I don’t know if a person can truly die of a broken heart, but I suspect that every person who lives long enough, dies with a broken heart. Life will do that to you. The longer you live, the more loss you experience. For those who live long enough, there must come a time when they have lost more than they have left. Heart breaking.
My mother lived to seventy nine, which isn’t all that old. I know she died with a broken heart. She lost her parents as a young woman. Her two older sisters died years before she did. She lost Dad on her seventy fifth birthday. So much loss. Eleven months before she died, after signing the last of her batch of Christmas cards, she sat quietly in her chair and announced that she didn’t think she would be needing Christmas cards next year. I knew exactly what she meant, and though I chided her gently for saying it, I didn’t doubt her one bit. She had just received a card from the east coast with the sad news that her cousin Bea had passed away. She took it hard.
Cousin Bea was a name I knew well. They were great pals as young women. Mom had been very familial with her cousins. It was a close knit Sicilian family. They looked out for one another. After the death of their parents, Mom and her sisters were enfolded into the circle of love of the extended family, something she was always grateful for and often expressed to me.
I watched my Mother’s grief engulf her when she heard about Bea. The pain was visible, and I knew it was just one of many fissures she carried in her fragile seventy eight year old heart. Thus began a long year of watching someone die with a broken heart. There was a physiological aspect to her dying, neurological and possibly blood disorders, but there was a fracturing of heart also that made the fight more difficult. Death was calling and Mom, however weakly, waved the white flag. She had been fighting for so long you see.
The last thing my mother did before she stopped breathing was open her eyes and look around her room at her children who were gathered around her. Five of her six children were there and three of our significant others stood at the doorway a few feet away. So there were eight people there. She hadn’t opened her eyes in seven days. It was her last look around and we knew it. She died a short time later, quietly, in her sleep.
I’d like to think that the eight of us beside her death bed were vastly out numbered by the people who were smiling and reaching out to her from the other side. I’m sure we were. I’d like to think that she left her broken heart behind, the shards of her mortality, and that as she stepped over the threshold, the pieces disintegrated into so much star dust. It makes it all feel a lot less heart breaking.
There have been times when I felt the shards in my own heart rubbing against each other. It’s painful. Certainly it was there when I lost my parents, my aunts and uncles, my in-laws. I felt it recently when I heard that a close long-ago friend had died. I felt it today when I watched a news story about the threatened condition of the Puget Sound Orca Whales. I feel it when I hear about another death, or deaths, by gun violence. I felt it the other night when I was reading Alice Walker, as she shared that how, as a child growing up in the South, she was suicidal, because it was so hard to grow up as a little black girl in the South. Heart breaking.
Death and sorrow and loss are unavoidable. The thing that we are doing, as we live this life, is learning how to live with the heart break, and learning to accept that sorrow and loss are the inevitable partners to a life that has experienced love and companionship and joy. It’s such a delicate balance. We are walking the wire between the heights of our human experience and the depths of our despair, nursing our wounds along the way, applying love and memory like bandages, and leaning on our companions as we move forward.
Sometimes I feel helpless. I don’t know what I can do to stem the bleeding of hearts I see all around me. I try to be kind, to talk to strangers, to look the homeless veteran in the eyes when I offer him money. I pray for strangers. I pray for my loved ones and for my country. And still I am heart broken. There is so much senseless loss of life in the world. We are dying and being killed by epidemics of gun violence, religious intolerance and environmental and economic exploitation. I find no solace in the divisive politicizing of these issues, as if we could shout our way to resolution and peace, when instead we are breeding discontent, dis-ease and a dismantling of civil society. Heart breaking.
Today I told my husband that my heart was broken and I didn’t know if I could continue to live in this world. It was a moment of weakness, a faltering on the thin wire I feel we are walking on. But, thankfully, it was a fleeting moment. I have people who love me to buoy me up. I have people who inspire me, which builds my strength. There are helpers in the world, this I know, and that makes me hopeful. So no, I can’t give up and I wont. To give up is a betrayal to all those who have gone before me and carried their burdens until the wire broke of it’s own accord. To go on is an affirmation of the strength and capacity for love that is contained in this human heart. It’s a testament to the love, companionship and joy I have been blessed with along the way.
So yes, my heart is broken. But it’s still beating.
©2016 by Ilona Elliott