Expanding Hearts

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I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the not-so-feel-good topic of loss and how to deal with it. I guess a lot of it was sparked by the recent death of Joanna, a girl I met in Europe on a Contiki. We weren’t super close or anything—but seeing her picture splashed on news stories really got under my skin and I’ve been thinking of her pretty smile every day since they found her body.

It’s natural to think about death—it’s normal to feel anxious about your loved ones growing older, more fragile. I feel like losing someone you love is the one thing in life you can never prepare yourself for—but you wish you could or you might even feel like you already are prepared, ready, accepting of fate.

My best friend recently lost her grandmother, who was living with her. I walk by that empty room in her house now and my heart feels tight, uncomfortable. I think about them surrounding her with love, reading her poetry. Jo’s sobs still ring in my ears—I had never heard pain like that. Yet, I am envious of her. I told her this recently—that I feel like she’s stronger now, more prepared than I am, for the next inevitable passing. It’s stupid, I know. It’s not like one family death will make the next hurt any less.

Then I think about my aunts—they’ve both lost their husbands and they’ve both dealt with the loss in their own way.

My Uncle Rick was a racecar driver. I don’t remember him, but I’ve seen so many pictures and watched a couple home videos and I’ve heard about a million stories—that’s enough to know he lit up a room. He had that charm, that smile, that laugh—everyone adored him. Whenever I think about him, for some reason I get this ‘80s Tom Cruise image in my head—this cool cat who could make a rock fall in love with him. After a racing accident, he was in a coma for years before he passed away. My Aunt Debbie focused on her kids and then focused on their kids…I didn’t think she’d ever truly open back up to love. Her story made me fearful—I felt like she had this perfect marriage that ended too soon and once you have that kind of happiness, you just never get it again. I thought maybe people aren’t allowed to have that twice. But now she has John and I see this light in her eyes that I’ve never seen before. It reminds me of the pictures, the home videos, the stories—it reminds me of Uncle Rick. I don’t think she finally “filled a void,” as the saying goes, but I think she finally made room for that same kind of big love she once had.

Our hearts are bigger than we think. I feel like we’re constantly trying to cram love into a box—focusing on taking things out instead of expanding.

My Uncle Mac drove an 18-wheeler. He was in a terrible accident and became paralyzed—a quadriplegic. My Aunt Kathleen had been taking care of him for over 20 years before he passed away in 2010. I’ll never forget how positive he always was—if he was unhappy lying in that bed all day every day, he never let on, to us at least.

My Aunt Kathleen has similarly amazed me with her outlook on life. She is one of the craziest, most hilarious women I’ve ever met (she prefers the term “eccentric”). I asked her this past weekend if she’s dated at all. Her response was a big ol’ grin, a sip of her giant Long Island, and: “Not yet, there aren’t any men in Kountze! Unless I want a crazy old man who has a wife. My neighbor won’t stop calling—he wants phone sex! Can you believe that?! Anyway, I’m gonna move to Gruene and find me a man with at least a six-figure salary. That’s just the way that it is. That’s what I’m lookin’ for. I know what I want!”

Priceless. And the best part? The next day, she actually bought a piece of land in Gruene. She loved Uncle Mac deeply and always will, but she’s figured out that whole expanding-heart thing. It’s so great—and I know that both my uncles are smiling down, relieved that their loves are open to loving again.

I wish I could’ve taken a lesson from all of this sooner. People should view every hardship in this way. I always thought the key to getting over ex-boyfriends was filling the brokenness with someone new. But other people don’t fix you—you have to fix yourself. Your wounds might always be wounds, your holes may stay deep and barren—but your heart isn’t a box with a limit. There’s room for whatever, whoever, and however much. I’m still working on realizing this (isn’t it funny how you can realize something, but never really be done realizing it?). But I know that feeling worried and unprepared for loss is normal—all I can do is keep trying to expand my heart. Current effort: making room for each and every one of my new students. Even the one that guessed my age today: 49.

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