My father fell into illness the way Ernest Hemingway described going bankrupt — gradually and then suddenly. At first, there was an accretion of mild illnesses, easily attributed to old age: hypertension, high triglyceride levels. Then, in quick succession, he received a slew of more serious diagnoses: aortic dissection, pulmonary embolism, renal cancer.
My father had died three times while still in his 50s. The first was five years ago, when I was 19, home from university for summer break. He checked into the hospital one morning for a routine procedure and ended the night sequestered in the ICU, tubes branching out of him. His prolonged elevated hypertension, coupled with his atherosclerosis, had weakened the walls of his arteries. The force of his blood ripped open the innermost layer of his aorta, spilling blood between the other muscular stratums. The infrastructure of his body started to collapse: the posterior lobes of his lungs deflated, blood clots multiplied inside. “How are you still walking?” one doctor asked. My father shrugged: “I feel okay.”
That would become his refrain: I feel fine; I’m a lucky man! But after his first ICU visit, his health vacillated so wildly that I became afraid to put my phone on silent. I oriented my life according to his MRIs, his CTs, and the chronology of his specialist appointments. I memorized medical-ese and trotted it out in front of his doctors. Feigning expertise felt like the last vestige of competency I could show.
When I returned to campus for my sophomore year, I imploded. I kept myself disorientingly busy, both academically and socially, an effort calibrated to evade processing my feelings towards my father’s health. Dating proved a fruitful distraction and a novel experience: In high school, I had been shy around boys, too stressed over preparing for college. The last time I had referred to someone as my “boyfriend,” I was 14. So in college, I rationalized that my increased interest in dating apps and frat parties was simply me catching up on missed opportunities.
So, I dated a lot. But I never really settled down. I watched my friends move into long-term relationships, but my track record continued on like a sequence of morse code: short situationships interspersed between long dashes of self-imposed abstinence.
By the time I graduated, I’d begun to wonder if I possessed some deep-seated flaw that made me the type of girl men would date, but not commit to. The blueprint of my relationships had calcified. Always, at around the three month mark, something cooled. The texts dwindled, the conversations faltered. My longest relationship – though we weren’t official – was with a psychiatrist who was 14 years my senior. At one point, he confused me with another girl he was dating, and I promptly burst into tears on his couch (the one in his living room, not his office). Yet, I continued to see him for another two months. I suspect a part of me wondered if he would be able to identify what was wrong with me.
I had my own hypotheses: I was averse to commitment; I was emotionally unavailable; I was too picky; I wasn’t picky enough. Some of these self-accusations were perhaps true, but the blanket statements camouflaged a more incisive assessment: I gravitated towards men who preferred a superficial connection, who wouldn’t ask why I always left my phone face-up on the dinner table or why I peeled the skin of my thumb off in strips. It meant I could avoid explaining why I knew the layout of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania as well as I knew the layout of my first dorm.
In my four years of college, my father’s health narrative involved a series of plot twists. The rip in his aorta was followed by a remarkable recovery, which was interrupted by a renal cancer diagnosis, a metastasis scare, and the recurrence of blood clots that cartwheeled throughout his veins, colonizing on the branches of his lungs and the vascular pathways in his calf. Sometimes, I’d open up his Electronic Health Record in class, read through his scan interpretations until the words blurred on the page, a familiar sting in my eyes. I spent a lot of time in the hospital chapel, praying.
My struggle was an open secret. I had started publishing essays about navigating the inverted dynamics his illness had presented in our relationship, how I went from child to inept caregiver. My father didn’t require assistance with his day-to-day life, but he did need an advocate, someone who could language broker at doctors appointments, who could translate his dense medical records. As the only child of immigrant parents, I was the logical choice for this role, the only choice.
Writing about my private trauma had made it easily accessible, but I still demurred from mentioning my father to anyone I was interested in dating. Sometimes, I explicitly asked them not to Google me. “It’ll lead to a power differential,” I explained. “If you read my personal essays, you’d know so much more about me than I do you. We’d be learning things about each other at vastly misaligned paces.” My reasoning seemed sound, but I was also admitting that I didn’t want any romantic prospect to know about my vulnerability, the wound I couldn’t close. Did I worry that these men would see me as broken, or plagued by “daddy issues”? Perhaps, but my request also maintained distance in a burgeoning relationship. Writing was the way in which I processed my world, a way in which I said the things I couldn’t actually speak out loud; it was information a partner probably deserved to know before dating me. But barricading someone from reading my essays prevented emotional intimacy from developing — and meant none of my situationships could survive past three months.
