New York City skyline (Photo: Sean Pavone; Getty Images)

When I met John, he was 32 years old, in debt and living 600 miles away, in Detroit. With his parents. (Sexy, right?) He’d recently finished law school but had failed the bar exam and was back to his predegree job as a software consultant, which as far as I could see meant spending afternoons by a friend’s pool waiting for an assignment. He didn’t seem to have any real plans for the future beyond what to eat for dinner.

I, on the other hand, had just embarked on The Plan. I was 28 and living in New York City, ready to start a new chapter after having spent my 20s working hard as a magazine editor. I was enjoying life in NYC, but I didn’t have any big goals and had basically been going with the flow, seeing where things would lead me. I’d also been in a three-year on-again, off-again relationship with a guy I didn’t have much in common with and who I wasn’t sure cared that much about me, which caused me to invest a ton of brain space in petty-seeming worries. (”Did he not come to the party because he actually was tired, or because he hates my friends?!”)

So with my 30th birthday looming, I decided to get serious: Things were off for good with the guy, I realized I really wanted to become a freelance writer, and I felt a desperate need to travel and see the world. The Plan started to form: First and foremost, it was time to focus on me, so dating would not be part of The Plan. As for everything else, I worked with my bosses to take a 10-week leave; I’d spend three weeks traveling with a friend in South America, come back to the States for a week and visit my parents in
Detroit for a weekend, then head to Southeast Asia for six weeks. After that, I’d return to NYC and work for two more years on staff, then start a freelancing business. Perfect, and planned down almost to the day.

But The Plan seemed to go awry as quickly as it had started. The day I got back to NYC from South America, my mom called and told me she’d been diagnosed with cancer. It was highly treatable, so she was likely to come through it OK, but she’d need major surgery and possibly radiation. My dad, almost 70, had his own health problems, and my mom needed a nurse. So instead of taking a weekend trip to Detroit before heading to Asia, I moved back in with my parents.