can’t: an uncomplicated future. And I promised a future to the clothes.

This was their life after life. And they deserved that, didn’t they?

Emilie Poplett is a writer in Durham, N.C., who works in nonprofit communications.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

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Tiny Love Stories: ‘Mami Sent Me to Check You Out’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

I Guess I Passed Her Test

As a dutiful girlfriend, I accompanied Arturo to JFK airport to pick up his sister, who was arriving from Buenos Aires. Greeting her, I casually asked what brought her to New York. “Mami sent me to check you out,” she said. Years later, Mami was visiting us. She offered to buy me a replacement diamond for the one that fell out of my engagement ring. “Oh, I can’t allow you to buy me something so expensive,” I said. Her reply? “Please do, because you are everything I hoped for in a wife for my son.” How could I refuse? — Phyllis Meyers

Arturo and his mother, Raquel, in Mar de las Pampas, Argentina.
Arturo and his mother, Raquel, in Mar de las Pampas, Argentina.

She’s Still With Us

In February 2019, my youngest sister, Melina, admitted herself into the hospital for PTSD from childhood trauma. When she returned home, she texted, “Do not contact me ever again!” Determined to get through to her, I invited her to walk with me and Preston, my goldendoodle. She loved Preston but refused. In March, Melina died of suicide. On a walk the morning after her funeral, Preston suddenly turned and barked behind us. Nothing was in sight. I felt then that Melina had changed her mind and decided, after all, to join us. — Sarina Tomel

Preston and I participated in a walk in support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and in honor of Melina.

No Words Needed

I spoke to Sun Ung in broken Chinese, excited hand gestures and hugs. We lived together for 18 years: a strong-willed Cambodian refugee and me, his spunky Texan granddaughter. Then his Alzheimer’s took hold. He would scrunch his eyebrows, searching for our history in a sea of fading memories. I started every sentence with, “Remember when — ?” But, one of our final nights together before he died last March, we sat beside each other in silence. A granddaughter without the words to convey her love. A grandfather who didn’t need to remember the past to know she loved him anyway. — Sabrina Wong

Me and my grandfather.

An Unexpected Request

Chantal and I met in Bordeaux, France. I was an American student, with long hair and a beard, dressed like John Lennon in olive Army surplus fatigues. Chantal, whose grandfather escaped Mussolini, looked like Isabella Rossellini. We married in Oakland, Calif. Chantal did not want children; I did. We divorced. Chantal’s journey continued, wild as ever. Mine: law school, suburbs, remarriage, children and Little League. Chantal would sometimes call. She became a psychologist. Once, Chantal said she wanted a child and asked if I’d be the father. I mistakenly told my wife. Flattered, remembering, hesitating, I said no. Nice though. — Mark Rice

Hitchhiking through Ilfracombe, England, in 1980.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Why I Took a Vow of Celibacy

Modern Love

Why I Took a Vow of Celibacy

In my life, sex and love have been twisted up with childhood trauma. Time for a break.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • March 12, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

Twenty months ago, I took a vow of celibacy that had nothing to do with religion. I had just come out of a two-year relationship that had ended messily, and I felt exhausted at the soul level. Not just by what it had taken to extricate my heart from this particular maelstrom of shattered promises and lingering disappointments, but by the whole thing, the dozens of relationships so much like this one that they seemed to exist in an echo chamber.

Two failed marriages. An ocean’s worth of love drama. The giddiness, hope and euphoria that invariably collapsed into conflict and doubt. And then the desperate attempts at relationship CPR, the talking and processing, anxious text messages, fighting and makeup sex, trying and failing to make something work that didn’t.

I was tired, most of all, of the voices in my head that would creep in as the latest enmeshment was disintegrating, telling me that all I needed to do was try again with the next one, the right one, somewhere out there.

This time, however, something shifted. When the voices began to whisper their usual “just keep looking” litany, I couldn’t bring myself to believe them. The jig was up. When the smoke cleared, I saw that I was lost, and that no love, no matter how profound, was going to help me find my way out.

I had been in this limbo for so long, desperate to find someone to save me, that I had lost track of where I had come from: the foster care system in Fresno, Calif. I was only 5 when my two sisters and I were sent to live with the couple at the root of all this.

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A skinny, curly-haired, quiet girl, I had already learned to read grown-ups like maps of difficult terrain and to bend myself into whatever kind of child they seemed to want. This was my job, to watch and to please, so I wouldn’t be given away again. Because I had learned that as bad as any situation was, it could always be worse.

My sisters, who were 3 and 7, must have been coping similarly. But strangely we never spoke to each other about what was happening to us in that house, or about anything that had already transpired. Not about how our mother, who had skipped town with a boyfriend the year before without saying goodbye or telling anyone where she was going. Not about our violent, shiftless father, who bounced in and out of jail and our lives. Not about our social worker, who showed up unannounced at our last placement, which had lasted only four months, and helped us pack our few things into garbage bags.

Had we done something bad? Were we not enough? No one said, and we knew better than to ask. We went without crying or even complaining, as if childhood was a kind of war, and we had been made soldiers.

There were an infinite number of rules in our new situation, which we followed without question. No sitting on the furniture, no food or water after 5 p.m., no raised voices. I must have gone to kindergarten and first grade there, but my school memories are blurry. I do remember days at home, stiff and cold as the plastic casing on the chairs and the sofas. The wife would tell us to play outside and then lock the door behind us.

At night, I shared a bed with my younger sister. We would sleep curled against each other like puppies, rubbing our feet together against the mattress to self-soothe — our oldest shared habit.

Some nights nothing happened. Other nights I would wake to a shape in the doorway, the husband’s inky silhouette. And then I would disappear inside myself, barely breathing, frozen. I vanished so expertly that I wasn’t actually in my body any longer as he peeled me away from my sister. I didn’t make a sound.

I think I was sleepwalking through those years — when I was 5, 6 and 7. That I went somewhere else, even in the daytime, far away from all the things I couldn’t control.

Do children ever belong to themselves? I didn’t. I was a chess piece, there to be moved, sacrificed. Grown-ups, and particularly my caregivers, seemed either uncaring or dangerous or both. There was nowhere to turn, and nothing to do but simply give up my body and hide far away, deep in the maze of my mind.

After two years, we eventually left that family. I was 7. I was so young, too young, but as a therapist once said to me, “The body never forgets.” Trauma leaves its imprint on you.

We were taken away because I had somehow mustered the courage to speak, telling the wife, in a shaking voice, about the molestation that had been happening. Though she never turned around or even acknowledged me, she later called our social worker to say she couldn’t take care of us anymore. We were taken to another foster home, and then another, each of them decidedly less abominable, but not without trauma.

At 18, when I aged out of the system, all I wanted was to reinvent myself as quickly as possible. Given a chance, I think I would have crawled out of my own skin, or even seared off my fingerprints. Whoever that throwaway girl was, I didn’t want to be her any longer.

I broke ties with our latest foster family, who had raised us for the last ten years, and also our biological family, the grandmother, cousins, aunts and uncles we had seen less frequently throughout the years. I let it all burn without looking back, making it a policy never to tell anyone in this new life how I had grown up. Not friends, and certainly not the boyfriends I blew through as if I were bent on revenge.

There was a desperate edge to those years. I enrolled in community college, all I could afford or even aspire to, and rented an apartment with my sisters. We lived paycheck to paycheck, well below the poverty line, but we belonged only to ourselves.

Every weekend, we went dancing, drinking Vodka Collins by the dozen. Sometimes I went home with strangers, telling myself I liked sex, when really, I would often feel myself sliding out of my body and going somewhere else during the act, like watching a mannequin going through the motions.

Sometimes I would burst into tears or flood with rage, wanting to fight back in a way I hadn’t as a child. And in these moments, which were like a terrible hijacking, I would feel embarrassed, ashamed, incapable of explaining to whomever I was with what was really happening, not even someone I cared about, a boyfriend, or later my husband.

Sex scared me, so I had more of it. Men bewildered me, so I obsessed over figuring out what they wanted and tried to become that, falling to pieces when it didn’t work. And if I was with a guy who was caring and attentive, I would feel claustrophobic and overwhelmed, poised to bolt.

This is the dance I have been caught up in for most of my adult life, through marriage and divorce, motherhood, a successful career. It’s the dark shape that is forever in the background, tracking me like my own shadow, driving me to seek what can’t be found.

“I just want to have some other argument with the universe,” I told my therapist when I made the decision to swear off relationships. “I feel like I’m fighting the same war, over and over. And the weapons are only ever pointed at me.”

Sometimes I feel as if I am broken and always will be, but I have to remind myself of an essential fact: I didn’t break myself. Maybe I can’t fully mend myself, either, but the first step must be to try to love myself as I am, though that often seems like the hardest task of all.

I want to carry what’s mine to carry, claiming my life experiences, my war wounds, instead of wishing I’d had some other story. I feel lonely now and then in this, my second year of self-imposed celibacy, but I’m hardly alone.

We’re all carrying something. In my neighborhood, I often find myself looking up and down the street in an almost sacred way, knowing that many of the men and women climbing into buses or sitting masked in coffee shops have also been damaged by sexual abuse or experienced similarly painful traumas. I marvel at how beautiful we all are, how human. And then I make my way home.

Paula McLain is the author of the novel “The Paris Wife.” Her new novel, “When the Stars Go Dark,” will be published in April.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘I Had to Take Your Picture’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘I Had to Take Your Picture’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
March 9, 2021, 3:30 p.m. ET

Turning Bitter Fruit Sweet

A blue dawn as I think about how life will proceed without 80-year-old me. How to make those dim vapors disperse? Eggs, coffee, a thin slice of toast and — dare I open a jar of my homemade marmalade? With the inordinate work to make the jam — slicing countless sour oranges into small pieces — I’ve always saved these jars to give to special people. But today, in a wild, life-affirming gesture, I open the preserves for myself. Sticky and runny, the marmalade acts as an elixir, melting away the trailing wisps of blue. — Marilyn Slutzky Zucker


Music From Myanmar

I was teaching English in Myanmar when we met, two years ago. Music connected us — afternoons strumming a cheap guitar as we tried to harmonize. I was learning Burmese. He covered our apartment in Post-it notes with each item’s Burmese name. This January, I returned home to Australia because my mother was sick. In February, when the military staged a coup in Myanmar, he said, “They stole our future.” I could feel his frustration and pain. But every night when we FaceTime, he smiles and joins his neighbors as they bang kitchenware in protest. A hopeful harmony. — Audric Co

Singing the first Burmese song I learned with my love. I’m playing the guitar.

Crazy Drives

For three days, Chris commuted six hours round trip from Virginia to his work in Pennsylvania so he could hold me as I mourned my father. Over the years, my father had done crazy drives for me, his steadfast help showing an unconditional love. Moving me from Virginia to Chicago, we talked so much we missed our exits. I thought the only people who would continue to love me that deeply were my mother and brother. But Chris did, and does. My father would be happy to know someone is still doing crazy drives for me. — Apurva Sisodia

Chris and me.

