Living, Gratefully, with a Broken Heart
I don’t recommend having your heart broken at 53.
Not counting the daily heartbreak of raising children—especially when they reach the teen years—I have never had my heart properly broken. You know, like the scene in a chick flick where the girl locks herself in her apartment, eats ice cream and doesn’t move for days? I was always too in control to let myself experience and express that kind of intense emotion.
I have, however, broken hearts.
Most notably the guy I was dating when I graduated from college. He spent the summer of 1991 selling Bibles door to door on his bicycle in Iowa to earn enough money for an engagement ring for me. But that summer I met the man who would become my husband of 28 years.
I chose my husband because he was gainfully employed and supportive of my ambitions, as opposed to the Bible-selling college student who wanted to be a history professor and have many children. I imagined my weary future self traipsing across the country, supporting and raising a large Catholic brood as this man sought successive degrees and an elusive professorship.
So, I broke up with him when he returned from Iowa in favor of my now ex husband. The college student and I cried all night in a Motel 6 in Auburn, Alabama. My heart was a little broken, but already I had my sights set on another life with another man. Soon, I married that man, and we did indeed traipse across the country seeking elusive newspaper jobs. And I did end up weary and lost to myself, but at least I didn’t end up in Alaska, as my ex-boyfriend did, with the truck he bought with his Bible earnings.
Fast forward almost 30 years, and as my marriage began falling apart, I met a man who was wicked smart, cute, accomplished, hilarious and irreverent.
He took me back to a happy time in my childhood when I would hang out with my older brother and his friends who would tease me mercilessly. There were parties and Indiana summer nights and bonfires. All things seemed possible. It was the summer before I moved, at 16, to Bradenton, Florida. I left my happy self behind on those firefly-filled Indiana nights.
My relationship with this man was like those nights. He called me an asshole. I made him snort out loud in his formal business meetings. We had an undefinable connection that I might call infatuation, or perhaps love of a sort. I laughed till I cried as we effortlessly talked about work, children and life.
After my husband and I separated, he filled a void. I was never alone, I realized, because I had him, as tenuous as it was.
One summer evening, we set a special date. And as that date arrived and the evening came, I heard nothing from him. I waited for him to call, or text, or give me a viable excuse. But I didn't hear from him until 11:30 p.m. He wasn't going to make it. The fact he waited so late to tell me — our mutual respect for one another had always underpinned what we had — crushed me.
“I’m done,” I texted him. While he texted and asked forgiveness the next day, I had blocked him, and by the time I had a change of heart, he was done too.
In the days and weeks that followed, I grieved.
I was in the middle of divorce, my oldest child was getting ready to leave the nest, but it was over this man I cried.
To be sure, I was already like a cracked windshield. But the loss of him was the pebble thrown up by the truck in front, breaking apart the whole thing.
One of my friends offered this wisdom: your hopes and dreams are broken, not your heart.
Yes, my hopes and dreams were broken. And while it was about this man, it wasn’t about him at all. He was just the person onto which I had attached my hopes and dreams. I literally transferred them to him from my marriage, and now my marriage was gone, and so was he.
That pain and grief? I’m not going to lie. It was gut wrenching.
But it was also a little glorious.
After spending so much of my life suppressing and repressing my feelings, these deep, intense emotions cracked me open in a way, I think, that was vital to my growth as a person. They’ve created a crevice in my heart into which new hopes and dreams can, one day I hope, find a home.
So no. I don’t recommend having your heart broken at 53.
I recommend living with one every day.
I wish I had been open to these emotions so much earlier in my life.
It might not have changed anything, but at least I would have been living.