Tension stiffened my neck as I stood in line at LaGuardia Airport. It was early November, and I was going to St. Louis for three months to care for my elderly father, who's suffering from dementia.
I worried about Dad - how he'd be and how I'd be with him. The youngest of five, I'd escaped Missouri more than 25 years ago for college and returned only sporadically. Six years earlier, as Mom was dying, Dad began living with my sister. Now, I'd be staying with my ultraconservative sibling and need to coexist with my divided family.
Days after arriving, sitting on the floor surrounded by papers I'd gathered from Dad's room, I burst into tears, overwhelmed more by Dad's needs than by my job as a Wall Street attorney. Dad's bank accounts had excessive withdrawals. He owned five life insurance policies and a new investment account. His will had typos. His power-of-attorney forms weren't filed.
Needing an escape, I grabbed my phone and darted into the bathroom to open my Bumble app. Sitting on the toilet, I swiped left on profiles of men gripping beers or holding rifles. I swiped right on a lawyer, an IT specialist and a construction company owner. We matched, I said hello, and their responses arrived: a comment on my legs, a recent breakup admission and one sentence inviting me to a bar.
After declining more profiles, one made me stop: Steve, 44, occupation unclear. His photo with a backward baseball cap almost made me discard him. But other snapshots, especially one with him smiling in a blue Oxford, made me swipe right. Instantly, we matched. I sent him a note. His reply: "Thank you, Tess. Hope you're having a good day."
I read it and sighed. He didn't ask me a question. There was no sign of creativity. Next!
I looked at more profiles. No matches.
Weeks later, I opened Bumble again. Running out of new prospects, I went back to Steve's profile. I shot him a note: "Hope your week is going well. How are you?"
"Tess! Thank you for reconnecting," he replied, then he asked about my day.
Not in the mood to pretend my life was ideal, I told him about my new role as a caretaker, specializing in 86-year-old fathers with dementia.
"I'm sorry about your dad," Steve replied. "I understand. My dad has Alzheimer's. What are you doing to take care of you while you help dad?"
I've never gotten a response quite like Steve's. An hour and a dozen messages later, he asked to meet.
The following Sunday, I met Steve at a nearby Starbucks. At the counter, I froze, struck by his height and his smile (even better in person). I pointed to my coffee, uncharacteristically nervous.
Steve joined me with his coffee at a table. He wore a Cardinals baseball hat and a navy down jacket, framing his face and making me focus on his deep-blue eyes.
Suddenly, I realized I'd forgotten to do my due diligence before agreeing to meet. I asked: What's your relationship status? Do you have any kids? Are you religious?
Steve, a lapsed Catholic, was divorced with three boys. "I'm sorry. I should have told you," he said.
"You don't have to apologise for having kids," I said, oddly unfazed. One child usually didn't scare me, but two or more did.
Steve lit up as he told me about his family (he was also the youngest of five) and recent vacation with his boys. "Will you tell me about your hospice work?" His question took me by surprise, despite my profile mentioning my service.
"My mum's hospice team was incredible," I said, knowing death wasn't an ideal topic for a first date. "I volunteer as a way to try to give back," I added, deciding to stay vague.
Steve said he could relate. His sister was a hospice nurse, and his older brother had died of cancer months after Mom.
I'd never met a man who understood why I visited dying strangers.
My to-do list began gnawing at me, and I wondered how I'd explain my Starbucks time to my bitterly divorced sister. I told Steve I had errands to do.
"Me too, but I'm tired. It was like I was up all night working in my sleep," he said.
"Maybe your spirit went out to heal people," I smiled, hinting at my beliefs and connecting it to his disclosed profession. Steve was a doctor.
"Maybe I was doing some astral travel." Steve began to stand up.
"I have a book on that." I said.
Steve stared into my eyes. "So do I."
For a moment, neither one of us spoke or even moved.
After texts every day and even a phone call, we met the following Friday at a restaurant on Main Street. We talked through half a bottle of wine before we even read the menu.
The restaurant clientele shifted. Twenty-somethings trickled in for the restaurant-turned-club.
"I think it's time for the old people to leave," I said.
"But I don't want our date to end."
Neither did I.
Inside a coffee shop several doors away, a guitarist sang in the dimly lit space, and we talked about our upbringings, challenges and dreams. It was nearly 2 a.m. when Steve pulled into my sister's driveway. He asked whether we could meet again. I kissed his cheek.
Dates 3, 4 and 5 happened within the next week. We went to dinner twice. Steve drove us to a park where he kissed me for the first time, as we stood on a bridge overlooking a brook while it snowed. His lips upon mine felt so strangely familiar that I lingered in his arms, not wanting to break our embrace. We went on four more dates in a week. Steve shared a book with information to help Dad, gave me earrings to match the silver bracelet I always wore, cooked me dinner and baked gluten-free brownies with dark-chocolate shavings.
Steve was unlike any man I'd ever met: handsome and smart, sweet and humble, spiritual and grounded. With him, I could be me, not a résumé or a made-up face. He wasn't into the game of dating. I didn't get anxious waiting for messages or a date to be confirmed, a welcome change from my East Coast romances. Steve made sure I felt valued and prioritised.
Dad moved into an apartment at a senior community. We visited Mom's grave and met with a Veterans Affairs geriatric team. The psychiatrist conducted tests. Dad struggled. I sat beside him, biting the inside of my cheek, trying not to cry or wrap my arms around him.
That night Steve held me to his chest as tears trickled down my cheeks. We didn't utter a word. He rubbed my back and kissed the top of my head.
Four months later, I boarded a plane to St. Louis. My Brooklyn apartment was packed, and I'd resigned from the job I'd held for 12 years.
Leaving the terminal, I trembled, worried about my decision to leave my life in New York and about the escalating sibling drama in Missouri. My knuckles whitened around the escalator handrail, and then I spotted Steve, waiting with roses.
He smiled, a boyish grin, and stepped toward me. Taking my bag, he kissed me.
I was home.
This article was first published in The Washington Post.