A Stranger on the Subway

The subway roared into 14th Street. His hand was tucked in my pocket; mine held yellow tulips. It was a brisk March evening, but the tulips were sunny, his hand warm, and I felt like spring. Wrapped in the comfort of a full belly and heart, squished into subway seats, I talked to him about things I can’t remember now. “I had to take a picture,” a woman across the train said, waving her phone. “The way you’re looking at each other — I have chills.” I miss that woman, the people she photographed and the steadiness of those springtime flowers. — Kaitlyn Powers

The photo the kind stranger took of us.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: My Parents' Divorce and That Two-House, Duffel-Bag Life

Modern Love

My Two-House, Duffel-Bag Life

When my parents divorced, I lost the link that held our family together. And then I found it.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • March 5, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

I am 15 years old and an only child. People who meet me don’t usually think I’m an only child because I talk with the speed of someone who always had to compete for space in a conversation, as if I have 10 siblings. But no, it’s just me.

I have grown up in California in a nice neighborhood, with good friends and two loving parents, playing outside with my father on the weekends and reading books with my mother on the weekdays. I have been alone a lot but not lonely. I never needed anything I haven’t gotten, and whatever I wish for often comes true. And all of this, I think, is why my parents’ divorce took such a toll on me.

It was seven years ago that my parents came into the living room one evening and turned off the TV. I was watching my favorite show, “The Biggest Loser.” I was annoyed at first, and then confused, as they began to explain how their marriage wasn’t working out, and how they were splitting up but remaining friends.

Processing a parents’ divorce for any child, but especially for an only child, is a lot like going through the stages of grief. And not to sound overly dramatic or to diminish the heartbreak of losing a loved one, but when you don’t have a brother or sister who reminds you of what life was once like, who can serve as a link from past to present, keeping at least part of the family whole in some way, there is only the harsh reality of now. The divorce, to me, felt as if some imaginary family member had died, someone I didn’t even realize existed yet held the singular role of binding our family together.

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In the first stage, denial, I refused to accept that my parents’ divorce was happening. I would drag my feet along with my mother or father to open houses and real estate agents’ offices. With a book or granola bar in hand, I would drift from reality and truly believe that I was going to return home that evening to them making dinner together in the kitchen, smiling and saying, “Sorry we worried you sweetie, but everything’s fine now.”

It wasn’t until they each had closed on separate houses and sold half of our furniture that I realized this fantasy was never going to turn into reality. And as soon as this two-house life became permanent, my hope quickly turned into envy, especially at the end of the school day when I would see friends greeted by both parents. Or during the sixth-grade science fair, when I would have to transport my unfinished volcano between houses while others could leave theirs untouched and permanently installed in their basement or garage, waiting to be worked on again.

Then came the depression, except I’m not sure it was really depression. I was going through the first stages of puberty, and who’s to say it was my parents’ divorce, and not hormones, that triggered my feelings of hopelessness? During this period, I spent a lot of time alone feeling indifferent. Every answer was “Sure” or “OK.” I had no opinions on anything, because even if I did, would it really change anything? No. The divorce would still be final, and my English homework would still be due in the morning.

I often spent my evenings imagining the different life I could have had if my parents hadn’t divorced. And because no one was around to ground me during these episodes, my imaginings became quite creative, one where we were all still living in the same house and I could smell the faint odor of my mother’s perfume and father’s deodorant mixing together in the mornings as they whisked by each other, rushing to start their workdays. Or another where I spent my 10th birthday at a party surrounded by all my friends and family without any tension or awkwardness.

It took a lot for me to escape this fantasy phase, and even today I’m not sure I’m fully out. Grief is not linear. You don’t get a punch card with a new hole every time you pass through another stage. But with the help of my friends and the movies and music of many great artists, I can undoubtedly say that I am not depressed.

During the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I changed schools, going from the warm bubble of my tiny private elementary school to the gaping reality of a large public middle school. As the first day of middle school grew closer, I couldn’t help but get excited about the opportunity to reinvent myself. In going from a place where everyone knew every detail of my life to a school where nobody knew anything about me, I could become whoever I wanted.

This new me started with the magical development of my parents getting remarried. Or, actually, having never gotten divorced. It wasn’t that I made up stories; I just excluded from my stories any mention of my parents splitting up. My sharp memory served me well as I recounted family vacations we took, places we lived and traditions we had, as if it all still happened. I made this bargain with myself thinking that what was once true could become true again.

My bargaining continued through middle school, even as other kids began to discover the truth. The 15-pound duffel bags I would bring to school, filled with clothes and toiletries, definitely raised questions. But I continued to shade the truth as a way to cope. I found that if I could fabricate enough to create the life I wanted, I could convince myself that it was true. But that never really worked.

As my parents drifted farther apart and settled into their own lives, my life grew ever more complicated. Without the consistency of having parents to talk to in the same house, I became more distant from them and started to rely more on myself to cope with my emotions. And if I couldn’t deal with my emotions on my own, then a show or movie would have to take the place of a deep conversation.

This experience isn’t unique; many children don’t feel like they have a place within their families. In my case, I didn’t know if there was even an opportunity for me to have a place, because I didn’t understand how I fit in when it came to the shifting ground of my divorced family. There’s something about hearing your parents argue over who gets to take you on spring break that makes you feel like there’s no room in the conversation for your own anxieties.

Now, as a high school sophomore, I still struggle with the reality of my parents’ divorce. It’s not something that will ever completely dissipate, but it has become more familiar and grounded in its own way. I even have started to find comfort and feel pride in the routines I have mastered: the duffel bags I haul around and the rushed laundry cycles I’m always pushing through to make sure I have the right clothes to wear in the house where I’ll be. And I’m grateful that I can write about my life with my parents’ support.

I still envy my friends whose parents remained married. Loneliness and resentment can creep in during the holidays, but I have learned how to find joy in them too, grasping onto the new traditions my parents and I are creating, even if those traditions take place at separate times in separate places. I choose to appreciate the constants in my life: the way my mother pops her gum (which used to bother me), and my father’s obsession with Christmas lights — all the quirky things they do that make them who they are.

Losing something also allows you to make room for new people and traditions. I have learned to love my life even as I have accepted that this one major aspect of it will never change. And the new memories I’m able to make outweigh my desire to hold onto what was then.

I used to mourn that imaginary family member who went missing seven years ago, the presence that held our family together, the invisible person who linked us all. And I’ve since come to realize something — that person is me. I’m the link. I’m the biggest constant in our lives. I have been all along, and I’m glad I always will be.

Natalie Muñoz is a high school sophomore in California.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘We Are Not Ready for Real Life’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘We Are Not Ready for Real Life’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
March 2, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET

The Last Word

My first message to you, 44 years after high school: “I remember you; you had that long, pretty hair.” You told me about the car accident that left your lower body paralyzed. I told you that our wholeness doesn’t depend on the body. You wrote to me about making art, cooking, living in Mexico, your love for your son, your joyful creativity after surgery. In December, you stopped messaging. I was heartbroken to learn that you died. Then I reread your last message, about how we are connected in unseen and mystical ways. What a gift, intimacy with you. — Alice Hogan

My friend Laura, who passed away, with her son, Constancio, at their home in Mexico.
My friend Laura, who passed away, with her son, Constancio, at their home in Mexico.

Our Big Reality Check

After my 13-year marriage fell apart, I rented an apartment a few blocks from our family home in Rome. Three days later, Italy went into lockdown. I began a new life, along with the rest of the nation, working remotely and spending time with my children. My split was suddenly the second most important thing happening. As my wife and I grappled with the pandemic, pain and regret fell to the side. Is it possible that lockdown is our friend? It may seem cruel, but we are not ready for real life. — Federico Petrangeli

Clothes and masks hanging to dry outside my window.

‘Gram Loves You. Please Call.’

My grandmother Ruth was like a secret agent. Before cellphones or the internet, she would covertly track her grandchildren. At 23, I moved to Mexico to work for a resort. I was, at last, on my own. One night, while I was drinking with my co-workers at a beach bar, a man from a nearby village walked in and shouted my full name. When I responded, he marched up to me and said, “Your abuela has called each house in our village. I was chosen to find you with this message: ‘Gram loves you. Please call.’” — Amy Gotliffe

My grandma Ruth. I miss her! 

Green Ginger Wine

“It’s time, it’s time, for green ginger wine,” we would chant every Friday night as we danced around the kitchen, my lover’s hand at my waist, my arm around his wife. We drank wine from goblets as their toddler yelled happily at our feet. It would be a long time before I admitted to myself that sex with him no longer felt right, that I was more in love with our life together than I was with my lover. When I broke up with him, I stayed friends with his wife, and wondered if their child would remember me. — Melanie Pryor

The three of us lying in the grass together. I have the pink boot. 

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

There Is No Vaccine for Grief

There Is No Vaccine for Grief

But there are ways to prepare to face it.

Credit…Leonardo Santamaria

  • March 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

For months, I’ve felt like the emotional equivalent of a car with a cracked windshield. I’m still rolling through daily life, but one good knock is bound to shatter me. Although the number of coronavirus cases has been declining, the number of deaths has soared well above 500,000, and now we have the new variants to worry about. I know that if I have not yet lost a loved one, I’m one of the lucky ones — and no one’s luck lasts forever.

I love being proactive — I’m all about having a go bag with extra batteries, duct tape and granola bars ready for any emergency. But what, if anything, could I do to prepare myself for grief?

Anticipatory grief is a well-documented phenomenon in grief counseling, said Dr. Katherine Shear, the founder and director for the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University. But usually researchers study anticipatory grief in environments like hospices, where loss is imminent. What many of us are experiencing right now is more nebulous. Dr. Shear cautioned that spiraling into anticipatory grief for a loss that may not even happen is likely to be unhelpful.

Of course, even if you do not lose a family member or friend in the pandemic, that does not mean you will not experience grief. At its core, grief is a reaction to a change that you didn’t want or ask for, said David Kessler, a grief expert and author of many books on the subject, including his most recent, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”

Even those who have not lost family members are experiencing some level of loss in the pandemic, he said, from the disappointment of missing in-person experiences and holiday celebrations to the losses of our jobs and even our homes.

“The problem with comparisons in grief is if you win, you lose,” Mr. Kessler said, adding, “and the world is big enough for all our griefs.”

Inoculating yourself against feelings of loss may prove harder than getting a routine vaccine. “Grief is as unique as a thumbprint. What works for one person may not work for another,” said Deanna Upchurch, the director of clinical outreach services at the Providence-based hospice HopeHealth. Still, should the worst happen, knowing what tends to help others could help you gird yourself — even just a little bit. If doing something feels better to you than doing nothing, consider this your packing list for a grief go bag.

Practice Experiencing Your Emotions.

“In our culture, we tend to think painful emotions are bad,” Dr. Shear said. “But that’s really not true. It’s true that they’re painful, but we can learn from them,” she said. Next time you feel something unpleasant, take a moment to sit with it and think about why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.

Mr. Kessler suggests looking to the animal kingdom for inspiration on learning to live with uncomfortable emotions. After his 21-year-old son died suddenly in 2016, Mr. Kessler was watching a documentary on buffalos. The documentary noted that buffalos run straight into oncoming storms.

“Because they run into the storm, they minimize the time they are in the discomfort. We live in a society that minimizes grief. Unlike the buffalo, we try to stay a mile ahead of it, but it’s just always there, chasing behind us,” he said. Consider, instead, being willing to run into the rain.

Shower the People You Love With Love.

Maureen Keeley, a professor of interpersonal communication at Texas State University, has been studying the final conversations between family members for nearly 20 years. In that time, one theme has emerged over and over again: “We need to tell those we love that we love them,” she said.

