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9/11, Eighteen Years Later

I have many half written blogs that need revising, a zillion more blog ideas I have yet to begin, and so I never planned on writing about 9/11, but as I looked on Facebook last evening, and I read comments about how 18 years ago, over 3000 people went to bed unprepared for what awaited them, I became reflective.

Eighteen years ago, I was a brand new teacher just starting my career, incapable of being able to imagine 18 years into the future. I had no idea that I would still be teaching middle school English albeit in a different district on Long Island, or that I would even still live on Long Island, or that I would be the proud mother of two children and a reluctant divorcee. Forty seemed ancient. At 24 years of age, even 30 seemed faraway.

Instead I was only concerned with the present. As a first year teacher, I was more nervous about arriving at school than my students. I was struggling to plan and implement instruction on a daily basis. I couldn’t predict the timing of my lessons, never mind foresee that on a gorgeous September morning, life, as Americans knew it, would change forever.

I can still picture the guidance counselor who entered my classroom, took me into the hall, and kindly explained that the Towers had been attacked, that a plane had hit the Pentagon, and another had crashed in Pennsylvania. I sank to the floor. I could not process what this woman said, but I knew it was horrific. I was worried. My father was working in the city; my sister was attending college in Virginia. My mother and brother were back home in Nassau County. I was lucky; no one close to me was lost.

For days afterwards, I, like everyone else, was glued to the television. We were waiting for another attack. When I finally ventured into the city, the landscape had changed. The National Guard became a familiar yet foreboding presence in Penn Station. The ominous threat of another attack hovered overhead for years. Life was forever altered.

I think all adults look back on their childhoods and young adulthoods with nostalgia for their innocence. My recollections of innocence are all set in a pre-9/11 world. After the attack, my life became clearly divided into pre-9/11 and post-9/11. A clear line was drawn; I am not alone. It seems impossible that my seventh grade students as well as my own children have never inhabited a pre-9/11 world when 9/11 has provided such a clear demarcation in my own.

And yet I don’t want to write about 9/11. The unthinkable happened. Lives were shattered. Heroes were made that day. Not a day goes by that I forget. The anniversary evokes vivid memories of that moment. I can reach out and touch it. I can relive every moment of the day as strange as that sounds. The beautiful blue, nearly cloudless sky I viewed overhead as I drove into Queens early that morning. The utilitarian hallway where the guidance counselor delivered the news. Keeping the information, as per the administration’s request, from my students. Trying to utilize a useless cellphone. Driving home fearful. Watching the news around the clock for the next 48 hours; my school was closed for days.

Today should be a tribute to heroes, a day of remembrance for those lost, but it should also be reminder to live. Because we get one life to live, and we deserve to live it well. Because no one knows what life has in store for us. Because every moment with family and friends, doing what we love, or just living is a gift.

And none of us can foresee the circuitous route our lives take. Until I was 13, my father worked on the seventy-ninth floor of the second Tower. Visits to my father’s work involved an exciting and long subway ride to the bustling World Trade Center; the Towers were a part of my childhood just as they were a part of the NYC skyline for decades.

And in a strange twist, my 4 and a half year old son has become obsessed with the story of Philippe Petit, the man who walked on a tightrope between the Towers in 1974. My father frequently reads a picture book, by Mordicai Gerstein, entitled, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, to him.

One day, my son found a Kodak photo my siblings or I had taken of the Towers, and he said, “That belongs here,” as he slipped the photo into the last pages of the book that read, “But in memory, as if imprinted in the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.” Gerstein’s last lines are poignant, and the message is straightforward, we can celebrate life in the face of unspeakable tragedy and loss.

And while I am lucky enough to be here, I will continue to make memories and to live joyfully. Not because I don’t remember but because,

We will never forget.

Letting Go

A pink bike with a pink and white floral print banana seat. I hold a wavery memory of my first bike as if viewed through a hazy flashback scene. Yet I remember with clarity the thrill of independence and pride associated with learning to ride it. A bicycle symbolizes newfound independence for young children, and I loved mine and the sense of adventure and freedom it gave me. Now that I am a parent, my children’s bicycles hold a different significance.

