Some Gifts of a Broken Heart

Loss and grief are inevitable. Every heartbreak offers a choice, and it’s the same one we get with every challenge in our lives: will we choose to love? How we navigate through loss determines how, when, and sometimes if we emerge from it. When heartbreak comes to us, if we lean into it we’re more likely to find its gifts.

I once had a house with a sweet little backyard, at the center of which stood a huge oak tree. It was gorgeous, tall, and old enough that couldn’t wrap my arms all the way around its trunk. We had mulched around the space, as one often does, and on top of the mulch I had spread out hundreds of smooth, flat river stones. I loved to walk on them in my bare feet in the shade of the beautiful tree.

One of my most vivid memories of that spot is a sad one. I was on the phone talking to a friend, and on this day, I was telling the story — very much in progress — of the extraordinarily painful end of what I had believed to be a life-long committed relationship. My partner of 14 years was ending our relationship. Up until that time in my life I had not known what devastation was. I was circling this tree, walking the stones, pouring my heart out over the phone as it sunk in that I would be losing this, too. This place, this spot, this tree, this home, along with the comfort of my partnership, my sense of security, and what I had thought was the love of my life.

A few weeks later, with everything I owned a movable storage unit, I drove away. I had packed all my clothes, enough furniture to suit an apartment for one, and a few pieces of art from the walls. I drove 14 hours nonstop to Denver. When I arrived, I couldn’t move into my apartment yet, so I drove seven more hours to the small mountain town of Silverton, a former mining town, to stay for couple of weeks with my best friend, Mollie. She was the artistic director for a small theatre company there.

Mollie showed tremendous compassion and patience over the next few months while I grieved. She got me out and about when I wanted to stay in. She went on walks with me. She rounded up an impromptu birthday party when I turned 39, just a few days after moving to Colorado. She took me high into the mountains to see stunningly beautiful places where are my sense of smallness felt beautiful and awe-inspiring.

One day we stood around 13,000 feet above sea level on a mountain, well over the tree line at the headwaters of the Rio Grande. In this place, I had no sense of scale. How far away was that mountain that peak? How large was that? How small? And what on Earth was I doing here now in this place? It was a deeply humbling and inspiring. Taking me to this place, she literally uplifted me. When we returned to town, I had begun to shift myself to a new perspective. My life, I decided, was in an adventure phase. It was incredibly painful, and I missed my old home, my old relationship, my old life, but I knew that life would continue.

I started to remember, then, that I wasn’t actually happy in my old relationship. I was just comfortable. I realized that for more than the last decade, I had felt like I couldn’t be myself, or that I shouldn’t be myself. Now because all was lost, I had nothing to lose. Knowing that, I found a new conviction that from now on I would just be me. I wouldn’t hide my interests, I’d say what I thought, share what I felt, and care for myself the way I’d always wanted my partner to take care of me. I learned that loss and grief can open our eyes, and can make us stronger. As Marilyn Monroe said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”

I soon saw how my loss made room in my life for something better. Have you ever made a vision board? You know, a poster where you cut out photos of things you want in your life, and you visualize and imagine your perfect life? I had. And my vision board was becoming real. I ended up getting exactly the life I wanted. But it wasn’t to be with my former partner. There was someone else that was a better fit, a new family I was meant to be a part of. For that to happen I had to lose some things. Much sooner than I would ever have anticipated, I met someone new: Kevin. And as I got to know him, I discovered that he had all the qualities I had wanted in a partner. Before I knew it, I was in a new relationship. It felt much too soon, but I plunged in anyway, because it felt so perfect. Everything was in sync.

All these years later, I’m happy to say that things have worked out. We’ve been married now for four years, together as a family since 2011. I LOVE my life now, so much more than I ever did, more than I’d thought possible. And this life now could not have been if not for the loss of what I had before.

Very soon after I moved to Indiana to start this new chapter of my life, Mollie learned she had ovarian cancer. We lost her in late 2016 when she was only 42.

When she died, I felt this void. She was gone, but my love for her was not. I needed a place to direct it. So I turned to friends – not just my friends, but her friends and family. All my love for Mollie, I decided, I would now share among those who also treasured her. We gathered not just for her memorial and celebration of life, but we reconnected. And we remembered how much more we had in common than our love for and friendship with Mollie. Something else beautiful came out of this reunion that was prompted by her passing.