This advice sounds so simple. And yet, when I tested it out by calling my best college friend to tell her how grateful I was for her friendship, the gears gummed up. (Instead, I asked about her new cat.) To which, Dr. Keeley gave me this advice: “Grow up.” Telling someone how much they mean to you may feel a bit awkward. Go on and reveal the mushy bits of your soul. Most people enjoy hearing how much they matter, and saying it now saves you from having regrets later.

Nurture Your Network.

“We are not meant to be islands of grief,” Mr. Kessler said. Everyone grieves differently, and even within your grief there may be periods when you wish to be alone and periods when you really need a friend. When the latter happens, having a sturdy network to lean on is so important. “We need to know our loved one’s life mattered, our loved one’s death mattered. It brings us meaning to see our pain witnessed in someone else’s eyes,” he said. Now is the time to make time for friends.

Recognize Your Coping Style.

Some people need something to look forward to. Others find thinking about the future overwhelming, said Ms. Upchurch. If you’re currently planning what to serve at your post-vaccine dinner party, you’re likely in the first group. Knowing that can help you put things on your schedule that will bring you joy in a dark time. If, however, you’ve been getting through the past year of social distancing by not thinking too far into the future, you may be better served by just allowing yourself to stay in the moment, taking each day as it comes.

Find a Natural Space.

Even if you’re generally not the outdoorsy type, a tiny slice of nature can be helpful in navigating grief, said Sonya Jakubec, a professor in the school of nursing and midwifery at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. Dr. Jakubec studies the impact of natural spaces and parks on patients and caregivers. As she reported in a chapter she wrote on grieving in nature for the book “Health in the Anthropocene: Living Well on a Finite Planet,” she took palliative care patients and caregivers out for a walk near where they worked.

“Many of them had never considered the idea of going for a 20-minute walk break,” she said. After the field trips outdoors, 93 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed that natural spaces provide emotional comfort. Dr. Jakubec has seen similar results with grief groups that meet outside. “Parks and nature feel like a container that is large enough to hold our grief,” she said.

Thanks to vaccines and hospitals having more tools to treat critical patients, it’s possible that the bump we’re all bracing for will never arrive.

Still, it’s worth fortifying yourself now, because grief is an innate part of what it means to live a full and rich life as a human.

“Generally, grief is a lifelong experience that changes over time,” said Ms. Upchurch. Still, humans can be surprisingly resilient. That resilience will help you weather whatever else the pandemic has in store — cracks and all.

I Met My Husband on the Maternity Ward

Modern Love

I Met My Husband on the Maternity Ward

He needed someone to cuddle him.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Feb. 26, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

My birth story, which is also my love story, began nearly 40 years ago in the mountain town of Spalding, Jamaica. It has been told to me time and again by the two women who were there that April day — my mother, Lorna, and a stranger, Lurline, who was giving birth in the same open ward.

My mother and Lurline lived in different towns far from each other and had traveled separately to the hospital in Spalding. At the time, men had no place in the maternity ward, so my father, Vivian, a farmworker, and Lurline’s husband, Jeral, a pastor, were not there for the deliveries. Lorna and Lurline were expected to handle labor alone, with the help of nurses and doctors, of course.

These young women were the first generation even to have the option of giving birth in a hospital; they both had been born at home in crude conditions. Percy Junor Hospital in Spalding boasted no modern amenities. There were no meals on sanitized trays. Patients had to bring their own food, or have it brought, preferably in thermoses if they wanted it to be hot. Expecting mothers also had to bring their own gowns, bedsheets, even cloth diapers for their newborns.

There were few if any locally trained doctors. Cuba had the nearest medical schools. These Cuban-trained doctors were assisted by Jamaican nurses who ruled the maternity ward, moving briskly between the sheer curtains that separated the beds. There was no privacy.

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Lorna and Lurline lay nervously in their adjacent beds. While curtains separated them, they were connected by their fear of childbirth, and it was that fear that led them to start talking.

My mother was the first to go into labor, which began with a piercing pain that only intensified. As Lurline tells it, my mother began to moan and groan and quickly escalated to her mouthing unintelligible words in agony.

Lurline was overdue and believed that she should have been the one to be in labor. Shifting in her bed, she maneuvered her swollen and wobbly feet to the floor and, cradling her protruding abdomen, waddled to Lorna’s bedside. With her pastor husband, Lurline was a religious woman, a praying woman. She and Jeral led a small church in the Cascade Mountains, so she prayed for my mother at her bedside.

She later told me that witnessing my mother’s agony was akin to watching a body being split in two; my mother moaned and thrashed as if possessed. Lurline was seeing childbirth for the first time and it truly terrified her. She not only prayed for her new friend but also for herself, for what she would soon have to endure, as she held my mother’s hand through each contraction and breathed with her in unison.

These women had grown up in a time when subjects like sexuality and childbirth were not discussed, not even between mothers and daughters, so she found herself neither mentally nor emotionally prepared. The nurses did not take pity on first-time mothers and offered no comfort.

The nurses failed to realize, however, that my mother was in grave danger. She was hemorrhaging and growing lethargic, her legs shaking. Lurline told me that the brown of my mother’s irises even rolled over to reveal pure white, and her mind seemed to ebb and flow from awareness to oblivion.

When my mother’s body went still, the nurses, finally aware of the danger, busied themselves around her as night fell. It would be many hours before my mother would hear her baby’s cry — my cry — for the first time.

On Monday, April 13, 1981, my mother awoke to the sight of me being placed in her arms, but she was desperately weak, and the nurses decided she would need to remain in the hospital an extra four nights for observation. My mother’s happiness knew no bounds; my safe arrival was enough to calm the fear that had brought her to the brink.

Now it was Lurline’s turn, and the weight of her pregnancy was starting to drain her. She had thought she was emotionally prepared to deliver her baby, but seeing what my mother endured made her reel at the thought of pushing life from her own body.

Then the doctor came with bad news: Her baby was breech and would need to be surgically extracted. Lurline hadn’t anticipated this, but the doctor explained that her life and the baby’s life were in danger; she might even have to choose between them. The words “your life or your baby’s” terrorized her.

Lurline wrestled with this choice as the doctor’s warning rattled through her mind. She thought of the tumultuous yet tender days of her marriage, the life blossoming within her, and the moment she expected that she finally would hold the physical manifestation of her and Jeral’s love. Would that still happen now? As her mind veered between visions of life and death, she turned to her only source of solace — prayer — and in doing so, came to a decision: The baby’s life had to be saved.

Lurline suffered alone with the gravity of this decision. Despite her husband’s absence at the hospital, they managed life together and had started building a home for the family they were creating. They maintained a farm and a church. Jeral had made the long journey to the hospital when it was time for his wife to deliver their child, but he was not allowed to stay, so he had returned home.

As Lurline lay in bed, she worried about how Jeral would react if he were to come to take his family home and learn that only his child had survived. She pictured his face, perplexed by the doctor’s words. She saw his hands reaching for her in desperation and denial, only to confirm that his wife was, in fact, absent from her body.

Lurline inhaled the present: her church, her husband and the life inside her. Then she exhaled, as if letting go of all that might have been: a long marriage, parenthood, their rightful future. Placing her hand on her Bible, she glimpsed her wedding ring. She had not removed it since Jeral had slid it onto her finger years before, but she decided to remove it now, which took great effort, as her fingers had swollen.

Once it was off, she whimpered at the sight of her Bible and wedding ring. In life they were her identity, but in death they would be a memory.

If she were to die, Lurline needed Jeral to know what had happened during her last moments. As she approached my mother, holding her Bible and wedding ring, she felt guilty encroaching on such happiness, but she had no other choice. She didn’t want to cry, but upon seeing my mother holding me, Lurline’s eyes filled with tears. She put the ring and Bible in my mother’s hands with the request that Jeral receive them if she did not make it out of surgery alive.

These symbols of love and commitment felt like cement in my mother’s hands. She took a deep breath and nodded yes. Even if my mother didn’t quite realize the extent of Lurline’s trouble, she knew how deeply she had come to appreciate their newfound friendship.

Lurline had one more request for my mother, which was to have her read her favorite scripture, Psalm 35. As the anesthesia traveled through Lurline’s body, my mother’s words filtered through Lurline’s consciousness: “Plead my cause, Oh Lord — ”

On Wednesday, April 15, two days after my mother had given birth to me, a new life safely emerged by cesarean section, a boy named Ontonio.

At 13 pounds, Ontonio was the talk of the ward — no one had ever seen a baby of such great weight. Sewn up with stitches, aching from her surgery and unable to sit up or move about, Lurline rested beside her new friend, Lorna. Lurline’s delivery had been so traumatic and physically taxing that she would need time to heal.

And so it happened that the nurse took Ontonio from his mother and handed him to mine, who rocked, cuddled and sang to us both — me, Kadine, and Lurline’s baby boy, who in time, although we lived hours apart, would become my occasional childhood playmate, then teenage lover and now husband of 15 years.

Together, Ontonio and I entered this world, and together, four decades later, with three children of our own, we continue to revel in its mysteries and miracles.

Kadine Christie lives in Fairhope, Ala. She is the author of the memoir “I Am Home Within Myself.”

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

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Romance Blossoms for Seniors During Quarantine

Romance Blossoms for Seniors During Quarantine

For some in assisted living residences, the lockdown has made finding a romantic companion as simple as walking down the hall.

Sam Gallo, 91, and Millie Hathorn, 86, who met met and live together at St. James Place, a continuing care retirement community in Baton Rouge, La., were married Aug. 5, 2020.
Sam Gallo, 91, and Millie Hathorn, 86, who met met and live together at St. James Place, a continuing care retirement community in Baton Rouge, La., were married Aug. 5, 2020.Credit…Collin Richie

  • Feb. 25, 2021, 9:05 a.m. ET

When 91-year-old Sam Gallo and 86-year-old Millie Hathorn got engaged in March 2020, Mr. Gallo, who is deaf from his time as crew chief on jet planes during the Korean War, wrote a letter to his three children. “Only at death is love done,” he wrote. While they both had been married before, he wrote, “love was not done … with us.”

The purpose of the letter was to explain why they wanted to get married at their ages and so quickly, instead of waiting until the pandemic had passed and the families could celebrate together. “What a tragedy it would be to allow a day once earned in gold to fall like water through careless fingers … We accept our golden days are numbered, and we are determined to treasure each one as they are given to us, one by one.”

The couple got engaged last March during the onset of the pandemic. Mr. Gallo then wrote a letter to his children explaining why they were choosing to get married so quickly.
The couple got engaged last March during the onset of the pandemic. Mr. Gallo then wrote a letter to his children explaining why they were choosing to get married so quickly.Credit…Sean Gasser

The Gallos, who use the Ava app to communicate, met and live together at St. James Place, a continuing care retirement community in Baton Rouge, La. Their relationship took a romantic turn in February 2020. They got engaged right after the coronavirus hit the United States, and their love blossomed even amid the pandemic.

Companionship is often found in long-term care facilities. Research published in the Sexuality Research and Social Policy in 2009 found that it was “common” for assisted living residents to have a “continued interest in romantic relationships.” And while intercourse isn’t unheard-of in assisted living, the findings “overwhelmingly revealed that intimate touch, hand holding, and other less physically intense expressions were common.”

But many of these types of facilities have been on lockdowns of late to avoid infection of the coronavirus. At points, residents have been quarantined in their rooms or on their floors. And in some places visitations have been restricted (the Centers for Disease Control advised long-term care facilities to “have a plan for visitor restrictions” and “facilitate and encourage alternative methods for visitation” like video calls).

