My husband, Amal, used to spend a lot of time in helicopters, his bow tie peeking out of his flight suit. This was in Baltimore, where he and I were pediatricians. Amal worked in a hospital’s intensive care unit, and part of his job was flying with very sick children who needed to be transferred by air. When I expressed worry about him doing this, he would point out that more people die in cars than helicopters.
And then, four years and two children into our marriage, I watched from a trailing car as the rear left tire exploded on the S.U.V. he was driving, causing the vehicle to flip over twice, crushing him.
The ensuing grief, for me, felt like being near one of Amal’s landing helicopters — a swirl of noise and confusion, the earth vibrating. In the years since his death, my grief subsided — enough for me to consider dating, of all people, a helicopter engineer.
Brian emailed me through Match.com about 13 years after Amal died. His profile name was “RelaxExhale,” and he wrote that he believed in the scientific method. A science-minded guy who was into yoga seemed a great match for me.
Over the phone, though, I learned that “RelaxExhale” was not about yoga; it was Brian coaching himself to take the leap into online dating. By then I was living in New Haven, Conn., and our first date was on a warm Sunday morning at a coffee shop called Cafe Romeo.
“I feel like you’re not like my kids’ pediatrician,” Brian said. “You do other stuff.”
Clearly, he had Googled me.
“I do regular pediatrician stuff,” I said. “But I also teach research skills to doctors and nurses who want to study things like asthma, homelessness, diabetes.”
“I have diabetes!” he said, a little too excitedly.
“I have colon cancer,” I said, which, in hindsight, seems like a ridiculous response, but in the moment felt like the next step in the conversation. “I have a port in my chest, under my skin, where I get chemotherapy every two weeks.”
I realized I was divulging a lot for a first date. Not only was I a widow and a single mother, but also a cancer patient. Wearing a blousy linen white shirt over a pink tank top, I was glad he couldn’t see the raised outline and persistent bruise over my embedded plastic port-a-cath.
“I have two ports,” Brian said. “I mean, not that I want to outdo you.” He lifted his shirt to show me two clear tubes running from what looked like high-tech Band-Aids on his belly to a black plastic box the size of a beeper.
I did not lift my shirt to show off my port, but we declared ourselves compatible enough for a second date.
We planned a hike and a swim at Bluff Point State Park, and Brian offered to drive. I knew it was a little risky to give this relative stranger my home address and agree to a daylong outing over 4th of July weekend for our second date. But my adolescent daughters were at camp in New Hampshire for two weeks, and Brian seemed like a good guy.
The day before, he texted: “Because I am Irish, I will bring plenty of sunscreen.”
“Because I am a pediatrician,” I replied, “I will already have plenty of sunscreen on.”
When I saw his car pull up, my heart lurched. I stood up from my porch steps. Amal had been a part of every relationship I’d had since becoming a widow. And here he was again: Brian was driving the same make and model of S.U.V. as the one Amal died in.
I almost went back into my house to avoid the car, Brian, Amal, all of it. “Relax, exhale,” I said to myself. I, too, believed in science. The matching S.U.V.s were probably nothing but a coincidence.
The traffic from New Haven to the state park was bumper to bumper. A one-hour trip became two. On the day Amal died, the faulty car and tire conspired with typical highway speeds to create the fatal crash. Amal might not have died had traffic like this slowed him down.
As we drove, Brian told long stories of travels and family. I volleyed back with my own. He was interested in my complicated, pediatrician-widow-with-two-teenage-daughters-and-cancer life. He was gracious in his empathy over Amal’s death but could not hold back his engineer self from declaring his disappointment in our malfunctioning S.U.V.
On a secluded part of the hike, we separated to change into our bathing suits. Between the bushes, I fumbled with my shoulder strap to make sure it covered my port. But when we reunited, I realized my concerns were for naught; Brian blushed at the sight of me in my suit. He wasn’t eyeing me as a person with cancer and wondering about my port. This was a date.
After the swim, Brian checked one of his ports, ate some Craisins, and gave himself insulin through the other port. We ate buttery lobster on picnic tables near the beach, and later, in New Haven, licked ice cream cones at little metal tables in front of the art museum.
I invited him to my neighbors’ 3rd of July potluck the next day. This time when Brian showed up at my house in his death car and I rose from my porch steps, he held a pan of potato salad, his deceased mother’s recipe.
Of course, I laughed to myself, it was only fair. Brian needed to bring a dead person from his side to our third date.
On our first date, we had discussed talking and not talking about our feelings.
“Like any good Irishman,” he said, “I don’t like to talk about my feelings. Maybe I tell long, elliptical stories so I don’t have to.”
“Like any good Jewish woman, I talk about my feelings a lot,” I said. “Do you want to know how I feel about my hangnail?”
That summer, we talked about Amal, Brian’s mother, my grandfather who died from diabetes, and all the other dead people who were in this relationship with us. When we walked on the beach and saw helicopters overhead, Brian told me which ones he had worked on and where they were likely going.
I didn’t talk about how the low survival rate of metastatic colon cancer connected me to my own mortality. I knew all about being honest about symptoms and prognosis, but I didn’t want to ruin what felt like a carefree, fun fling. And Brian didn’t ask.
Four months later, as we hiked on fallen yellow leaves, I said, “You should break up with me.”
My cancer had grown. I was about to go back on intensive chemotherapy and my surgeon was planning to remove large parts of my colon, pancreas and abdominal wall.
Brian had just returned from California and brought me earrings with butterfly parts encased in plastic. He promised no butterflies had died for my earrings, and I promised him that the right decision would be for him to get out of this relationship.
“What if I get really sick or die?” I said.
“But what if you get better?”
Who was this guy? One of the first things I learned about Brian was that he believed in the scientific method. Every time he marveled at my well-seeming, cancer-laden self, I was pretty sure he was comparing me to what he had read and knew. He had the math skills to understand what a 14 percent five-year survival rate meant.
Maybe “RelaxExhale” was more than Brian coaching himself to get online and date. Maybe he was a yoga guy whose heart had veto power over his engineer head.
Brian didn’t break up with me. And, as predicted, the 14-hour operation left me sick with pancreatitis and sepsis. I had to go back into the operating room for a small bowel obstruction, after which I was in and out of the hospital for four months. Many of those times, Brian met me in the E.R. and followed me to my room, where he would strum his ukulele, make lip-syncing videos and sleep on the couch next to my bed.
When Brian had an extended business trip, he gave away his S.U.V. We played that one more Irish than Jewish: We didn’t discuss how every time I entered that car I’d wondered if I was going to die, or how its absence now gave cancer a larger chance of doing me in.
On our hike in the fall before my surgery, I tried to teach Brian that love always ends. Car crashes, diabetes, cancer. What happened instead is he taught me that love is a long, elliptical story. And that, with and without all of our ghosts, I was lucky to be a part of his.