We wanted to do something to remember Mollie. She taught theatre for many years, and inspired a lot of young artists to pursue their creative passions. A few of us got together to talk about what we might do, and then last summer, we established The Theatre Mine, a new non-profit theatre organization in that small mountain town that Mollie loved. We raised money to bring in guest artists, and in early June of 2018, we got together for the first annual new plays festival named for Mollie. It was a fantastic week full of laughter, creativity, discovery, play, friendship, communion, and Love. And we’ll do it all again next year.

I would not say that these rekindled friendships and this new theatre company’s birth make up for the loss of Mollie. At all. But they are wonderful, beautiful, precious things that came about because she died, and I’m grateful for them. We lost Mollie, but not our love for her. And we get to pour that love into something that she loved doing, something that we loved doing with her. It has already started to touch the lives of many people who never met her.

I think sometimes we don’t really know the depth of our love until we lose someone we love. What becomes of the brokenhearted… that’s up to each of us to choose. Heartbreak can teach us a lot if we’re willing to let it. The gifts of heartbreak reveal themselves as we move through it. When we bear the pain we are sure will kill us, we find that we are stronger than we thought. Heartbreak teaches us the importance of honest vulnerability. When we find willingness to be vulnerable — or when the pain gets so bad that it breaks down our walls and our denial so we must be vulnerable, willing or not, we can discover new empathy and compassion.

If we’ve lost a relationship, we have an opportunity to choose to love ourselves more fully. And we don’t need someone else to love us first. That actually makes us easier to love, and helps us love others more freely, and with healthier boundaries.

Heartbreak and loss, unexpectedly, can prove to us that we’re not alone… if we choose to stay open. 

It can bring us back to what’s most essential, most important in our lives. It makes us humble. It can open our eyes. It helps us discover our resilience.

It can bring us closer to a higher power, or God, or Creation.

It can reveal strengths in us that we didn’t know we had.

It can open new doorways.

It reminds us to cherish the love in our lives, to savor the friends and family who mean the most to us.

It can shake us up and bring new clarity, helping us to see the world in a new way.

Heartbreak and grief are universal. Not if, but when we find ourselves in grief and heartbreak, we are presented with an opportunity, and a choice: Will we resist and deny, thinking we’ll avoid the pain and in doing so ensure that it’s worse and that it lasts longer? Will we swear we’ll never be hurt again? Or will we let our heart open even more? Will we isolate ourselves and close ourself off?

Sometimes when we experience a great loss, when things fall apart, we want to avoid the pain by shutting down, or numbing ourselves. I say, let’s have the courage to love, even in our grief and loss. Heartbreak can make us stronger, softer, more flexible, because the heart breaks OPEN. It doesn’t break closed. When you are feeling lost, alone, grieving, and heartbroken, don’t give up on love. Remember that you are not alone, that you are loved. Keep on loving, no matter how often your heart may be broken… open.

Dad’s Passing

Dad died, and I’m waiting to feel.

That’s not entirely fair. I have feelings about it, but they’re not what I expected. Where are the tears and surprisingly-intense-even-though-it-was-expected pain of loss? What I feel is much more complicated, more subtly layered, and I have a peculiar sense of distance about it, almost as if I am anesthetized.

For the last year, Dad’s doctors had been telling Mom that he would die within weeks or days. His skin turned yellow, he stopped eating and his flesh shrank against his bones. He stopped drinking for weeks at a time. I guess when you feel like you can’t breathe, the desire to drink wanes. They said it was toxins in his system, another symptom of alcoholic cirrhosis.

Three years ago, my sister called me at work to tell me Dad was in rehab. “He had a seizure at work,” she said, which I later learned was a symptom of alcoholic withdrawal. He hadn’t quit drinking. He just hadn’t had a drink in several hours.

On hearing this, I couldn’t stop weeping. I felt relieved, and hopeful, and angry, and apprehensive, and hurt. Conversations with my father played vividly in my head, exchanges that never happened in which I told him in clear and certain terms how much damage his drinking did to our family. “Doesn’t Mom deserve to live with a sober spouse for a few years,” I wanted to ask him, “after all the bullshit she’s endured?”

