Losing My Mother Made Me Face My Trust Issues with Men

A life of running toward or away from prospective men had left me catching my breath on the sidelines.
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July 6, 2016
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Four years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. A few months later she sat me down and ordered me to "find someone." Ideally, he'd be a "rich, bald man," but any decent member of the opposite sex would do. She didn't want me to be alone anymore. At 40, I had calcified my role as the Quirky Single Childless Lady who nobody bothered to offer plus-one invitations to. I spent my free time boring holes into my salsa shoes or waiting around at comedy open mics for a three-minute spot, surrounded by 23-year-old males and an endless supply of jokes about porn, masturbation, and marijuana.

"It's your fault," I told my mom.

She had raised me with the feminist sensibility of the '70s. When I was 10, I bought myself a T-shirt with a slogan that read, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." I loved that shirt, and I've believed that message ever since.

A few years after I bought that shirt, my mother got pregnant. She was 42. No IVF or hormone injections, just plain old irresponsibility. Her boyfriend moved in, and I was miserable. I couldn't believe that she traded in her feminist values for a marriage with an alpha male. My mother had made a grave mistake, I thought. However, since women outlive men, I reasoned, some day she'd move back in with me, and I, the "spinster," would share tacos and back issues of The New Yorker with her while I continued to date recovering alcoholics and unemployed actors. Forever single, I would at the very least have my mother back.

A few months after the "Rich Bald Man" conversation, I decided to make the trip from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, where I had grown up (and where my father still lived), for a long weekend in August. Since my mother's move to New Mexico, I had stopped visiting home, and I missed my family and friends from childhood. Unlike me, most of my friends were married with children. I looked forward to meeting their families. I was not looking forward to being in the same town as my father.

I hadn't spoken to my real father in several years and had no plans to see him. I guess you could call our relationship "estranged." He had recently married a woman four years younger than myself, and they had a new child, and a part of me was happy for him. Seventy might seem old to start a family, but I thought, "You go, Dad... Make your own grandchildren!"

On the way to Berkeley, my car broke down on I-5, right outside Los Baños. Giant semi-trucks whizzed by while I waited for AAA and pondered my aloneness. As I waited, I felt inspired — you know, as one does — to text my on-again/off-again love interest, Carl, an unemployed actor, about my predicament. (He told me to watch the sunset. I felt comforted.) Once my car was towed, I found a motel and settled on a bed of dubious sanitation. After some soul-searching and armed with lonely bravado, I decided to confront Carl about our relationship. I was too old to be in a harem, I told myself. To my surprise, he agreed to get serious. The irony was that I was stuck in a motel in Los Baños. Why couldn't he have confessed his love for me in Los Angeles?!

Lesson: Never trust romantic texts when you're not within reasonable driving distance from the sender.

The next day, I met a woman at the local breakfast diner who offered to give me a ride to the nearest BART station. My high school friend Emily picked me up in Oakland with her twin baby girls in the back seat. She had already committed to attend a People With Babies Dinner Party and I accompanied her as her plus-one. When her friends asked, "Where's your baby?" I explained to them that I had forgotten to have children.

As we were leaving the dinner party, one of the mothers mentioned that her younger sister had been born when she herself was 9 years old. I took that as my opening and announced, "My mom had my sister when I was 15, and that was the best birth control anyone could hope for!"

I spent the following few nights at the home of my friends Jessica and Dan, who I have known since we hosted "Purple Rain" slow-dance parties in the 7th grade. Jessica and I had smoked pot with budding drug dealers and coined the genius tag name for our group, "Ladies of the Night." (We eventually learned that it's a euphemism for prostitutes.) Unlike me, both Jessica and Dan now had two children, a beautiful house, and real adult responsibilities. One night, I cajoled Jessica into going with me to an Uptown Sound concert, where I lost my debit card. Between my drama with Carl, abandoned car, and lost debit card, I failed to leave an adult impression on Jessica, who observed in complete sincerity that my stay was "like living with a teenager."

My response: "I got a text from Carl!"