Senior care housing facilities can be lonely, and with these restrictions, many have feared residents are lonelier than ever.

Some say the opposite is happening though. Some residents may be more inclined to find a romantic companion right now, whether because of the doom and gloom of the pandemic or because of the isolation from friends and family.

“We are seeing more relationship building, some romantic, some friendship,” said Daniel Reingold, president and chief executive of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx said. He said “without question” his residents, who are in the process of getting fully vaccinated, have been more open to love during the pandemic. “What I’m sensing is not that there’s an increased fear of mortality so much that there’s an increased appreciation for love,” he said. “People realizing, I want to have somebody in my life right now. So they’re finding each other.”

For the Gallos, they found each other before the coronavirus hit, but it wasn’t until February 2020 when they spent time together at St. James’s Mardi Gras party that things changed. “After that party, it was as if it had to be that we were together,” said Ms. Gallo, who took her husband’s name. Also after that party, the pandemic hit. But that didn’t stop them from getting to know each other. In fact, it may have helped. Throughout the past year, as restrictions have kept people apart, limited activities and closed cafeterias, they’ve spent as much time together as possible. “We made sure we could spend the same amount of time together and didn’t hide it from anybody, we held hands and sat close to each other, but we did wear masks,” she said.

They were married Aug. 5, 2020.

“We decided because of our age and how we felt, we would get married soon here at St. James, by their chaplain,” Ms. Gallo said. “We couldn’t have family but we had one resident who was my maid of honor and one resident who was his best man. Of course we had all the social distancing and masks. But it worked out beautifully. It was a beautiful day, we had no problems.”

Their children (six total) were disappointed they couldn’t attend the nuptials, but Ms. Gallo said, “they understood that we didn’t want to wait.”

The Gallos contracted Covid-19 in December, “it was mild and we both came out of it really good,” she said. “He took care of me when I needed help, I took care of him when he needed help. There wasn’t a moment I wasn’t right there for him, and he was always there for me.” Ms. Gallo said attitude is key to surviving quarantine, and it’s clear in the way she looks at her experience. “I think it did bring us closer together.”

Now, she said, “there’s no doubt that being with Sam has definitely made the lockdowns and all not so bad.”

Gloria Duncan and Al Cappiello, both 71, shared that the lockdown has had a positive effect on their relationship. “During Covid, she looks after me, I look after her. It’s brought us a lot closer,” Mr. Cappiello said.Credit…The Hebrew Home at Riverdale

At Hebrew Home, Gloria Duncan and Al Cappiello, both 71, who’ve been together for about four years, said the pandemic and quarantining has changed their relationship “for the better.” But keeping their love alive over the course of multiple quarantines has been a challenge. Luckily, it was one the two of them were more than up for.

“I’m on the third floor and he’s on the first, so at times, you could walk around the floor but you couldn’t leave the floor,” Ms. Duncan said via Zoom, Mr. Cappiello by her side. “So he would come up on the elevator and say hi to me and talk to me for a few minutes, he’s in the elevator and I’m out of the elevator, or vice versa.” Mr. Cappiello added, “That’s the best we could do. I would go to the cafeteria and get the things she likes, and go the elevator and bring them to her.”

They have been quarantined separately two or three times over the past year; the longest they went without seeing each other was an unpleasant 14 days. During those times, they would talk on the phone. Other than that, they see each other every day.

“During Covid, she looks after me, I look after her. It’s brought us a lot closer. It’s really a blessing,” Mr. Cappiello said. He doesn’t have any family and Ms. Duncan’s family lives out of state. “It’s been easier having each other during this time,” she added.

They both believe this experience has been a positive one for their relationship, “because we have not been able to see other people, we treasure each other even more,” Ms. Duncan said.

Administrators from all the facilities interviewed for this article have seen a lot of residents stepping up to take care of and support each other in isolation. That includes Amber Court, an assisted living community in Brooklyn, where 76-year-old Jeffrey Miller proposed to 71-year-old Gloria Alexis in August.

Jeffrey Miller, 76, proposed to Gloria Alexis, 71, last August. They are planning for an intimate wedding at Amber Court this spring.Credit…Amber Court of Brooklyn
The couple, who were not in a romantic relationship before the pandemic, fell for each other shortly after the start of the lockdown.Credit…Amber Court of Brooklyn

Before the pandemic, they weren’t even in a romantic relationship. They were just friends. However, after the pandemic hit, Ms. Alexis spent a month in the hospital (for something unrelated to coronavirus, which neither of them have contracted), cut off from Mr. Miller for “too long,” he said. “I was going crazy.” During that time, Mr. Miller said his feelings for her grew stronger.

Sol Bauer, the director of operations at Amber Court, said that the uncertainty of the world around them made Mr. Miller realize he cared for her as more than a friend. “Jeffrey kept on coming in and bothering me and kept asking all of us in the office when she’s coming back,” Mr. Bauer said. “And I eventually said, ‘why do you need to know when she’s coming back? When she’s back, you’ll know.’ And he said, ‘I want to propose to her,’ and he whipped out a box with a diamond ring and a wedding band, and we almost passed out.”

Once they found out when she’d be coming back, the staff helped Mr. Miller plan a perfect outdoor proposal, complete with balloons, roses, and, of course, the ring. “Something told me to do it, it was about time. We’re not getting any younger,” Mr. Miller said.

They are hoping for a spring wedding at Amber Court with friends from the facility. They now live in the same room. As to why the pandemic changed their relationship, Mr. Miller said, “you realize, you don’t want to be by yourself.”

And it’s not just the coupled up residents who are benefiting from these budding romances amid a worldwide pandemic.

Ms. Gallo said, “I feel like here at St. James, we brought a little touch of love and joy to some of the people. We always hold hands when we walk out, and people stop us and say, ‘We love seeing ya’ll, ya’ll make me feel good.’ I think we brought some kind of comfort to some people. I feel we did some good.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘I Remove My Wedding Ring’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘I Remove My Wedding Ring’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Feb. 23, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET

Negotiating Separation

Outside the Chicago airport the cold creeps up my coat, stiffening my spine as I hug my husband. We haven’t been apart for over a year. I board the plane alone because Nick isn’t vaccinated. At immigration in Harare, I remove my wedding ring and check the “single” box. Love between two men is illegal in Zimbabwe. I adapt to survive. When I emerge, the balmy air relaxes my spine as I hug my mother, Bharati. We cry, mourning the togetherness we’ve lost this year. I also cry for my husband, who drove home alone. One reunion requiring another separation. — Khameer Kidia

My husband’s snowy drive home.
My husband’s snowy drive home.

Weekly Apartment Party

During World War II, Lucy was sent out of Germany by her family. Theo was imprisoned in a concentration camp until the end of the war. In 1959, they lived a floor below us in our Bronx apartment building. They had a piano but no children. My parents had three girls but no piano. When Lucy and Theo found out that the nuns at our Catholic school offered cheap piano lessons, they insisted that we practice in their apartment. Theo would sometimes play show tunes while we danced and sang along. Such a joyful cacophony we created! I hear our music still. — Rosemary Colangelo Stewart

Here I am as a girl with Lucy and Theo.

My ‘Feline Social Worker’

Marjorie, my wife of 41 years, a member of our community fire department in Santa Fe, had a severe bleeding stroke. Leaving the hospital, I drove home through a raging snowstorm, fearing that I might get in an accident and be unable to help her. At home, I cried in our bed. Our cat, Bunnie, came in. Waking in the morning, I discovered that Bunnie had gathered six of her toys from around the house and placed them by my bed. After Marjorie died, my “feline social worker” looked after me until she was 20. — Bob Mizerak

Bunnie

Not So Naturally Gifted

My childhood memories of the Chinese New Year include the noise of my grandmother’s mahjong tiles click-clacking together. When my grandmother, Yuan, moved away from our hometown in Inner Mongolia to join my parents in the big city of Shanghai, she lost contact with her mahjong friends. My parents aren’t enthusiastic about the game, so my cousin and I offered to learn and play with our grandmother. We were naturally gifted, winning round after round. Or so I thought, until I better understood the game: My grandmother had all the tiles, but she was letting us win. — Ke Ran Huang

My grandparents are in the foreground. I’m wearing red and my cousin is wearing yellow. My aunt and father watch our game.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

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Modern Love: I Wanted to Love Her, Not Save Her

Modern Love

I Wanted to Love Her, Not Save Her

The first time we spoke, she was so weak she had collapsed. Why did that not alarm me?

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Feb. 19, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

When Darla and I had our first real conversation, she was so delirious from hunger that she had passed out behind the self-help section where she had been pretending to shelve books. I found her lying on the dingy store carpeting, propped up on one pencil-thin arm, eyelids fluttering, trying to focus on me.

Months later, she would tell me that she hadn’t been able, in the moment, to distinguish between me and one of our co-workers, an acne-covered teenager who might have vaguely resembled me, I guess, in the eyes of someone as starved as she was. I was neither acne-covered nor a teenager but a 22-year-old aspiring writer who was working at a chain bookstore in Minneapolis for lack of any better ideas.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She nodded and took my hand. Hers felt so cold I had an impulse to rub some warmth into it.

“Did anyone see me fall down?”

I shook my head no. “What happened?”

“I haven’t eaten in days. I’m anorexic.” She said this in such a matter of fact, unashamed way that I accepted it as if she were telling me her birth sign.

“Do you want me to get you something to eat?” I asked.

She smiled, maybe recognizing me for the first time in the conversation. Although we had worked together for a few months, we barely knew each other.

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“It doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Just sit here with me until I get my strength back.”

So I did.

After that, we talked a lot. I told her about my plans to drive my old Chevy Malibu to Kansas City, where I was planning to crash on the sofa of a friend of a friend, once I had saved enough money. She told me about the poetry she was writing and the crush she harbored on our assistant manager. We discovered that we shared a love of Jack Kerouac. I told her that my Kansas City adventure was supposed to be my “On the Road” moment.

“Did you know that the Walker Museum has a Beat Generation exhibit right now?” she said. “You can see Kerouac’s typewriter with the actual scroll of ‘On the Road.’”

We went to the exhibit and saw the scroll. She talked about all the places she hadn’t been, and I told her how badly I wanted to see the world, to have an adventure.

“Maybe you’re having an adventure now,” she said, taking my hand. Hers was warmer this time.

Soon she stopped talking about the assistant manager, but she didn’t stop starving herself.

I didn’t try to help her with that. I’m not sure why. It’s as if I accepted her struggle as a given, as a fact of her. I was struggling myself after a recent heartbreak and was trying to teach myself how to do basic things again: to think for myself, to walk properly, to hold myself upright, to sleep and to breathe.

To see her struggle to force down solid food, to watch as she spread a thin layer of butter on a saltine that she would chew to a paste before it would go down (this was her only meal some days) seemed not natural, of course, but also somehow unremarkable to me. I watched her starve and held her while she did it.

Some people might call that enabling. I called it love.

Maybe I wasn’t so wrong. A few years ago, I read about a study in which the researchers suggested that kissing may counteract anorexia. I’m sure there’s a healthy and deserved skepticism about such claims, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true, that love could cure a dangerous illness? Anyway, what a scientific experiment that must have been!

When Darla and I kissed for the first time, it didn’t cure her of anything, but it did cure me of my dream of going to Kansas City. I still have never been there, all these years later. I have no desire to go.