Because as a parent, loss is your biggest fear. My friend recently recounted a situation where her three year old daughter was lost behind the stage during a dance recital. My friend became emotional as she talked about her fear and inability to speak in the moment, and the amount of time it took her to recover, even after finding her daughter. Not being able to locate your child, even for a few seconds, feels like what I imagine drowning does. An immense pressure on your chest, an inability to speak or even breathe. Time slows and your vision narrows. You imagine the worst case scenario; calling for help or even forming a sentence becomes an impossibility. When faced with such loss, as parents, we hold on tightly to our children and resist their demands to let go.

In other situations, most people do the same, steeling ourselves against loss. Clutching our purse, locking our car and house, guarding ourselves, our family, and our possessions. Cruelly, sometimes, the people guilty of stealing the most from us are the ones closest to us, betraying our trust, our love, our friendship.

Throughout my divorce, acquaintances would talk about how divorce was so traumatic because it signified “the loss of hopes and dreams” and that captures the essence of divorce; my grief was not a result of saying goodbye to an imperfect partner, but the collapse of all I had built, the dissolution of all I had accumulated, and, far worse, the destruction of all my future plans for my family and me. Loss during divorce is inescapable, overarching, and momentous.

At every stage, as I continued to part ways with pieces of my life, I underwent the same heartbreaking process of grief and loss. My house, my furniture, my dog, and most recently, a 15 year friendship. At first, I railed against the loss, then I grieved it usually with lots of hot, sad tears, and, ultimately, I shed that old form of me, which had held the item close, like a second skin. Each time, faced with the threat of loss, I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, I wouldn’t recover, and, inevitably, I did. I emerged, often scarred, sometimes lighter. Always altered.

With the implosion of a roadmap for my life, there were certain ideas that troubled me more than others. One was that my children would not be with me when they experienced milestones. Ironically, my ex-husband had missed multiple milestones for our children when we were together; as the only constant in my children’s lives, I vow to always be there for them, and so my fears are unfounded. While I realize I have the annoying habit of worrying irrationally at times, an unusual source of recent distress became who would teach my children to ride their bikes without training wheels.

It was more than fortuitous then that in the midst of a particularly troubling month when my ex was threatening to take me to court regarding his misunderstanding of his visitation schedule, my daughter turned six and requested I remove her training wheels from her bicycle. My mother and I both took her out several times to practice with little success.

Two weeks later, as my ex’s threats increased, I took my daughter out again, and she practiced balancing and gliding on the bicycle. Then I held on and balanced the bike as she pedaled. Holding a child up is difficult work, both in that moment and all others. Every once in a while, she would tell me to let go and proceed to fall into a bush or onto a front lawn. She grew frustrated and cranky as we all do when our expectations of ourselves exceed our abilities. I tried to express how difficult and time consuming acquiring a new skill is. She did not care. She was determined.

That afternoon, after multiple attempts, when she finally instructed me to let go again, and I hesitantly did, my beautiful, tenacious daughter took off. Her long red hair streamed out from under her pink helmet as she rode away. I could see the pride she felt in her accomplishment in the set of her back, the way she sat upright in her seat and continued to ride away from me.

My heart was being squeezed. I felt simultaneously proud and nostalgic. As a mother, I cannot measure the pride I feel at my children’s accomplishments. At every one of my children’s milestones, I have cried with the weight and significance of the moment. This one was no different. I started to cry. I ran to catch up. When she finally came to a stop, I enthusiastically praised her, but she questioned my tears. I explained they were tears of joy.

The next day, my daughter came home with an even more valuable gift, a story she had written about learning to ride her bike. She is in kindergarten and an emergent writer, yet the story was very perspicuous. “I told my mom to let go. I told her to let go again. She let go, I could feel the fresh air and it was fun and my mom was crying joy.”

And so the student inevitably becomes the teacher. I had taught my daughter to ride a bike, and in turn, she gifted me a treasure. Sometimes, in life, we must let go. Letting go is scary and intimidating, but, often, it is necessary. In the process, we might be knocked around; we might fail at first. We definitely will fall. But it is in the act of letting go, difficult though it may be, that we find our way. Letting go is a freeing choice. We gain freedom and independence. We begin to fly. And we learn to write our own stories.

