When A Heart Breaks

February 10, 2011 | My Jottings

I was fourteen years old when my mother took to her bed. Back then it was called a nervous breakdown. Today I would call it a broken heart.

She stayed there for nine months.

I had heard occasional rumblings in my parents’ marriage, but I thought they were only small tremors of little consequence. At that young age I had no idea that those minor temblors were announcing the massive quake that was to come, the one that jolted us off our feet as the tectonic plates of our family shifted so powerfully it seemed the earth opened up and swallowed some of us whole.

After 31 years of marriage, my father had told my mother he wanted a divorce.

I remember the summer morning I woke up and went to the kitchen to pour some Cheerios and milk in a bowl. Dad was sitting at the table, the hanging lamp glowing yellow on the pages of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune he pored over each morning as he had a piece of peanut butter toast and a cup of coffee. Mom was sitting in her nightgown on the couch, her coffee in front of her on the marble coffee table. I noticed a small piece of paper next to her coffee cup with her handwriting on it; at the top on the left side she had written “Doc,” and at the top right she had written “Virginia.”  Several words were listed under each name, words like house and Buick and retirement account. Looking back I’m amazed that I didn’t stop right there and demand, “What’s going on?” but the written words must have not fully registered right then because the scene seemed okay. My mom and dad were in their morning places, quietly sipping coffee, and nothing seemed very different.

But everything was different. And everything was about to come apart.

My parents later broke the news to me that they were going to get a divorce, that they still cared about each other blahblahblah, deeply loved all three of us kids blahblah (who were 29, 24 and 14 at the time — I was the only one at home), and very little would change blahblahblahblah except that Dad would be moving out into his own apartment. My father said that he had stopped loving my mom years ago, that their lives had grown apart, and that he had stayed with her because of me. He had wanted to wait until he felt I was old enough, mature enough, to emotionally handle the difficult news. I guess he thought fourteen was the magic number. That sunshiny Southern California morning, Mom was sad, Dad was quiet, and I went outside to see if my next door neighbor and boyfriend Rick was around so I could talk to him about what I had just been told. Later in the day I called my best friend Denel to break the news to her.

After Dad moved out my mom started crumbling a bit. She poured out her sadness to me and it was a heavy load for a fourteen year old girl to bear, but I tried to carry it. She cried and told me if only, if only, if only…..if only she had not allowed herself to gain weight, if only she had taken more of an interest in going to the basketball games my dad coached, if only she had been smarter and a better conversationalist, if only.

My mom also had lower back trouble, and not surprisingly, her back went out at this time. I remember a chiropractor actually coming to the house a few times to give her adjustments there. Mom probably didn’t want me to think she was in bed for so long because she was so heartbroken, so most of the time she just said to people who would call, “I’ve thrown my back out.” Which was true, but now I know it wasn’t the only thing. Throwing one’s back out is a much more acceptable reason to stay in bed for nine months than having an emotional collapse.

Mom was a professional organist in the old days of the smoky supper clubs. She was a gifted musician who could hear a song once and move to her behemoth Hammond B-3 and play it effortlessly in any key, with no sheet music to refer to. I do not exaggerate. She worked at night playing music at an organ bar at a nice restaurant, and she was so personable, so loved by people and so talented, the bar seats were always filled and other restaurant owners were always trying to lure her away to their establishments.

I remember watching her long, elegant fingers dance fluidly and gracefully over the two keyboards of our Hammond at home, and I was so proud of her. I loved how she played “Seventy-six Trombones” from The Music Man. When I was really little we would sit together on the bench and I would play chopsticks while she accompanied me with advanced chording and rapid lilting riffs that made me sound like I was a spectacular organist at the age of seven. At that age I thought I was.  🙂

When my parents split up and my mother took to her bed, she didn’t go to work for those nine months. The big Hammond at the restaurant sat silent, and so did the one in our home. Her boss and friend, Helen Hasabales, had compassion on my mother’s situation and paid her anyway. Every two weeks her paycheck would arrive and for those months Helen made sure that financial difficulties weren’t going to be added to the pile of grief already weighing my mom down.

Friends came to visit and the phone rang off the hook with well-wishers and people wanting to express their love to my mom. She was a woman with a hundred friends. I have no doubt that this stream of support and caring kept her above water emotionally. I came home from school and sat with her and sometimes she would weep out her heartbreak and regrets to me. Other times I felt relieved that she had friends who reached out to her so I wouldn’t have to do so much. People brought food, friends came and sat with mom and knitted while they chatted, and I had time to do what fourteen year-olds do (and time to do what fourteen year-olds have no business doing). I had my own heartbreak to deal with.