To anyone observing us then, with Darla being so dangerously thin, I must have looked like a bystander who had come upon an accident victim in a burning car and asked her about her favorite music instead of pulling her from the flames.

It’s not that I didn’t want to risk burning my hands. It’s more that my instinct was to burn along with her. A better person, I realize, would have driven her to the nearest rehab center, but doing so never even occurred to me.

Instead, Darla and I engaged in our own private version of the kissing cure. What were the results? It would take a long time to find out.

Those first few months were our adventure. We quit our jobs at the bookstore. Instead of driving alone to Kansas City, I sold my Chevy Malibu and used the money to buy us tickets on an Amtrak train headed west.

As we stared at the map of America at the station, she said, “Where will we go?”

I told her to pick the most romantic-sounding name along the Empire Builder line, which led to us buying two tickets on a sleeper car to West Glacier, Mont.

For participants in the kissing cure, I would recommend a berth on an Amtrak sleeper car, where you can seal yourself away from the world, rattling through the night and swaying together under the blanket with each curve of the tracks. At every station, we would put on our glasses (we had the same prescription and sometimes would wear each other’s) and look out the window at the smokers on the station platforms hurrying to get in their last inhales before the “All aboard!” sounded.

Before the train pulled into West Glacier, the sleeper car attendant had convinced us not to get off. “This is a summer resort town, my dears,” he had said, “and it’s November. Unless you want to sleep at the station, you had better stay on until Whitefish.”

It was good advice. We hadn’t booked anyplace to stay in West Glacier, thinking we would just find a hostel when we got off. The truth is we likely would have fought, cried, frozen and headed back home, with our adventure prematurely ended.

Thanks to the attendant, though, we stayed on until Whitefish, spent a week taking in the mountain views and then, longing for our sleeper car, boarded the Empire Builder again, this time for Seattle, where we spent another week at a hostel before taking the Coast Starlight to Sacramento. From there, we took a bus to San Francisco and then to Flagstaff, Ariz., where we used the last of our remaining savings to rent a trailer in a trailer park where we had our first Christmas together.

Darla was eating a little more by then. Not much, but a little. She seemed to have more energy. We stayed for a few months, supporting ourselves with temp work, driving a $500 car the owner of the trailer had sold us — until it stopped running.

When our money ran out, we ran back home to the Midwest and got married soon after. Recently we celebrated our 23rd anniversary. Last year, our son turned 18.

For those interested in the kissing cure, I will say this in support: Darla has gained enough weight over the years that she was actually thinking about going on a diet until the pandemic lockdown trimmed us both down (many people put on pounds during this time, but our instinct was to limit trips to the grocery store, which had a slimming effect).

We have been together long enough now that those early versions of ourselves seem like children. In snapshots from those times, I see her in overalls and T-shirt, skeletally thin but beaming with the happiness of new love and the promise of adventure.

Our married life has not been without conflicts. I have taken her for granted, put my needs ahead of hers, indulged my weaknesses. But I never have regretted the fact that I did the possibly irresponsible thing back then by not acting alarmed about her anorexia, by not pressuring her to do anything about it, and instead just loving her for who she was. She never wanted heroic intervention from me or from anyone else. She triumphed over her issues with food on her own terms and is happy for me to be sharing our story now.

This is the confession of an enabler, I suppose. Or maybe I simply don’t know the difference between enabling and loving. What I do know is that I never would have wanted to be a participant in any experiment other than the one Darla and I unwittingly enrolled in all those years ago.

Adam Barrows teaches in the English department at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘What Will You Miss if You Leave Him?’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘What Will You Miss if You Leave Him?’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Feb. 16, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET

Lending a Dream

I woke to Nkozi’s arm around my waist. “I had another money dream,” she said, her brow furrowing. We were barely scraping by that year. Nkozi had a lot of money dreams. “Wanna borrow my dream?” I asked. She answered in a formless hum. I pressed my lips to her temple and told her about quahogging on the beach where I grew up: digging in the sand for the quahogs, scrubbing their shells until they looked like bone, enjoying fritters and chowder. I whispered until her brow was smooth and her head was heavy in the crook of my arm. — Serena Libardi

Nkozi, on the left, and me after our wedding.
Nkozi, on the left, and me after our wedding.

What Would I Miss?

After witnessing my parents’ divorce, I swore my life would be different. When I got divorced in my late 30s, I saw a psychologist to deal with the guilt of leaving my workaholic attorney husband and potentially hurting our children. “What will you miss if you leave him?” she said. “Sitting at a dinner table, having meals together,” I said. “But, how can you miss what you’ve never had?” I felt a gut punch; we’d rarely shared family meals. “Is that what you missed as a child?” “Yes,” I replied, finally letting myself mourn my past and present. — Kerrie Houston Reightley

Me and my four siblings on the wedding day of my first marriage.

‘Laughter Still Lights Our Way’

Sometimes the mind slips into dark places. On one such day, I was in the kitchen when my mind busied itself thinking about all I hadn’t achieved. Juggling a career and motherhood, I wished I had more time for both. Believing myself to be alone, I muttered, “What am I good at?” Behind me, quite unexpectedly and matter-of-factly, without a moment’s hesitation, my 6-year-old piped up in his precocious way. “But Mom, without you there would be no laughter.” Nate is almost 33 now, living on the opposite coast. Thankfully, laughter still lights our way on dark days. — Nancy Rae

Me and Nate when he was 4 years old.

Chicken Liver Hearts

In the early 1970s, as a college freshman in Iowa, I met a guy who was only interested in me as a friend. We played pinball (he liked the way I leaned into the flippers) and watched movies. David wasn’t much of a cook (he used a shoe box as a dish drainer) so I was surprised when he invited me for dinner on Valentine’s Day, presenting me with grilled chicken livers (my unconventional favorite) cut into the shape of hearts. Our own hearts are now filled with scars, stents and pacemakers, but also 48 years of love. — Bonnie Miller Rubin

Me and David enjoying the sun before the pandemic.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: Please Go Shelter in Another Place

Modern Love

Please Go Shelter in Another Place

During lockdown, a 25-year marriage shakes and resettles.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Feb. 12, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

On our 25th day of sheltering-in-place, my husband packed a suitcase and a brown paper bag of food and moved into an Airbnb some two miles away. Our quarter-century-long marriage was faltering, and we needed time apart, so off he went.

For the previous 24 days, the five of us — our son, Tyler; his girlfriend, Irina; our daughter, Alexa; and my husband and I — had been cocooned, venturing from the house only a few times for necessities. No more business travel for me. No more long commutes and late hours for Jason. No more college dorm for Alexa. No apartment of their own for Tyler and Irina, who came home to avoid pandemic-related risks from roommates.

We ordered puzzles and games, walked our dog on the strangely empty streets, made coffee and eggs, passed each other in the kitchen on breaks between Zoom meetings, and then met again sometime after 6 p.m. to make dinner. Alexa and Irina hovered close to me, asking a year’s worth of questions in less than a month: “When do you add the salt?” “How do you zest a lemon?” “Show me how you make the pasta.”

Then, on Day 25, everything broke. As I lay on the cool tile of the bathroom, my hand to my mouth so the kids wouldn’t hear me cry, Jason left. And in his absence, days passed as if I were underwater: breathless, floating, murky. My heart leapt around so much that my doctor ordered an EKG, which, on two separate readings, showed anomalies.

“I want you to wear a Holter monitor,” she said.

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But I couldn’t stand the thought of something so close to my erratic heart. She prescribed small, white pills, which I nibbled on.

My friends said Jason was having a midlife crisis.

Yes, I suppose, but naming something — even something as clichéd and common as a midlife crisis — did nothing for my aching heart. My husband (perhaps my soon to be ex-husband?) came and went, toggling between his Airbnb and visits with the children.

On one visit, he said, “I joined Match. I just wanted you to know.”

I nodded, went inside and made my own Match account. I cropped pictures, removing my husband’s smiling face, so I could post just me on this adult version of truth or dare. Truth in text, dare for a call? I wouldn’t dare all the way to an in-person meeting during these virus-strangled times. Nor, Jason promised, would he.

“I think things happen for a reason,” he said. “The quarantine means neither of us can really leave.”

But in a way, I did leave; I left my life as I knew it. I drank too much and ate too little. I slept too little and thought too much.

I cropped more photos, swiped left and right, bantered online with different men. I eliminated smokers, motorcyclists and those who confused “your” for “you’re.” I stopped staring at old family photos and started scrutinizing pre-pandemic pictures of men at the beach, on vacation, in suits, in offices. My husband had lifted the veil, and I peered out at a world I had never seen before, a world full of different people and alternate possibilities.

Mother’s Day fell on Day 48, more than three weeks after Jason left. Alexa, who generally shies away from arts and crafts, made a sign that spelled “Happy Mother’s Day” in dangling paper letters. I touched each letter, wiping my tears, trying to remind myself that no matter what — Covid-19, divorce, death — I was still a mother.

I was starting to fade, though. I stopped cooking and barely ate.

Tyler, who used to say, as a 4-year-old with a lisp, “You’re a good cooker, Mama,” began saying, “You’re awfully tiny, Mama.”

We still gathered in the kitchen every night, just the four of us, the empty fifth chair carefully ignored, but food overwhelmed me. Hunger and habit left. I didn’t realize the refrigerator was nearly empty until Tyler and Irina returned from Trader Joe’s.

Irina handed me a bouquet of pink roses and held me as I cried. Tyler, who had woken me at 2 a.m. with a panic attack, stood close and wiped his eyes in the way he used to after toddler naps. I wished I had a blankie for him, for all of us.

Day 66 marked Irina’s birthday, but the pandemic eliminated most celebration choices. I touched my Mother’s Day sign like a talisman and asked Alexa to swap out the “S” and “E” with a “B” and “I” and to rearrange the letters to spell “Happy Birthday.” We hung the reconfigured sign outside for a socially distanced dinner with the few in our pod, including Jason, which felt both awkward and normal.

I started to take long walks; Jason bought a bike.

“The mornings are the hardest,” he said. “I’m lonely.”

Mornings were easier for me, the light in the window reminding me that the sun still rose, no matter my sadness. It was nights when I struggled, afraid of the dark, of sleep or no sleep, of dreams and memories.

Days passed, still formless and jumbled. I turned off the camera during work Zoom calls and lay my head on the desk. After dark, Alexa curled next to me as we watched mindless TV.

“I’m not just sad,” she said. “It’s more intense than that. I feel like my whole life got turned upside down.”

“It did,” I said, hugging her close.

Weeks passed. Jason biked, I Bumbled. We hissed, whispered, yelled, stood silent. He came and went from his Airbnb, so close and at such a distance.

I walked and walked, gradually reclaiming myself like a dimmer switch turning on. I stopped the white pills, started eating, sleeping, reading, even smiling. Jason came by to take out the trash cans, to fill my car with gas. He brought groceries, dog food, my favorite iced coffee. He asked me over for dinner and we ate quietly in his little place, as nervous as a blind date. We were tender and awkward, vacillating between passion and pain.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I want to come home. I miss you.”

“You miss me or our life?”

“You,” he said. “It’s you.”

At first his words were quiet and unconvincing. And the veil was lifted: I went back and forth between memories of our 29 years together and flirty text messages from Match and Bumble. I wondered about the next 29 years and what I wanted.

Jason bought me a bike. We rode miles at the beach in masked silence. Sitting on the empty sand after, he leaned over and said, “May I kiss you?”

