Your heart will break a thousand times in this lifetime. Maybe a hundred thousand.
That may seem like a pessimistic prediction, but let me explain…
Moments of beauty are not only found in love and joy but in loss as well. And when we love fiercely, we feel loss differently: we grieve but we also discover a deep gratitude.
My eldest cat was sick: losing weight and vomiting a bit each day. I had no idea what was wrong until an ultrasound revealed a tumor in his stomach. Lymphoma. He had an emergency surgery to remove the mass, but the vet told me he still only had a month to live without chemo. Chemo itself might only give him a few more months. Scared as I was, I declined the treatment, knowing how stressed weekly treatments would make my cat. I brought him home and took care of him day and night — for 7 months. In those 7 months, I learned about love and acceptance and seeing someone (no animal is “only an animal”). I learned the beauty of little interactions and joy, like watching him lay in the sunlight or touch a slug and jump back. And I felt the devastation of loss as I held him in my arms as he faded. Even then, looking into his eyes was the beauty of the world, of this moment with me. Even with my heart breaking.
I was so grateful for being able to take care of him in the way he needed, grateful for the lessons he taught me in those months and how they summed up what I had been learning from him all along.
My mom had come down when I knew it was time for him. She was with me as I held him.
And then my mom was diagnosed with cancer — bile duct and pancreatic to be exact. The doctors said it was stage 2 and treatment was possible. They prepared her for a surgery that was so complex I didn’t dare read about it for fear of where my mind would go with that information. She was weak for some time then went through chemo, but a year after her diagnosis things were looking up. Thanksgiving came and she was there at the hospital the day her grandson was born; she was the third person to hold his tiny body. But she still said this Thanksgiving and Christmas might be her last. I tried to counteract her negativity with my own brand of hope, trying to instill in her the belief and trust there would be more. But by mid-December, she was in the hospital again and would spend the next 8 months in and out at least once a month. The decisive diagnosis was given in June: the cancer was back and there wasn’t much the doctors could do. They didn’t know how much time she had, but I think my mother had a sense, because when she told me and my brother, she said 2 months.
After other procedures we hoped would help and putting her on hospice the week she got really bad, she bounced back a bit and we had some time together. I spent most of my mornings with her, sitting by her side, getting her food when we could convince her to eat, and organizing her bedside table just so. When the last week came, we knew she was going. It became difficult for her to communicate and we did whatever we could to keep her comfortable. On her last day, I sang to her and sat by her side and reassured her that just because it was time to let go of this body and this life, it didn’t mean we’d be apart. I would be there on the other side of this, and though I’ve never experienced death, I was suddenly sure of this, of how we live on in a new way, and how we live on in those people we love.
My mother taught me so much in my life, from tying my shoes to putting on makeup to being creative. Her strengths taught me, her weaknesses shaped me, and her love changed me. And as absolutely heartbreaking as it was to lose her, the moment she passed was filled with such great beauty, with such deep love…it taught me as well. I was grateful for her, for our friendship, for how she made me, for it all.
That’s what you don’t always expect in heartbreak: the gratitude for it all. You don’t see it immediately, but it’s there. And it changes you.