Darkest Before the Dawn

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Several weeks ago, in mid April, I went for a run. It was the first genuinely spring day of the season. The bleakness of the winter landscape had been replaced by a scene awash in color: delicate cherry blossoms stood out against a cerulean sky, grass was lushly green, and yellow daffodils and brightly colored tulips bloomed. Easter would arrive in two weeks. The day held the essence of rebirth.

The weather was perfect for a run. I shed my winter layers, and a light sheen of sweat formed early in my jog. I felt the calories and toxins being expelled.

It had been three months since I had signed my divorce settlement.

For years, leaving my marriage had been an insurmountable obstacle. Making the decision to end it was so harrowing that I wrongfully assumed the divorce process would be easier. I was poorly prepared for the laborious paperwork, the mudslinging, and the convoluted legal process. A bad marriage seemed simple and sane by comparison.

Throughout the darkest days of my divorce, people gave me advice. Mainly, they spoke in cliches. As a writer, I had always been warned to avoid cliches at any cost. As a drowning person, I embraced cliches as a lifeline.

You can do it.

You got this.

You will survive.

You have been through the worst of it.

Pace yourself. Divorce is a marathon not a sprint. You are closer rather than further.

(However, the finish line for my divorce kept moving farther away.)

Just breathe.

It is always darkest before the dawn, my hairdresser, of 18 years, told me. This should become your mantra, she advised.

And it did. There were moments so dark, I was rendered blind and paralyzed. I couldn’t see an inch in front of me. Or, separate reality from my worst fears, namely, that my estranged husband would get custody of my two small children. There were moments where I tripped and the earth opened up and promised to swallow me whole in a bottomless abyss. I continued to stumble along.

There were moments laughable now, but not when I was in the midst of a personal hell I didn’t think would end. One day, my estranged husband almost drove me off the sidewalk, screaming at me to get home because he had called the police. My infraction: I had put a post-it over the Ring doorbell and interrupted his surveillance of me.

I stood there, frightened. As he continued to berate me, I finally asked when the police would be arriving. I didn’t call the police was the response; I wanted to scare you. And that became a running theme over the next year as he made threats, filed motions, and blindsided me with his rage and vengeance. The children became pawns in his twisted game.

Then there were the moments that shocked me. Friends and acquaintances reached out to me to share my estranged husband’s profile on dating apps. Often, he didn’t admit he had children, but he did wish to have them in the future. He would tell his children, the ones who actually did exist, he was going to work as he packed overnight bags for his dates. They inquired why he needed underwear and a toothbrush.

There were moments that broke my heart. I spent Christmas Eve in court as he fought me for overnight visitation despite his continued abuse of alcohol and his inability to put the needs of our children above his own or his parents’.

I had lived in such a heightened state of chaos and strife for so many years, it was hard to foresee worse moments, but divorce exacerbated an already tense and stressful situation.

My friend who had survived a starter marriage told me an allegory about being in a boat in the middle of a squall. Ultimately, she said, you will row to the other side. Throughout my divorce, I felt as if my boat had capsized, and I was going down for the last time. Even though I always managed to pull my head above water to gasp for a breath and find the strength to keep treading water, I feared I would drowned.

My children love to gather pebbles and place them in a glass vase. They take the pebbles out frequently, stack and examine them and discuss their favorites. In the midst of my storm, I collected people’s divorce stories and treated them like my children do their pebbles. The stories became my worry stones. I examined them closely for a sign of guidance or hope. If this person had emerged intact, I could, too.

And then one day, I did, with no fanfare at all. The lawyers called a meeting, suddenly. It was their last ditch attempt to resolve our issues before we began the trial process. Five tense hours later, I emerged divorced. It had all happened so quickly that when I texted my friends, they couldn’t piece the puzzle together. Either could I. After a contentious 11 months, my ex and I were able to agree enough on a final settlement.

The biggest obstacle still to be overcome was the new visitation schedule. My children would now have overnights with my ex, a man who was irresponsible, disorganized, and self-aggrandizing on his best day.

There are still dark moments, but on this perfect early spring day, I chose to embrace the light. My hairdresser was right. Darkest before the dawn was the perfect mantra. I had walked straight through the most excruciating moments of my life. I faltered many times, but I never gave into the dark. And here I was on the other side. Dawn beckons welcomingly.