I never had that talk with him exactly. Once, during the longest of his sober periods (lasting several weeks), I asked him how he was feeling. I imagined there must be something positive about it for him. Was he enjoying more quality time with Mom? Did he enjoy greater clarity? Did he feel hopeful, or empowered?

“I’m bored,” he said dully, and had nothing else to add.

He quit for a while, a month or two, long enough for me to feel hopeful, then angry with him for drinking again and mad at myself, too, for being stupid enough to think he would or could stop. It took another two years before I gave up, and I mean that in a positive sense. I let go, finally, of the wish that he would change. And it became easier to love him.

Almost a year before he died, I flew home to see him because he was, we were told, on his death bed. We wondered if I’d get there in time. He’d stopped eating, had lost a tremendous amount of weight, he was jaundiced (for the first time), in pain, he struggled to breathe, and said he was ready to die. When I saw him at the hospital, he looked frail and weak. He winced, moaned and gritted his teeth in pain at irregular intervals as urine drained through a catheter. Yet he was much improved, they said, and expected to go home in a couple of days.

Mom said the doctor told him he had about six months if he stopped drinking. But if he stopped, he would experience more seizures, which could be damaging and dangerous. He stopped and started, and finally, a few months before he died, he told my mother, “I love you, but I can’t stop.” And he continued drinking for as long as his strength to do so allowed.

His last week or so was really hard for Mom especially. He wanted to be at home, and she wanted that for him, too. But he was hallucinating, uncooperative and verbally abusive. At one of his first stays in the hospital, he’d called home and told my mother to bring him his gun. He said he was a secret agent and the hospital was keeping him there against his will. This delusion was frightening and painful for Mom, and she cried when she told me. And they said it would get worse as his liver quit functioning, and ammonia polluted his system. Finally, Mom guiltily consented to have him brought to a hospice. He fought her on it. “I know I’ll get better if you’ll just let me stay home,” he said, which made it even harder. But she couldn’t do it, she said, couldn’t take care of him anymore knowing that the worst was yet to come. He protested and cursed, “but that’s not really him,” I said. “He’s not in his right mind anymore. If he were, he wouldn’t want you to have to go through this anymore.” We all knew and we all told her she was doing the right thing. She was. She did.

He settled into the hospice on Friday night. He was given morphine at regular intervals. He did not regain consciousness. He died Sunday morning. He was 68.

The last time I spoke with him was a couple of months ago on the phone.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Tired,” he said.

We made small talk. I told him I loved him, and he said “Thank you.”

He said “I love you.”

And those were our last words to each other.

For that, I am grateful.

Dad

I wrote the following in a my journal in December 2010:

I’m at my parents’ house for the week of Christmas. I haven’t spent more than 48 hours here in fifteen years. I feel uncomfortable, awkward, out of place. I want very much to leave. But I also want to be here. I can do this. My being here means a great deal to my parents. They’re so happy I’m here.

I spent the day with my mom. I drove us to the beach–I hadn’t seen the ocean in a couple of years. We shopped in the afternoon, and in the evening went to a Christmas concert at my nephews’ school. We got back a couple of hours ago, and my father was still up. This was unusual for the hour.

“Would you care to sit down for a bit?” he asked. He looked vulnerable.

He was watching a thriller of some kind on TV. A bloody face filled the screen. I didn’t want to sit with him, nor did I want to watch this show.

“I’m not interested in watching that show,” I said.

He hit the power button the remote, and the screen went dark.

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to watch the program. I asked you if you’d sit down.”

I did not want to, but I did. I can do this, I thought. For him. So I sat on the couch, leaving enough space for another body to fit between us. He smiled at me through an anesthesia of alcohol, something between a grin and a wince. Then he reached out to me tentatively. He wanted to touch me, to hold me. I let him. He sighed and held me close. I can do this, I told myself. It was ok, easier than I thought it’d be. Love to him, I thought. I can do this. I visualized light in my chest, allowing the glow to reach out to him.

“Thank you,” he said, still holding tight. “I feel it,” he said. “I feel… penetration.” I almost laughed at this choice of words. He let go for a moment, then pulled me in again. “I’m not done,” he said. He caught his breath as if laughing or sobbing. Then he sat back and looked at me blearily.

“You know,” he began, and hesitated. “In two years, it’ll be 50 years your mother and I will be married.”

“I know.”

