There are few things that can crack a heart open like seeing someone’s heart breaking. When the heart breaking belongs to your own child, the sound of that crack can be loud. Only the soft echo that follows is a reminder that this is the persistent melody of life; love and loss.
Our little cat was very sick, and when that vet began using phrases like “very poor prognosis” and “immunologically compromised” I realized we were not going to get a bottle of medicine to take home with us. Or a cat.
My younger daughter’s eyes got wider and wider until the tears began to spill out of them, and I heard that all too familiar snap in the chest. Her grief was a river, and I knew better than to try and dam it up. I held her while she wept, and we offered our memories of our pet to each other, little moments of fun, the color of her eyes, the way she sounded when she purred.
My older daughter was a stalwart shoulder to cry on, but the three of us were drenched in despair. It felt as if our rescuing this little animal had put us in the path of a flood of sorrow.
We all made it through the night, with some tea and lots of sympathy. The empty space where the cat would have been felt like a black hole, drawing sadness like gravity. I gave my ‘better to have loved and lost’ quotation, and was happily surprised to get total agreement. No one felt that the cat was a bad idea.
It was the next day that I was at a memorial service for the patriarch of a family I’ve known for years, and the large smiling picture of him at the front of the gathering was one that people commented on throughout the service. “That’s just so like him,” and “I’d know that smile anywhere.”
I listened to memories being shared by children and grandchildren, students, and the friends of many decades – the feeling that shone through it all was not loss, but love. Love of learning and conversation, love of lattes and bagels, love of New York, Florida and California, and a great encompassing net of love that took in everyone.
I was surprised and not surprised to discover that his early life had been very difficult, and that he had been rescued from a kind of orphanhood by a family that took him in and raised him as one of their own. “I don’t know that we every did it legal, but he was a member of our family, just like a brother, no difference at all.” The man who had been the biological son shared with us how lucky he felt to have a “best friend living in his own house.”
In turn, his house was open to everyone. More than children and grandchildren were the ones who stood to share their memories of ” I just needed a place to be…” or “I didn’t know what to do with myself or where to go.” And he poured coffee, and offered bagels, and listened, and talked. Lives were changed, and lives were saved.
When we open our arms, we put our hearts at risk. When we offer a home to any being that needs one, the biggest benefit is that we get to share our time and our selves, and we are immeasurably richer for that. The legacy that we leave – when we leave – because no one here gets out alive – is to have shared that moment. Broken hearts are mended by other hearts that have been broken and mended too. There’s love, and loss, and more love – the refrain that returns again.