A couple of weeks later, on the eve of my daughter’s sixth birthday, I went for another run on an atypically pleasant spring day in a rainy and cool season; signs are everywhere if we look. Again, I reflected on how far I had come. My daughter wasn’t even five years old when I began divorce proceedings. So much had improved since then. I prayed that both my daughter and my son were too young to remember my darkness.

And if they do remember the darkness or ever face their own terrible moments, I want them to realize darkness is ultimately extinguished by light. Winter cycles into spring. And storms give way to calm. The strength of the human spirit cannot wholly be captured by cliches, but it is in the dark that our essence truly starts to shine. And it is in the winter when the seeds of rebirth are sown. And after the darkness always comes the dawn.

Labeled

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After a night I would like to forget, I was shaken to receive a phone call from a victims’ advocacy group.

I remembered previously telling a friend that the treatment I suffered in my marriage was not clear cut abuse. She had not been convinced.

I had been through hell, but I was not a victim.

As an ELA teacher and an avid reader, I believe in the transformative power of words. Every September, I have my students complete an I Am poem, and I model my own. It is a compelling activity. The words we choose allow us to define ourselves.

I am a mother. A teacher. A runner. A writer. A daughter. A sister. A cousin. A friend.

I am empathetic, intelligent, and funny. I am a work in progress.

I, like many of my pre-teen students, take pride in listing my roles and traits. There is something about seeing a list of intangible concepts on paper that give those qualities tangibility and meaning.

On the other hand, as a middle school teacher, I also understand the drawbacks of labels. Labels reduce our three dimensional selves to one word and make it easy to pigeonhole or stereotype people. And I had.

I am a professional. I am educated. I am middle class. I couldn’t possibly be a victim of abuse. Victims are weak. Victims are vulnerable. Victims are pitiful. I refused to identify myself as a victim.

Every morning, I woke early, exercised, completed my household chores, dressed, and got my babies out the door, typically before 7:15. I went to work and masqueraded as a normal person, even though that morning my husband didn’t arrive home until I was leaving. Or my husband refused to get out of bed because he came home intoxicated at 2 am. Or the night before, I found bar or strip club receipts, again. Or I uncovered yet another lie. I went to work and masqueraded as a functioning person, when, in reality, my life was falling apart.

But our family photos on Fakebook were beautiful, and I always wiped my tears, redid my makeup, and put on a smile before attending a party. I looked normal. But my life wasn’t.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Abuse insidiously propagates in the dark spaces created by fear, shame, and silence. My own abuse resided in that darkness. For so long, I was embarrassed to share the painful secrets of my marriage. When I finally began to open up, I saw horror and sadness reflected in my friends’ faces. Mine were not the problems of a typical marriage.

The stigma of being a victim also prevented me from calling the police, even though I should have multiple times. One day, replaying an incident that had made me feel powerless and weak, I vowed if I was locked out of my house again, I would call the police. When I was and I did, at least four police cars showed up at my door in my middle class suburb; my neighbors texted to make sure we hadn’t been robbed. No one could have imagined that their jovial neighbor was vicious behind closed doors.

My husband told the police he locked me out because I was belligerent. It was for my own good. Most of my marriage I weighed less than half of my husband’s weight. And if belligerence means meekly crying because your marriage is a wreck, his description was an accurate one. I was so exhausted by the litany of paperwork to be completed that I couldn’t imagine having to also press charges.

Then, as is often the case, the abuse ceased momentarily and, subsequently, intensified. The marriage counselor had often said I would need a push to get me to end my marriage. I did not know it would be a literal one. Or that for months afterwards, my son would remember and discuss the incident he had witnessed.

When I began to see a new therapist and revealed to her the inner workings of my failed marriage, she explained that I had been a victim of abuse. I started to cry because I still was not ready to admit the truth. She said, “I want you to know because you need time to heal and be kind to yourself. If you don’t want to say you are a victim, you can say you were victimized.”

