During library time in the fourth grade, a close friend and her new friend said they didn’t want to play with me anymore, and I sat there behind them on the close-shorn carpet, my heart in flames.
That was the first time.
One evening in fifth grade, while my mom was at book club, I walked blithely into my sister’s room and stopped short. Our father sat next to her on the bed, clearly in mid-sentence. Her face was blotchy, tear-drenched. At his direction I went to take my bath. Sitting there, staring at the familiar friendly face of the faucet, I tried to imagine what could make my sister cry like that, and an answer immediately rose from nowhere: divorce. I quickly banished the thought. But later, once I was snug in bed, my dad came in to say goodnight. In his preoccupation he sat on my legs and before I could do anything about it he told me. They were separating.
That was the second time.
In sixth grade, my best friend abruptly stopped hanging out with me. As neighbors, we inevitably trekked similar paths to and from school no matter how many detours I took, her with friends, me alone, and within my preteen mind all of their giggles spotlit flaws I hadn’t owned before. Our history ran back to toddlerhood and so I stood holding the severed threads of our friendship for a long time, never sure why.
That was the third time.
In seventh grade my mom told us she had cancer. We were in the kitchen. She had been to the doctor to see about a persistent cough. I remember nothing of what she said. I think I was at the table. I think she was standing. I do not remember the time of day. I do not remember what her face looked like.
That was the fourth time.
In eighth grade, again in the kitchen, my mom gathered me into her lap, coltish legs and all, and told me she was dying. And then she comforted me while we cried. She lovingly, selflessly, bravely answered childish questions like where will I live and who will take care of me while I buried myself into the solidity of her flesh and tried but was unable to fathom a world without.
A month later, she was gone.
That was the last time.
For many people, I imagine their story of the word “heartbreak” begins at that age where mine ended, conjures up images of their first failed romance and continues on, perhaps for decades.
But not for me. Everything from that point on, no matter how devastating, has landed with impact but without shattering. Her last gift was an explosion that taught me where center is and how to piece myself back together around it with love for duct tape.
Because after your heart splinters into shards, living becomes a choice instead of a default. You meet your strengths and your weaknesses both. You learn their exact contours, how to identify them in the dark. And in reassembling them, you claim them all.