I leaned in, opening my lips to him. He tasted both nostalgic and new. “So strange,” I said, and he looked as if he might cry. I was sad and present and hopeful. The future, however uncertain, was right there in front of us.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, but not so often as to sound untrue. “I understand you need time. Just know I miss you and love you so.”

I weighed 29 years with the man who is the father of my children, who knew my grandparents, whom I most love to be with, against a new chapter of different possibilities. I thought of the years between us and the years ahead.

On Day 98, we celebrated Tyler’s birthday. California started to reopen. I tied my apron and made Tyler’s favorites: onion dip, pasta salad, chocolate chip cookie pie.

“You’re chefing again, Mama,” Tyler said.

We celebrated outside under the dangling sign that still read “Happy Birthday.”

“I love you,” Jason said as he left our little party, and I remembered us as new parents in the delivery room, too excited and in love to know how hard it could be.

“I love you, too,” I said.

Alexa’s birthday came on Day 109, 84 days after Jason left. The five of us ate blueberry crumble under the sign, and after Alexa blew out the candles, Jason cleared his throat and said, his voice cracking, “I want to say how sorry I am for everything. Mom and I have decided — I’m moving home.”

The next morning, he came back with his suitcase and more bags of food than he left with all those months ago.

We had stood on the edge, teetered and stumbled. When he had wanted to jump, I’d pulled him back. When I stepped forward, he grabbed me. Ultimately, we held hands, each keeping the other from falling until we could turn around and choose each other again. We have learned enough to know that the cliff is always there, and that to love is to choose and keep choosing.

Michelle White is a writer in Los Angeles.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘She Was a Little Weirdo’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘She Was a Little Weirdo’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Feb. 9, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET

Glad He Asked

On our fourth date, Tayo and I ate tacos on the steps of a colorful church in Oakland, Calif. A white-haired man shuffling down the street shouted at us with slurred speech and apparent admiration: “Look at you two! Are you in love?” Tayo smiled and said, “Sure.” The old man, either unsatisfied or unable to hear, belted out again, “What’s that? Are you two in love?” Tayo and I looked at each other and laughed. We shouted a resounding “Yes!” The old man seemed appeased, and we felt the first glimmer of our answer’s truth. — Theda Maritzer

A lion outside of the colorful church.
A lion outside of the colorful church.

Welcome to ‘Our Weird Little World’

When my oldest friend got pregnant, I felt embarrassingly abandoned. Since fourth grade, Eloise and I had been cocooned in our weird little world; while excited, I worried that our friendship would soon become a faint star in the constellation of her life. I imagine that others in my position would feel similarly, yet I judged myself for not being more exuberant. Eloise’s daughter came, grew and learned to crawl. One day, on FaceTime, as I watched her wiggle through the doggy door, I realized I couldn’t be jealous. She was a little weirdo, just like us. — Cat Coyne

Eloise’s daughter crawls through the doggy door.

Nothing to Fix

People call me heartless. I’m not. I lack one type of human connection, not all of them. I may never have a girlfriend or boyfriend, but I can love family, friends and pets. People say they can “fix” me; they can’t. I’m not broken, just different. People say it’s made up. It isn’t. I’m not heartless. I’m not broken, not a liar and not loveless. I’m just me, and I’m asexual. — Noa Callie

Me in Hebron, Maine. A friend taught me how to make flower crowns. 

Now I Know Why

After Hazel and I got married at the ages of 20 and 21, I questioned our judgment in choosing to marry so young. When we had a baby soon after, I wondered how I could possibly support a family. In our mid-40s, I thought we were too young to become grandparents, though our grandchildren are lovely. Then when Hazel passed away at 50 from the coronavirus, I finally realized why we got married so young: We weren’t meant to grow old together. And I am grateful for our time. — Sean Luke Dado

Together on Hazel’s last birthday, Jan. 4, 2020, in the highlands of the northern Philippines.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: The Day His Journal Went Blank

Modern Love

The Day His Journal Went Blank

A daughter races to collect her father’s memories before Alzheimer’s can steal them away.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Feb. 5, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

My father stood in the kitchen eating refried beans from the can with a fork as Paul Simon sang “Graceland” on repeat for 20 minutes.

“Hey Alexa, why don’t we take a break, huh?” he finally said, as if the speaker were a child who had taken too many turns on the slide. “Yeah, let’s give it a rest for a little bit.”

I watched him pet the device and gently shush it.

“Alexa, turn off,” I said, and the kitchen fell silent.

My father gave me a look, the same look he used to give me when I was 10 and didn’t want to call my grandmother or send thank-you cards after my birthday party. A look of a lesson to impart.

“Yes?” I said.

“Next time,” he said, “say please.”

My father has always been the type of person who likes listening to birds and picking up litter. I grew up admiring the way he would walk into a room full of friends watching TV and ask, “Who wants to talk?” He wanted to know what people were thinking about, and when phones lit up at the dinner table, he would sit and watch as the rest of us hunched and stared at our laps like phone-addicted zombies.

I try to be more like my father and make these values my own. But these characteristics of his are fading along with his memory, and the means through which I connect with him feel less like bonding and more like desperation.

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Almost five years ago, when my father was 62, he learned he had Alzheimer’s disease. Over this time, my mother and I have watched his decline. He forgets his friends’ names and can no longer read. Every morning, he sits in a baby blue polka-dot towel and waits for one of us to prompt him to start his day.

My mother will say: “Come in here and get dressed, honey.” “Brush your teeth, honey.” “Come drink some orange juice, honey.”

I look at other fathers who make money and pancakes and kiss their wives, and I feel depressed for how small my father’s world has become. I see how my mother is nervous to socialize with him or take him to dinner parties where the other husbands talk about work and politics, while hers asks, over and over, if Frank Sinatra is alive.

Since graduating from college two years ago, I have split my time between my apartment in Brooklyn and my parents’ house in Hastings-on-Hudson. Every week, I pack a bag and take the train 30 miles north to help with the caregiving. I joke about how it’s confusing to live in two places. “It’s like I have divorced parents,” I say as I hug my roommates goodbye.

I struggle to understand myself as a 23-year-old who is also taking care of a parent. I feel stiff when my roommates get dressed for work and ask which shoes I like best, or when they talk about their goals: what they want to do, where they want to live. I marvel at the ease with which they can sound so sure of their freedom and choices.

It’s not that I don’t have plans for myself, or that I dislike shoes. There’s just something about when my father calls me “Mommy” in front of the neighbors that morning, and then says he’s sorry, that makes my mouth feel tight when it comes to offering style advice or talking about my dreams.

I often wish I could ask my father who he was at 23. I wish I could ask what his bad habits were, or how he treated his mother, or what he did on Saturdays. But his ability to recall his past has disappeared, so I have come to terms with not knowing. I spend a lot of time asking him other questions instead, but my queries have surpassed casual curiosity.

Every week I ask: “Dad, what do you love about Mom?” “Dad, what is your favorite thing about yourself?” “Dad, do you like to cry?”

I shake him up like a Magic 8-Ball and throw him as many questions as I can. But just like the toy, his answers are random lines I have heard before. I’m patient as he searches for words and pronunciations, but we often end up playing charades as I guess at the words he has lost.

Last September, my parents and I were organizing our storage bin in the basement of our apartment building when I uncovered a chest of my father’s old journals. Under yellowed Superman comics and water-damaged concert tickets were 15 or so composition notebooks, dating from 1978 to 2002.

My mother said journals are private and attempted to hide them from me, but she soon realized I would keep coming back. Morals and privacy seemed unimportant if these journals could give me access to the person my father used to be. So I began to read them. And they have been a gift.

In his journals, my father wrote about self-doubt and fear and all the things that brought him joy. I copied his sentences into my own journal and cited his wisdom when I spoke to my friends. He also wrote about riding his bike around Brooklyn, reporting for small newspapers and exiting the subway at Seventh Avenue to walk home through the park.

Until I read those journals, I had no idea he’d done those things, and the similarities between us stunned me. I have spent the last two years working as a reporter for small Brooklyn papers, and every Sunday, heading home from the train that carries me back to the city from Hastings, I too take that walk home from Seventh Avenue.

When I read my father’s entries, I feel less lost. I not only recognize the person my father used to be, but I recognize myself.

My mother gave me permission to quote a few of them.

On Sept. 9, 1991, he wrote: “I want to stand up outside between the cars, head blowing in the wind, and scream, scream until I nearly start living … start living my dream. I need something. Too much time and too little touch in my life lately. Loneliness can kill, I believe.”

A few months later, on Feb. 10, 1992: “I feel giddy, like a kid. I want to dance! She called. Suzanne from Brooklyn. Yes, she’d love to go out again. So it’s brunch and watching the playoffs at her place Sunday. God I feel happy.”

“Later last night after 11:00, spurred by the phone call, I danced in the kitchen in the dark. A Stones song, I danced alongside old ghosts and laughed at them. Whether trying to shake demons or embrace a new dream, dancing in the dark always felt good.”

Suzanne is my mother, and it was through these journals that I learned how much my father loves her. His journals also showed me how much he loves his friends, and how much he loves me. Every entry from 1997 to 2002 mentions “little Annabelle.”

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the moment the entries stopped. On April 28, 2002, my father wrote about my bathtub performance of “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie,” and then the next page is blank. And so is the next, and the one after that. I flipped through wide-eyed, in denial. I didn’t want this version of my father to be over.

As I read that last entry, he and I were sitting beside each other on the couch with “Ellen” on TV. She was playing Burning Questions with Bradley Cooper, but their exchanges were too quick for him, so he stared at the rug instead.

I thought about the scenes I’d just read: my father calling his friends at midnight to tell them a joke, riding the subway and reading the paper, asking my mother to dance. Watching him now as he gazed at the rug, I felt uneasy about all the time he spends in silence. I felt afraid of how much he had lost and would continue to lose.

“Dad,” I said.

“Yes?”

“Do you love Mom?”

He laughed. “Of course.”

I took a breath and turned off the TV. I did my best to join him in the moment, as that is all we have.

“How much do you love her?”

“What do you mean, how much?” He laughed again. “One quart.”

“And you love me a gallon?”

“Yes,” he said. This much he understood. “Very many gallons.”

Annabelle Allen is a freelance journalist in New York City.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Tiny Love Stories: ‘He Had the Nicest Toes’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘He Had the Nicest Toes’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Feb. 2, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET

Survival in Rural Oregon

I found myself in rural Oregon, two years into a marriage with the wrong man and on a steep learning curve. My home: a drafty hand-built cabin with an inefficient wood stove. My partner: a developing opioid addict. Life was dark and cold. Then I met my neighbors. Some my age, some 50 years older. They shared wine, stories and laughter. They taught me to identify native plants, dress a turkey, read the lay of the land, preserve a garden harvest. And to mend everything worth saving and loving — which, their kindness taught me, included myself. — Cate Keller

A self-portrait I took the day I decided to leave.
A self-portrait I took the day I decided to leave.

“No One’s Idea of Maternal”

Amy was a spunky 8-year-old. She lived with our friends, but they were too old to care for her, so she would soon move to another foster home. I was no one’s idea of maternal and had never thought of raising children. But Amy wanted a family. I told my wife, “I want to adopt Amy.” We filled out paperwork, readied a bedroom and waited. After a judge’s OK, we loaded Amy’s clothes, crayons and copies of Harry Potter into our SUV. It’s been 17 years. I’m still no one’s idea of maternal, but I’m lucky to be Amy’s mother. — Lynn Domina

From left: Sandra, my wife, Amy and me.