I’ve heard of people who get divorces and they handle it so well, so maturely and matter-of-factly, that hardly anything seems to skip a beat in their families, supposedly. Moms and Dads go into overdrive to make sure all the kids know that they are loved, that they aren’t the cause of Mommy and Daddy’s divorce, that sometimes these things happen and mommies and daddies don’t love each other in the same way anymore but we’ll always be a family and we’ll still do fun stuff together and all of that garbage. Pardon my French here. I didn’t buy it when I was fourteen years old and I don’t buy it now that I’m fifty-three.

I desperately wanted my parents to stay together. I wanted my dad to love my mom again. I wanted my mom to stop being so emotionally weak and devastated. I begged God and cried out to the heavens for my parents to do whatever it took to stay together and heal. I realize that I don’t know all the ins and outs of my parents’ relationship even now, and I’m very aware that there were bad dynamics on both sides that contributed to a union that got weaker and more toxic as the years went by. It wasn’t just Dad. And it wasn’t just Mom. It was the careless, selfish, most likely tiny choices they made day after day for thirty-one years. Choices that didn’t strengthen and build and bless. Choices that may have been so subtle no one could have noticed until things were so fractured, that the road back wasn’t even visible anymore because of the rubble and ruins.

Lest you think I’m speaking from my lofty high horse, I inform those who don’t already know that I myself have been divorced. While the circumstances of my divorce weren’t the same as my parents’ situation, heartache still came in and put down deep roots. My little girls were two and a half years old and nine months old when their father decided he didn’t love me anymore and wanted to leave and take up with someone else. It couldn’t have been all my first husband’s fault — I have to own my part in the unhappiness that helped him open that door and walk out while I stood there crying pathetically. Thirty-two years later, much healing has taken place, but open wounds always leave scars, and we all have them.

My mom got out of her bed after nine months and went back to work. She laughed again. She grew a little stronger, but not as much as I think she would have liked. Years later she developed macular degeneration of the retina and had to retire early from playing the organ professionally. She was an amazing, generous and loving grandmother. But the rest of her life was a bit shrunken, a bit withered, after the divorce. I know that people can heal after divorce, but I never thought her healing was really complete. Fear and loneliness and melancholy marked much of her life. She had multiple health issues and eventually had a hard time even walking.

Here’s a picture of my mom when she was eighteen years old, right before she and my dad got married in 1940.

I love the jaunty cap and her beautiful lips and the serenity I see in this photo.

And here’s one I found recently of Mom, behind the organ at the supper club where she worked. This was taken around 1970 when she was 48 years old, right before the divorce.

I think of her a lot these days, especially when I’m with my grandchildren, or when the accomplishments of my daughters bring joy I wish I could share with Mom. Of course I wish life had turned out differently for her, but I don’t dwell on it too much anymore.

Even though my mom’s faith didn’t shape her daily living as much as it does some, she believed in Jesus. In her last years when she couldn’t see well and had to use a thick permanent marker to write huge words on typing paper for grocery lists, she let me read to her quite a bit. And when I read to her about the love and forgiveness of God, she cried. The tears would stream down her face and I could see her reaching out and grabbing that lifeline. Then peace would be present for days after.

When she died, her last words were, “Help me Jesus!”

And He did. Jesus helped her slip out of that body that had become a prison, away from those modes of thinking that had worn grooves so deep she couldn’t climb out for very long, out of that loneliness and fear into the best company and contentment and joy and confidence and love she’s ever known.

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the LORD has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Isaiah, Chapter 35.

Can’t wait to see you again Mom. I know you’re finally smiling and dancing around free. No longer heartbroken.

I have so much to say to you. Fancy that.

Your yearning daughter,


  1. Ganeida says:

    However well handled I think divorce always scars. My cousins are the children of a messy divorce & some of their poor choices are directly attributable to their parent’s divorce. Thank goodness there is grace & healing & forgiveness in Christ.

  2. Just Julie says:

    Yes, Ganeida. Without the Lord I know things would have been so much worse. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Sharon says:

    Miss you, Grandma.

  4. Just Julie says:


  5. Diane says:


    Thank you for this powerful and loving testimony of how even the inevitable devastation left by divorce can be a place where, still, God is there and redeems and brings life.

    I am grateful to God for how He has redeemed you, and am heartened for my own nieces, nephews and cousins who live with gaping wounds fom the shrapnel from their parents’ adamantly self-justified divorces. The parents continue to argue for their good decisions, while the now grown children stagger and bleed. The Lord is seeking them out–a shepherd carrying balm and food and a staff to lift them out of peril.