She described Dr. Lenore Walker’s cycle of abuse theory. The theory asserts that abuse cycles through three stages: tension building, acute battering, and the honeymoon/reconciliation phase. The cycle of abuse explained the box worth of apology cards I had received since having my children. Of course, a genuine apology holds with it the promise of attempting to refrain from the offending behavior. I had received boxes of platitudes, a manipulation so I would stay despite abuse.When I started to further explore domestic abuse, I realized my perception differed greatly from the reality. Domestic abuse can vary; it may include violence, sexual, or financial abuse, but it always involves the use of power and control to intimidate and subjugate victims. The more I read the descriptions of abuse, the more accurately they matched many unhappy and horrific moments of my marriage.

Ultimately, with a wonderful support system, I found the courage and the strength to break through my own prejudices and fears and free myself.

People talk about walking out of a marriage.

Walking out of a marriage is not an accurate depiction of my journey. Instead I crawled my way out.

I had been buried alive. There was a heavy weight on my chest. I was suffocating. Scared. Alone. In the dark. I began digging, scratching, and clawing my way out. The silence was thunderous. I was screaming into blackness, choking on dirt, and spitting out mud. Finally emerging with my spirit scarred but still intact. I was no longer a victim.

Sometimes labels, even the ones we reject, empower us.

I was a victim of domestic abuse. I am a survivor of domestic abuse. I continue to be a work in progress.

How Running Saved My Life

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Over ten years ago, as I approached 30, I pledged to enter a new decade thinner than I currently was. I had spent my 20s, working, traveling, going out to eat and drink, like many of my contemporaries. While I had been jogging on and off for several years already, I decided to increase my mileage and use jogging to prevent the weight gain that people told me my 30s would inevitably bring.

I started small, and, as the years passed, I began to enter longer and longer races. I ran several half marathons and even finished one marathon, but I still considered myself a jogger or, more accurately, a plodder. If I set my goal on the finish line, I would get there, albeit very, very slowly.

At some point, I must have separated commitment from speed, and I began to call myself a runner. The label actually helped define me and became more important as my responsibilities grew. Post-marriage and motherhood, running became a part of my bones, muscles, and sinew. Running held me together on the days I was falling apart.

I had become a runner. Days were better if they started with a pre-dawn run. Cold, heat, rain, and even snow did not stop me. I was committed.

Runs are not always easy or scenic, and so runners are tough. Runners are strong. They set their sights on a goal. Some runs, they crush their PRs. Other times, they are just grateful to finish. Either way, flying or crawling, the end goal is the same: cross the finish line, and so runners are tenacious and resilient. I was a runner.

There is something about the mundane task of pounding the pavement that helps me both to escape my life temporarily and to gain insight about it. I envision the therapeutic appeal of running, the way running dulls the edges of my raw emotions but gives me clarity, to the creation of sea glass, the rhythmic pounding of the ocean turning jagged sharp edges into an object of beauty.

I used to enjoy running alone, but as I grew older, I started to enjoy running with a partner as well. Sometimes being less in your head is better, especially when your head and heart are filled with hopes and dreams for a happy, fulfilled marriage and a calm, safe family life and the reality is the antithesis: an ugly, dark, chaotic place.

But still I approached my marriage, the way any runner would. I set my sights on a goal: keeping my marriage together. I was strong. I held on tight. I was determined to make it work despite all odds, namely my husband. I was tenacious, and I refused to admit defeat, though most of the time I was barely capable of crawling. I continued to hope and pray for my marriage to work. I cried and begged my husband to change for our children and me. It was an exhausting course, physically and mentally, but I persevered. It took a toll on me. I began to feel lost and disoriented. I was not the me I wanted to be.

It was on a run with a friend, a month after my 40th birthday, that I realized my marriage was hopeless. My husband was incapable of change. I had done something I did not know was possible, I had outrun hope.

As I said the words aloud, I felt lighter. I started to feel less fettered by the heartbreak, heartache, and disappointments that had become the norm. I was not yet 1000 pounds lighter, but I was on my way.

Six months later, I filed for divorce.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”-Semisonic

Traversing an Unexpected Path

“Children always choose their mothers,” a psychic once told me. She believed that from the spirit world, unborn children made this decision which would then impact the rest of their lives. I forgot about the reading until I had my own children. Then I adopted her belief and often say to my children, “Thank you for choosing me.”