Dude, I Bet You …

The first notable thing was that his Chinese name, Du Dao Na, sounded like, “Dude, where are you going?” The second: He had the nicest toes. We’d met as graduate-level exchange students in Taiwan. Don was wearing sandals. At Christmas, he surprised me with a kiss. I hesitated. He said, “It’s OK — I’m not dating until I find the one I’ll marry.” I asked, “How do you know that’s not me?” He replied, “I worry you’d tire of me.” I said, “Oh yeah? I bet I won’t!” Twenty-five years, three countries and two children later, I’m still winning that bet. — Doris Chou-Durfee

Don and our girls in Urumqi, the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang in northwestern China.

One Last Lovely Dinner

My father lay dying of the coronavirus. A normally ebullient 96-year-old, he drifted in and out of consciousness as I, also infected, sat at his bedside. His lucid moments were precious opportunities for connection and FaceTime calls with his grandchildren. One afternoon, he commanded me to get his yellow collared shirt, blue blazer, khaki pants, Sperry shoes and one of his many bow ties. I laid everything on his bed as he talked about going out to a lovely dinner with my mother, who had died 17 years earlier. Then my father closed his eyes. — Katharine Cunningham

An old photo of my parents.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Am I Too Old to Keep the Bargain With My Kids?

Ties

Am I Too Old to Keep the Bargain With My Kids?

As an older parent of young children, I feel that I am holding a big secret — my own mortality.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Jan. 29, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

“I’m rea—dy!” At 2:45 a.m., our 3-year-old, Nathaniel, yells out like an excited rooster heralding the day. My wife, Lisa, and I take turns attending to these middle-of-the-night greetings. Tonight, it’s my turn.

As my 56-year-old body oozes out of bed and stumbles to the kids’ bedroom, I step on a Lego brick that has been lying in wait like a spiny crustacean. A searing pain rips through my right foot.

Cheerful Nathaniel again yells, “I’m rea—dy!” By this time, Nathaniel’s 6-year-old brother, Theo, is awake. As I finally arrive, limping and in pain, both boys welcome me through the darkness with, “Oh, hi Dad!”

It’s a perfect storm. Both kids are awake, it’s the middle of the night, and my dented Lego foot is throbbing. All I can think at this moment is, “Am I too old for this?”

I get them back into their beds, and collapse onto a lumpy red bean bag to “stay for a few minutes,” as Nathaniel requests. At this point, I will do anything to get them back to sleep.

All of this is a labor of love, of course. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here, making sure that these kids feel safe — even at 2:45 a.m. Most of all, I want them to be reassured that I will be there when they need me.

But as I stare at the ceiling, the anxiety starts to build. Sure, I’m here now, but what about 15 years from now when one calls me at 2:45 a.m. despondent after a bad breakup, or 25 years from now after getting laid off from a dream job?

This night, like dozens before it, I feel the tug of haunting questions: Will I be there for them when they need me? Can I keep my side of the bargain even as I head into the carnival fun house of aging?

Lisa and I met a few years after my first marriage ended. At the time, I was in the midst of raising my two young children, Hana and Noah, in shared custody with their mom. I grew to love being a dad because of these two beautiful kids. And with Lisa 14 years younger than me, I was excited that we would have the chance for more kids together. We decided to wait a few years as Hana and Noah grew up and we established our blended family.

Less than a month after my 50th birthday, my second wave of parenthood began. Theo was born. And three years after that, Nathaniel arrived. In no time, we were a family of six. The brain-numbing, body-punishing months of middle-of-the-night infant wake-up calls arrived too. I quickly realized that I no longer felt like the 35-year-old energetic dad I once was. This was different.

I have run the numbers in my mind over and over again. I will be 71 when Nathaniel graduates from high school, and approaching my 80s when he starts to settle into his adult life. And then?

When I was growing up, my mom would tell us about older friends in their 50s (and beyond) who had passed away, saying that they had “dropped dead.” In my kid mind, the visual of someone suddenly falling to the floor dead, or shockingly sprawled over some potted plant in an office lobby, was horrifying. It stuck with me.

And now in my mid-50s, I am surely knee-deep in the “drop dead” zone.

Believe me, I am preparing for the long haul. I exercise regularly and eat a heathful diet. I have even run three marathons. I also continue the self-work of clearing my head of the triggers and boogeymen that have tied me up in knots over the years.

But this night, as the lumpy red bean bag starts to swallow me up like quicksand, and the clock approaches 3:30 a.m., I’m tired. Nathaniel and Theo have finally fallen back to sleep. I can go.

I get on my hands and knees to begin the stealth crawl out of their room, a technique that has taken me 25 years and four children to perfect. Nathaniel stirs and says, groggily, “Dad! Stay for a few minutes.” I’ve been caught.

I stroke his soft, post-toddler hair and whisper, “What does Daddy say to you?” He answers, “I love you.”

It’s a well-rehearsed routine we practiced when I dropped him at preschool. I created similar rituals with Hana, Noah and Theo. Wherever they were, I wanted them to know I was right there with them.

I tell Nathaniel that I have to go back to bed. He sleepily and slowly explains, “Dad, you love me. You love me, Dad.” He drifts back to sleep.

As I make it out into the dark hallway, Nathaniel’s words glow like dancing fireflies in my heart.

The ritual carries an echo of my mom’s last day of life, now almost a decade ago. In her 80s and succumbing to cancer, she had fallen into a deep coma and was near death.

Mom had always been there for me. While my dad often set conditions on our relationship (Did I go to the right college? Did I pursue the right career? Was I making enough money?), my mom never did. She stuck with me through all of my choices — some OK, some great, some disastrous. She had the intuition to know that providing the safety of her love and support would allow me to find my own way and grow.

As she struggled to breathe, I stroked her soft, gray hair. She seemed to be laboring to hang on. I leaned in to speak to her directly for what would be the last time, whispering, “It’s OK, Mom. We will all be OK. You have done so much. You can let go. Your love will always be right here with me. I love you.”

Now, climbing back into my bed, I imagine the strong, brightly colored thread of her love woven through my exchange with Nathaniel. It feels like a sacred filament, one that travels from her heart, through mine and to all of my kids, connecting us in a radiant circle that sits above space and time.

Yes, I will try my best to keep going, supporting these kids through the many challenges and joys of their lives. But my most important job will be to strengthen and reinforce this thread, weaving it deeply into their souls on a daily basis so that they can grab onto it like a lifeline at any moment, even when I am not here.

I wake up a few hours later, stressing about a Zoom work call just an hour away. Nathaniel and Theo suddenly burst into my room and jump on the bed. “Hi, Dad!” Of course, one of them lands on my still-dented Lego foot. Another shot of pain.

But it’s also a beautiful reminder: I am still alive.

Matthew Stodder is a writer, business and personal coach, and father of four. He lives in the Los Angeles area.

Modern Love: Feeling Lonely? Wearing Cat Ears May Help

Modern Love

Feeling Lonely? Wearing Cat Ears May Help

There may be no better time than the present to find love on multiplayer online role-playing games.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 29, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

The first time I met Jessica in person was when she walked out of the sliding doors of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport wearing a flowing skirt, beaded necklaces and a paper bag over her head.

My first words to her were: “Jessica! Why do you have a bag over your head?”

Our first encounter had been a year earlier, on a white stone plaza overlooking the ocean under a cloudless sky, but there was no smell of saltwater, no ocean breeze. We met as avatars in Final Fantasy XIV, a multiplayer online role-playing game.

She was new to town and seemed a little lost, so I teleported to her location and asked if I could help.

Her name was Zutki; mine was Nabian. We were both Miqo’te, a “race” of people with cat ears and furry tails. Online, we felt so close, but in the real world we were 2,000 miles apart, I in Minneapolis and she in Miami.

Massively multiplayer online games, or M.M.O.s, involve virtual worlds populated by thousands of avatars that are controlled by real people. (You’ve probably heard of World of Warcraft, one of the longest running.) Unlike traditional video games, these are more like second lives: always changing, still ongoing even after a player logs off and primarily social, team-oriented experiences.

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These days, when people ask how Jess and I met, I say “online,” but I always feel a little sheepish about it. We hadn’t connected on a dating app, as most people would assume. At Christmas, I had hoped to get away with telling my family we had found each other on the internet.

“What website?” my mother asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said.

Online dating may have lost its stigma, but I wasn’t quite sure how to explain that meeting online for us meant as moon-eyed, cat-eared creatures on the shores of Limsa Lominsa while gaming on PlayStation 4.

Although, as I see it, meeting in an M.M.O. is actually more like meeting in real life than using a dating app. You’re not judged by a profile designed to present your best traits. There’s more room to be yourself, to meet someone by chance.

The most obvious advantage of meeting in an M.M.O. is discovering a shared interest from the outset. With that comes many possible related interests: other games, fantasy and science-fiction, and in the case of Final Fantasy, Japanese culture and anime.

And there’s another benefit: To succeed in the game, players must work together to overcome difficult challenges. It’s easy to get a sense of how well someone adjusts to the team, how selfless or selfish they are, and their communication skills.

As Zutki and Nabian, Jess and I went on many adventures before things got personal: We explored dungeons, fought monsters, raced Chocobos (large, chicken-like birds). It wasn’t romantic; we just enjoyed each other’s company. She made me laugh by talking like a pirate: “Want to do this quest?” “Yar!” We would dress our characters in ridiculous outfits — heavy-metal armor with sunglasses and sandals — and dance on the beach.

When she and I met in-game, I had recently broken up with a partner of three years and was living by myself, lonely and depressed. It felt good to laugh with someone, even if the person was an anonymous player, someone I hadn’t seen or even heard.

In fact, it was months before I heard Jess’s voice. The first time we spoke was over a gaming chat service. A user name popped into the channel, and I waited for her to find a working microphone.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hello,” she said with a slight accent that surprised me. You don’t always think about how a person’s voice sounds when reading a text channel. Aside from a few typed Spanish words, there was little indication that she was, in fact, a native Spanish speaker. I enjoyed peeling back those layers of identity more than having them posted on the front page of a user profile.

There was a moment, months after we’d met as Zutki and Nabian, when our characters found themselves wandering the upper decks of a city by the sea, sitting at a table overlooking the harbor. We were typing private messages; she was telling me about how her mother raised three children on her own, how her father was estranged from the family and often in legal trouble.

As I sat in my chair watching our avatars on the screen, I realized that I was on a date. But unlike a real date, I didn’t have to worry about body language, clothes or coming up with a quick reply. Instead, I was sitting in my pajamas, thoughtfully typing each response.

Eventually, we started texting each other outside the game, which changed everything. Before, our interactions had been limited to the time that both of our avatars were online. When one of us logged off, our avatar disappeared and could not be reached until it was logged back in. The best we could do was send virtual letters to each other to receive the next time we were on.

Now, being able to text, we were connected all the time. Having already spent countless hours together in the virtual world, we knew we were close in age. The first real clue that she was interested in me as more than a gaming friend came soon after we started texting.

I was lying on the couch one evening when my phone buzzed with a message from her: “How tall are you?”

“Five-nine,” I typed. “Why?”

“I’m tall for a lady.”

I learned two things then — that she’s five-foot-eight, and she prefers men taller than she is.

Not long after, we shared pictures of ourselves.