    May the Lord continue His great redemptive work in us all.

    Love, Diane

  6. Just Julie says:

    Thank you Diane…. 🙂

  7. Tauni says:

    Wow, Julie ~ the photo of your mom at 18 looks just like you! I remember her best in the other photograph. I had a vague recollection recently that it was this time of year for you.

    I remember this very sad time in your life. One of the biggest things I remember about this time is that there were more of my friends living in homes with two parents than one parent. Hearing about my friends weekends with their dads was an unusual experience for me. I remember your mother in bed and I remember hearing about her back being out. I suspected, but never really knew.

    I want you to know, I really love your mom. I have mentioned before how much I (and my family) enjoyed her music. I remember you and I standing on either side of her at that HUGE organ and singing songs and playing on the keys. I was mesmerized by her playing. I too am looking forward to seeing her again. I know she is very proud of you and will eagerly listen to what you have to say! Hugs, Taun

  8. Just Julie says:

    Tauni, your words mean so much to me. I love your memories of my mom – thank you dear friend….

  9. Ember says:

    When my marriage ended it blew a devastating hole in my life and in my children’s lives. The main repair work took a decade. Some things couldn’t be fixed. I don’t suppose I will ever be that same person I would have been if it hadn’t happened, and that goes for my children too – and, I think for my ex-husband as well.
    My present marriage is with a man who has been divorced. It took me a long time to get over the acrimony that came my way after that, too.
    But I believe in people and life and God, and I believe in happiness.
    I believe in happiness that is there in even tiny things, if we will reach out and take it. The winter my first marriage ended, I concentrated sometimes on watching the steam from my breakfast porridge rising through a sunbeam, and I listened to Mozart and bought myself a fibre-optic Christmas tree and used to lie in the dark watching the pretty little lights change. And I watched cheery cooking programmes on telly. Not big spiritual stuff, but it helped.
    There is so much I could say about this. No relationship is forever. Everything changes. But the whole of life is held in the hands of God, and we have therefore good grounds for trust and hope and love. Nothing is lost, nothing will be dropped. There is reason for faith, and peace.

  10. Just Julie says:

    Thank you, Ember. Perhaps your name should be Balmer. Ember who brings the balm….

  11. Lorna says:

    Oh, I miss my mom. Thank you, Lord, for that highway, that Way of Holiness which leads to Your presence and everlasting joy and reunion. Thank you, Julie, for your healing words.

  12. Just Julie says:

    I know you understand, Lorna. Thank you for reading, my friend.

  13. Ginny the Yalker..."One Who Can Yarn Talk" says:

    Jewel, my heart felt hollow after I read this because of how many times my parents pounded on the door of divorce. My mom hung in there, bless her heart, and a few years back, the reality of her strength and sacrifice hit me. How our family dynamics could have been so horribly different had she not chosen to stay married to an adulterer, an alcoholic and an overall jerk. I believe her staying gave our family a chance to see my dad come around and for all of us to heal and actually grow to love him. He is 91 now so we have few years left to make up for the painful ones, but nonetheless, we have experienced forgiveness and love. I don’t think my mom’s heart has healed completely, but I feel she knew staying was the right thing to do. I also believe when I faced that same decision with my marriage, it gave me the strength to stay.
    These two have had 59 years of rough waters, but dang it, they are still afloat! And for that, I, as their adult child, am grateful!

  14. Just Julie says:

    Ginny, I wish everyone would visit my blog to read these comments of yours. It touched me very deeply. Thank you for visiting here, and for sharing your story. The way you have been able to love and forgive is amazing to me – full of the way God does things. LY.

  15. Susan A. Reed says:

    This was so touching Julie, I really do not know what to say except the best is yet to come!

  16. Just Julie says:

    Thank you for your encouragement Susan…you are a dear. Xxoo

  17. Lisa says:

    This is just beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. My parents, too, divorced when I was 9. I’m 40 now, and I still have to visit three homes (my mom’s, my dad’s and my in-laws). The effects just don’t go away. Love your blog. BTW, would you be interested in sharing your story about how God changed your life and what you learned? I have a blog called deepandwonderfulthoughts.wordpress.com would you be interested in sharing?


  18. Just Julie says:

    Thank you so much Lisa. Your blog is a place of wonderful encouragement! I am always happy to share my story if it could be helpful to anyone. I will email you. Thank you for asking, and God bless your week… xo

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