I spent the last days of the trip at the home of my aunt Linda and uncle Joe, who lived near my old junior high school. One day, I went running on the track at King Junior High. While I ran, I thought about all the places where Jessica and I had hung out when we cut classes or smoked pot or made out with 13-year-old boys while our parents remained blissfully ignorant of our actions or whereabouts. I was deep in my nostalgia when I spotted a pair of cyclists about to pass me on the sidewalk. One of them made lingering eye contact.

That looks like my father, I thought as I ran past them.

A few minutes later, the cyclist pulled up beside me.

"Hi, Solange!"

It was, indeed, my father.

"Hi!" I said. And I kept running. I didn't stop. I didn't even say "Hi, Dad." I just said "Hi!"

I felt weird calling him "Dad" now that he had just married a woman younger than myself. It seemed maybe appropriate that I start calling him "Steve." It didn't feel as weird to say, "I'm hanging out with Steve and his wife" or "Steve and his wife had a baby."

"How are you?" Steve asked, while biking alongside me.

"Good," I said.

Steve followed me on his bike for at least a mile. I kept running the whole time.

"I'm having people over for dinner tonight. Would you like to come?"

Did I want to go to Steve's house for dinner? Not especially. But he lived 10 miles from the street where our paths crossed and the confluence of events that led to this chance encounter seemed to belong to a divine intelligence. I would rather have kept running until a Los Baños mechanic fixed my car, and then driven home, and then run, run, run. But I decided that the universe wanted me to have dinner with Steve.

That night, I drove my uncle Joe's Ford Jeep to Steve's house in Oakland, where I met Steve's wife and my second half-brother, both for the first time. Also in attendance was my first half-brother, the son from Steve's second marriage, then 23 and preparing to leave for Afghanistan. It should have felt like a family reunion. It did not.

I had spent most of my adult life feeling rage toward Steve. It was because of him that I could not attract a healthy partner. I spent years thinking that I had to work to win the admiration of men in order to keep them interested. A life of running toward or away from prospective men had left me catching my breath on the sidelines.

A few days later, my Los Baños mechanic called me and told me my car was ready. My mother's other sister, my aunt Elva, and my uncle Bill drove me to Los Baños pick up my car. I returned to Los Angeles only to find Carl "really busy."

Now he was the one running. But I was too tired to chase him.

Over the following two years, my mother got sicker and eventually moved back to the Bay Area. My stepfather took care of her, staying up all night while she hacked up fluids, cooking, cleaning, and driving her to endless doctor's appointments during the day. I came home every few weeks to do what I could: massage her feet, put lotion on her back, unload the dishwasher, or sit through Castle with her.

Because of my stepfather we never put her in a hospital or a care facility. I realized that marriage vows exist for a reason. And he abided by them. Gradually, I stopped hating him. By the time she died we had built trust and a friendship.

My mother died in February of 2015. I never imagined I would be stuck with John and Steve as my only parents. However, I also didn't imagine that I would call my stepfather weekly to check in on him and ask him about investments or relationship advice. I never imagined that Steve would rally his friends to come to my stand-up comedy shows and not only laugh at my jokes about him but claim that he wrote them. "You stole all my lines," he said to me one night after a show at San Francisco's Punch Line. "I am so proud of you." Maybe he had told me that before, but I heard it for the first time.

Three years ago, I had drinks with a comic who became my boyfriend. This was a miracle, partly because I would never advise any woman to date any comic. He supported me throughout my mom's illness and death. I told him that he didn't have to come to the funeral — I mean, seriously, what a drag — but he said he didn't want to leave me alone. On my mother's birthday 1-800-FLOWERS called and asked me if I wanted to place an order. When I told him, he brought me flowers the following night.

On her deathbed, my mother commanded multiple times that I "get married, buy a house, have a child, and be happy." I don't believe the first three equal the third item, and I don't think she believed that I need a man to be happy. But she did want me to stop feeling angry toward men and be happy. I desperately miss my mother. But now I have a man with me when I meet the men who made me not want to have a relationship with any man. And that is a miracle.