A part of me liked to think of my self-sabotage as constructed for the greater good, for filial piety and duty. Remaining single meant I could be more present as a helpful and attentive daughter to my ailing father. Still, I failed at this role, and often. There were times when his health overwhelmed me, days when I avoided him and buried myself in work. There were appointments I forgot about and ones that I chose not to attend. But I also took pride in developing my endurance for bad news, in the exposure therapy involved towards becoming a better caregiver for my father.
When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, I moved home and slipped into a much more hands-on approach to my father’s health. I called the pharmacy, argued with his health insurance, and harangued him about exposure risks, barring him from leaving our house, even masked and gloved. My contributions were a fraction of what my mother had been doing for him over the four years I had been at school, but the fervour I brought to my responsibilities made me feel useful and granted an illusory sort of control as the world became an increasingly dangerous world for my immunocompromised father.
The last time my father almost died was in the heat of the pandemic, July 2020. He went in for a routine CT scan and, in the machine, his body lit up with massive blood clots. They were in his heart, his lungs, his leg. I accompanied him into the emergency room and held his hand, KN95 masks strapped over both of our faces. I didn’t cry in the hospital. Driving home that night with my mother in the passenger seat, however, I realized that one day we would make this same journey, but there would be no hospital room for us to return to the next morning. The windshield blurred into a watercolour, and I pulled over onto the shoulder of the road.
I don’t know when that day will be. My father’s diseases aren’t just marked by chronicity but also unpredictability. There have been lulls of years between his sudden hospitalizations. This truth makes planning impossible and it forces me to perform game theory with every major life event: Could I take this job if it meant I would have to be far from my father? If I date this man, would he understand my constant anxiety about my father?
The day I finally booked my father a vaccine appointment, I wept — from relief over his soon-to-come protection, but also because I knew I would soon move out of my parents’ house and to New York City, to finish my MFA degree. The distance between Pennsylvania and New York isn’t far, but the disconnect between my father and I feels immense now that I’m no longer attending Zoom doctor appointments or recording his nightly blood pressure measurements. The guilt brutalizes me.
Like others, I’ve felt pressure to make up for time stolen by the pandemic, pushed to focus on scheduling dates, working on projects, and looking for future jobs. But I also worry my time at home has caused me to regress and fall even further behind my peers, who seem to be catapulting towards marriage and mortgages, while I still struggle to share this part of my life with potential romantic interests.
Recently, I went on a second date. We were seated at a neighbourhood bar in the Lower East Side. Tequila warmed my stomach. The night was brisk, shot through with a sense of vitality. “What are you most afraid of?” he suddenly asked me. It was a bold question, and I liked that about him, his willingness to press against the boundary of propriety. There were a million evasions I could have used, and I thought about them all. Maybe it was the tequila soda or maybe it was simply fatigue over how much effort it took to avoid mentioning such a major part of my life; this time, I answered truthfully: “My father’s been sick for a while.” I paused, tracing a circle on the condensation of my glass. “I find it very hard to feel happiness or intimacy with someone in a world when my father might pass.”
There was a beat of silence. He squeezed my knee. “Thank you for telling me that,” he said, startling me with kindness. He didn’t try to comfort me or drop into an awkward silence. He listened and then the conversion had moved on, the only response I wanted at that moment. My admission felt like a milestone, a way in which I was breaching the wall I had constructed against emotional intimacy.
But I hadn’t confessed the most difficult part. It wasn’t that I never felt intimacy or happiness. These emotions arrived, sometimes often: on a first date, when he slipped his hand into mine while we walked along the East River; before a third date, reading through a log of our texts and smiling to myself; after a fifth date, sitting on the couch with him and feeling anticipation spark the air. I was often confronted with and tempted by romantic possibilities — I sometimes succumbed to them. Yet, every instance felt like such a betrayal against my father’s situation. Staying single was perhaps a way of punishing myself. Why did I think I deserved happiness when our family’s situation was saturated with so much uncertainty? If I actually let myself be swept away in the swell of a first love, would I be as capable of empathizing with my father’s pain?
In many ways, I see the benefits of the past decade I’ve spent single. Being unconstrained by a serious relationship has made me independent, has taught me to be comfortable with time alone and silence, and has also allowed me to prioritize my time to fit my family situation. I’ve also learned the power in focusing on the short-term, rather than catastrophizing about the future. While I’m not sure when I’ll settle down, I already have a robust and fulfilling life, full of great friends and personal and professional projects. This Thanksgiving, I’ll go home to visit my family. My father and I will take a long drive in the Pennsylvania countryside as the leaves rain golden on our car. And if, at Thanksgiving dinner, one of my relatives inquires about my dating life, I already know what I’m going to say: “I’m not in a rush.”
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email email@example.com.