Because becoming a mother is indefinable. It is an honor, a challenge, and a paramount responsibility. It is amazing, frightening, difficult, rewarding, and emotional. The highs are highs and the lows are lows, and the emotions I feel as a mother can change instantaneously. And nothing can adequately prepare a woman for the experience of motherhood.

However unprepared for motherhood I may have been, my plan was never to be a single mother. I married and waited several years before I became pregnant. During my pregnancies, the images I played in my head always included my husband and me as parents and partners. When my daughter was born, I was excited about embarking upon life as a family.

Becoming a mother made me vulnerable in a way I had never been. I felt as if my heart was now carried by another being, and her well being was inextricably tied to me. Eighteen months later, my son was born. I had been so frightened I would never love anyone the way I loved my daughter, but hearts are expansive and much to my surprise, mine doubled in order to include my son. I was more vulnerable than before as my heart was now shared by two little people.

Motherhood suited me. Instinctually, I knew what to do to care for my babies. And if I didn’t, I turned to my mother, my sister, and my friends for advice and support. The one person who could never be relied upon was my husband. He, physically and emotionally, began to abandon the marriage as soon as we had a child. When my son was born, he disappeared. One friend best described his abandonment when she said, “You are growing up; your husband has grown down.”

Most of the time, we have choices. I chose to embrace parenthood. My husband did not make the same choice. I love the imagery from the Robert Frost poem, “The Path Not Taken.” It is empowering to imagine oneself standing at a fork in the road and making a difficult choice. But sometimes one does not get to make a choice. A path has already been predetermined. That is how I feel about the path of single motherhood. It is not one I chose, but one upon which I was forced.

The path of single motherhood can be lonely, especially because my idea of a family always included a mother, a father and children. I actually had never considered any other version. However, that was not to be. And so I walk a path, I never imagined. And there is always beauty in the unexpected. The view from this vantage point, no less stunning than from the one I had originally pictured.

Most days, I have confidence in my role as a single mother. There are days I feel lonely and scared but never for very long. I am not perfect, but my children will have to the opportunity to witness my strength and courage in the face of the unexpected.

And so, I don’t need to be a psychic to realize I have made many good choices. Over the summer, my daughter threw a penny into a fountain and made a wish. She came running back and said, “Mama, I wished for a mom like you.”

Beware! Timelines and Red Flags

In the midst of my divorce, I attended a good friend’s baby shower. As I talked to a younger guest about her boyfriend, her desire to get engaged, and her frustration that she wasn’t yet, I could sense in her the same discontentment which had plagued me in my 20s.

Despite my own sadness and confusion, I gave her the best advice I could muster at the time, “Don’t let your personal timeline ruin the present. Mine screwed me.”

In my case, my personal timeline had not only ruined my present but my foreseeable future.

Prior to filing for divorce and throughout much of the divorce process, I beat myself up about the choices that had led me to this place. My therapist and friends offered comfort. How could you have ever known this would happen? He said all the right things. We were all taken in by him.

And for the most part, they were correct. Most people grow up significantly between their 20s and 40s; my husband did not. During courtship, my husband had said all the words I wanted to hear. He said he wanted to be a partner. He said he wanted children.

Yet, in the quiet moments of reflection that are hard to bear when you are struggling with grief and loss, I had to admit the truth to myself. While my husband had betrayed the marriage in too many ways to count, I was also complicit in my divorce.

In my 20s, I secured my career, I traveled and had a great social life. It should have been enough, but I was desperate to get married and “start my life.” I watched most of my friends meet significant others and settle down, and I still was single.

Then when I was 28, my husband came along. He was in my social circle, he was romantic and spontaneous and said all the right things. It seemed perfect. My friends thought it was perfect. We quickly became a couple, and it seemed so easy.

But the truth is, it should have been closer to perfection than it was. It should have been easier than it was. There were numerous red flags. They were blood red and being waved directly in my path. Reckless behavior. Excessiveness. Financial irresponsibility.

There were numerous red flags. They were blood red and being waved directly in my path. I chose to ignore them. I chose to ignore them because I had a bigger plan – a timeline that stretched before me with marriage, a dog, a house, and children. And I was behind schedule.

I have had time to revise my advice: acknowledge the red flags and abandon the timeline. You cannot schedule finding a good partner. And a timeline cannot make an inferior one someone he is not.