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,