He was silent for a few seconds while he stared toward the wall. Then he looked back at me and grinned. “You know, if you want to… if you really want to set her off… you…” and he leaned in toward me, pressed his lips against my shoulder, and exhaled. I felt the warmth of his breath seeping through the fabric of my sweatshirt. Then he sat back, smiling mischievously. “If I really want to upset her, all I have to do…”

“Let me ask you a question,” I said.

“What?”

He couldn’t hear me. I had to speak loudly.

“Let me ask you, why would you ever want to ‘set her off?’ Why would you want to upset her?”

He was flummoxed. I repeated the question. His expression shifted as he considered, looked confused, then unsure before a bland look came over him as he said (as if it should be obvious), “It can’t be all love.”

“Why not?”

He seemed to think this a naive question.

“Because it’s not out there.”

“You choose your behavior,” I said. “You choose to be loving or not. Why would you choose to upset her, on purpose, ever?”

He thought this over for a few seconds.

“For fun,” he offered.

“It’s not fun for her,” I pointed out.

“No,” he agreed. “It’s not fun for her, but…” and he went silent, then looked confused again.

“I don’t understand why you’d do that,” I said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You’re not making any sense,” he said, shifting his body to face me. He was searching for words, clearly wanting to have a talk, to educate me.

“I don’t care to have this conversation with you when you’re this drunk,” I told him.

“What?”

“I’m not going to have this conversation with you while you’re drunk.”

Hearing this, he released me. “Oh. Ok. Good night to you.”

I went down to the guest room.

Twenty minutes later, I opened the door and stepped to the bottom of the stairs, listening.

“He’s downstairs,” he was saying. “What the fuck is up with that? That’s not right,” he told my mother. “There’s something wrong with that.”

“Don’t use that language,” she scolded.

It is very hard to be here.

I love my father. That hasn’t always been easy to say. When I was a kid I frequently told him I hated him. I was always so angry at him. I didn’t trust him. I experienced him as moody, erratic, unfair, creepy, invasive. He enjoyed teasing me. He admitted this years later. I got into the habit of just avoiding him, making myself invisible. I was good at it.

I’ve seen my father a few times in the last several years, on my brief visits back to the northeast. He’s ailing badly now, and his doctors have told him he won’t live long. Mom says he hasn’t had a drink in over a month. This time it’s not because he’s on medicine to curb the desire, or because he’s reached a resolution, but because he always feels like he can’t breathe. I guess that cuts the appetite for alcohol.

About ten years ago while I was in grad school, he and my mom visited me in Iowa City. While they were there, I set up a video camera and interviewed them as they sat in my living room. Not too long before this visit, I had recorded a conversation with my grandfather days before he died, and now I thought, why wait until they’re on their deathbeds? So they agreed to do it.

I’ve lost the recording. I had it backed up on a couple of drives, and last year when I tried to look at the files, they were irretrievably corrupt. But I remember.

“You used to hide all the time,” Dad told me.

I knew exactly what he meant. I didn’t say anything.

“Tell me about when you started drinking,” I said.

“I remember when I was a kid,” he began, “I used to see aunt Rita and Uncle Charlie pour themselves a whiskey, and they’d fill a glass like that…” He held his fingers out to suggest the size of a tumbler a little larger than a juice glass, which he then mimed holding and filling to the top. “And I saw them do that, and…” he searched for words. “I admired it. I wanted to be able to drink like that.”

Wow, I thought.

“So when I was old enough, I started drinking.”

I’d never heard this story before.

I’d asked the question because his drinking affected me, it affected all of us. I believe it’s one of the main causes of our strained relationship right from my childhood. I always knew he drank, but somehow I didn’t understand until I was a teenager just how much. When I was in high school, I got up one morning, and in the kitchen found what I thought was a flat, stale glass of beer on the kitchen counter left from the night before. I poured it down the drain. Not long after, I heard him moving angrily through the house asking “Who dumped my beer?!” I told him I did. I remember feeling very self-righteous and angry about it. I didn’t apologize, I just said, “I never imagined you’d be drinking this early in the morning.”

I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I talk to mom just about weekly, and sometimes she hands him the phone. Our conversations are short. He sounds more pleasant, less gruff than I’m used to. Softer.

And it’s easier now for me to feel my love for him. I don’t feel angry with him anymore.