After nearly 18 months of online communication, we decided to meet in person, or as we sometimes called it, “the real-life server.” She bought a plane ticket to Minneapolis. As I anticipated her arrival, I was riddled with anxiety. What if she’s totally different in person? What if we aren’t even attracted to each other? And even if we are, what’s the feasibility of dating someone so far away? How can I possibly explain this to my family?

She was worried too. On the phone, she said, “I’m fat and ugly.”

“I’m bald and skinny,” I said.

“What if you can’t stand my stupid face?” she said.

“I’ll just put a bag over your head,” I said, “and pretend you’re Zutki.”

On the day of her arrival, she emerged from the airport with an actual paper bag over her head, shuffling forward blindly. Passers-by glanced at her incredulously as I became embarrassed by the scene she was causing.

But when she pulled off the bag, I relaxed. There was my moon-eyed, cat-tailed gaming partner, except in real life she was the woman I had seen in pictures: a fair-skinned, dark-haired Latina with a sunflower tattoo on her collarbone.

A year later, after a few more visits, she moved from Miami to Minneapolis to live with me. Our first year together wasn’t easy; we experienced all the fights and claustrophobia you don’t in the virtual world, where the stresses of cohabitation don’t exist.

In a way, I got to know the same person twice. The first time, I got to know the person behind the avatar, but always in the context of the game: someone who greeted other players with an animated hug, who would sit for hours just chatting with online friends about their real-life problems. But getting to know her in person revealed the woman who volunteers at animal shelters, insists on cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family, plays the guitar, sings and writes music.

The longer we live together, the less time we spend together in-game. Sometimes I almost forget about that day Zutki and Nabian met by the pixelated sea. And that’s OK. I prefer thinking about Jess and Erik and the memories we’ve made in the real world.

We got married in Miami last February, just weeks before the pandemic made M.M.O.s among the safest places to gather in large groups. The day after the ceremony, we took a long walk on Miami Beach, which was refreshingly breezy and unpixelated.

Erik DeLapp is an instructor in the English department at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis, Minn.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

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Tiny Love Stories: ‘Stay With Me Until Morning’

Modern Love

Tiny Love Stories: ‘Stay With Me Until Morning’

Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.

Credit…Brian Rea
Jan. 26, 2021, 3:08 p.m. ET

Taking the Wheel

My grandparents had a 20-foot-long, “Breaking Bad”-style camper that they would drive from snowy Wisconsin to sunny Florida. When I told my grandfather about my pipe dream to take the van on a graduation road trip, he smiled and said, “I’ll drive.” By the time I graduated college, both the camper and my grandpa were gone. Instead, I drove all over the East Coast in his ’99 Toyota — his sunglasses and spare change still in the cup holders. As I started my journey, I gripped the weathered steering wheel and smiled. It felt like he and I were driving. Angie Newman

Driving my grandpa’s Toyota Solara in snowy Wisconsin.
Driving my grandpa’s Toyota Solara in snowy Wisconsin.

United by Flight

We took a course at Barnard about the birds of New York. Before a quiz, I made a GarageBand track with bird names and Audubon recordings. “Blue jay.” “Tufted titmouse.” I wrote, then rewrote, an email to Lhana: “In case this helps you study for the quiz!” She didn’t respond. But after we took the quiz on a windy day in Jamaica Bay, she sat next to me on the bus to Manhattan and said thanks. Years later, I proposed to her while playing the bird songs over speakers in an empty theater. When she said yes, my heart soared. — Madeline Taylor

A week before I proposed. Lhana is on the right.

He Lives in My Phone

I last saw Ajay on our two-year anniversary; it will be our third before I see him next. During the pandemic, I have forgotten what it’s like to be with him in real life. Some nights, I ask him to stay with me until morning. I place my phone next to my pillow as if he’s there next to me and listen to him shuffle against the blankets. Then, I close my eyes and fill in the blanks: his arms looped around me, my legs braided gently into his. It reminds my body of the warmth it has forgotten. — Katherine Hu

Back when we could be together in person.

Shelter Dog for a Sheltered Heart

They deemed her unadoptable because she was scared of everything. But lying on the cold shelter floor that January day, she cracked open my guarded heart. A week later, I brought home my shaggy little bear and called her Stevie. She’s still scared of many things: the garbage truck, men in uniform, loud children. But she has developed a fondness for just as many others: barbecue chicken, snuggles on the couch, walks in the park. If you want to learn how to be loved, adopt a dog who needs to learn how, too. — Lee Propp

Me and Stevie in the park.

See more Tiny Love Stories at nytimes.com/modernlove. Submit yours at nytimes.com/tinylovestories.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”

Modern Love: My Unlikely Pandemic Dream Partner

Modern Love

My Unlikely Pandemic Dream Partner

We loathed each other quietly, until we made space for grief and good food.

Credit…Brian Rea

  • Jan. 22, 2021, 12:00 a.m. ET

Last March, before my mother flew from Washington, D.C., to visit me in New Orleans, we negotiated how long she should stay. I was having knee surgery after massively tearing my meniscus and A.C.L. during a Mardi Gras parade, and she offered to help me recover.

She wanted to stay for seven days. I said five days was the most I could handle. In the end, she stayed for 53.

That’s because the pandemic arrived, along with a citywide stay-at-home order. And this dullness set in. We ate in dullness. We watched movies in dullness, learning to alternate between my mother’s desire for old films about war and immigration, and my desire for reality dating shows that she found disgusting. We loathed each other quietly, not yet understanding how to change the dynamic we had built over 38 years.

Like many Americans her age, my mother didn’t take the pandemic seriously at first. It was a team effort for my siblings (in Los Angeles) and me to get her to wear a mask and stay home. I would find foods in the house like ice cream or braided anise-seed cheese, evidence of her escapes to Baskin Robbins and the local Palestinian grocer.

At first, I balked at her sadness and the collapse of my adult autonomy. My mother had replaced my first caregiver, Abby, a friend and healer from New England, who tended to me like a child before and after surgery.

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My mother wasn’t bright-eyed like Abby — yet. Her eyes were heavy. My father had died suddenly only a few months earlier, and she carried a broken heart from room to room like a backpack. I felt bad for needing her and guilty about all the work she had to do to care for me. She already had so much on her plate.

When I bathed for the first time after surgery, I grew faint at the sight of my stitches and started yelling. I expected my mother to zone out, but she rushed in with a stool for my knee and sat down at the foot of the tub, iced coffee in hand. Seeing her there, sitting with me, naked on a trash-bag covered chair, as if it were normal, I began to notice and appreciate how much she loved me.

I was struck by her simple acts of devotion. I had to trust her to lift my leg and help me from bed to crutches to the bathroom, every single time. I had to depend on her to carry my things from room to room, to find my clothes, to feed me. She made eggs and toast and matzo brei, learned how I liked my tea, made my bed and washed my clothes.

I hadn’t let anyone this close to me in years. She was becoming my dream partner.

A food writer, my mother went in cycles testing recipes. She cooked Dutch baby pancakes for a week, was strangely exuberant about her warm homemade hummus another, and made and remade several versions of Iraqi Jewish mujadara, a dish served to mourners, made with lentils, caramelized onions, and rice or bulgur.

I hate cooking for myself. She signed us up for the local C.S.A., ripe with local artichokes and peaches galore. We had fodder for trades.

And then came the emissaries. Josh, who lived behind me, showed up with strawberry jam from Ponchatoula, La. He was so sweet, leaving it 10 feet from where I was sitting on the porch. There was a caveat: “Would you mind,” he said, “if I went into your backyard? My chicken has flown into your loquat tree.”

This was the start of a lot of chicken escapes, and a lot of trading. We gave Josh and his boyfriend, Michael, cake and bread; they dropped off curry and let my mother pick their mulberries.

This was also the start of my mother and me falling in love. She came alive when the neighborhood did, leaving my father in the grave and joining the living as she harvested the mulberries down the street, meeting the neighbors who peeked their heads out the window to speak with her while she picked. She made dried mulberries, mulberry cake, mulberry muffins and mulberry jam. She loved mulberries like they were cocktails. I marveled at her.

Our neighbor, Annie, began coming by to harvest our kumquats and lemons with her two sons. She made us cookies and left them on our porch every week. We left her chili, stew and homemade challah.

Virginia appeared soon thereafter, from across the street. She and my mother began talking at the fence, and that bridged more trades. Virginia brought us ketchup, made us our first masks and then showed my mother her sacred Mardi Gras craft room, where the shoes for the Krewe of Muses were gilded in a den of glitter. She taught my mother about possums and brought us our own flat of Ponchatoula strawberries. We left a portion of smoked leg of lamb in her mailbox when Alon Shaya, a local chef, dropped one off.

The dullness of quarantine gave way to a socially distanced affair, evening dates and all. My mother’s eyes lit up as she shared stories of the day’s encounters over the dinner she made or the sinfully delicious food we ordered from local restaurants. I began to loosen, to lean into the care I felt so guilty for receiving, the three meals a day cooked by my mother, the needing someone, that letting go of an almost too fierce independence I had built over the years.

My mother glowed. She was taking long masked walks alone and exploring New Orleans by foot, discovering the hidden Jewish names in so many graveyards, the horrific confederate statues and the unreal beauty of City Park.

We eventually started processing our grief, finding space that is so hard to find when two people are grieving simultaneously. Sometimes it was in the middle of the night, like when I heard the screeching of a cat (either dying or mating) and woke her, scared. Or the time our neighbor’s chicken squawked its last breath when a hawk stole it from their yard, took it to my roof, killed it and dropped it outside my window.

Quarantine for us was not boring.

We started to learn that we were grieving two different men. Hers was the husband she met in the 1970s, a partner and friend who went to movies with her and around the world, who emotionally supported her, slept beside her, made space for her career.

And I was grieving the loss of my father, someone a bit more distant, who was mine for only 38 years, and who I ached to have with us on the sofa, laughing at bad TV, enraptured by old movies.

We ordered new clothes for her, as she had packed for only five days and needed things to wear for nearly two months. We started holding hands while watching our strange selection of movies: “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Baby Boom” and “Force Majeure,” or the delight of “My Brilliant Friend,” our companion for a whole week.

This touch between us felt like pulling up from the void. It felt like splicing open hell to have a quiet picnic.

We found a rhythm, her two-hour walks while I taught my Tulane students on Zoom, followed by lunch together and a review of my curriculum. On Sundays, a friend would take her for a bike ride, and later we would put on masks and drive through the empty French Quarter to the Bywater, where we waved to friends from a distance and got cocktails to go.

We had found our way.

When she perked back up, refilled with color and life, I helped her do her makeup and clothes for her Zoom seminars, and we sat at dawn, me in bed, her in the window seat, and talked about loss. But not both of ours at once. We learned how to weave in mulberries and chickens and fresh-picked flowers, how to bake and breathe and listen to the lives we were living, how important it was to be full in order to finally make space to speak of our emptiness.

By May, I was walking again. She started making muffins and stews for me, stocking my freezer. And then one Monday, she put on rubber kitchen gloves and a mask and went to the very empty airport to return home.

We had made it through 53 days of coronavirus quarantine. My father was still gone. Her husband was still gone. He wasn’t coming back. And in his absence, with no one else around, my mother and I fell in love with caring for one another.

Merissa Nathan Gerson is the author of “Forget Prayers, Bring Cake,” forthcoming from Mandala Publishing in July 2021. She lives in New Orleans.

Modern Love can be reached at modernlove@nytimes.com.

To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.

Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”