There's power in seeing your heart lying shattered on the floor at your feet.
I was four. My mom was babysitting the little girl from around the corner, and my dad came home drunk again. He yelled, "I don't want her here!" and I thought he meant me. I ran out of the house into the cold winter night, the stars cold comfort in the sky above me as my tiny legs navigated the hill to my grandparent's house, seeking solace from words that were misunderstood, but were also truth I could recognize even then.
I was fourteen. My mom wouldn't let me go to my father's funeral; she wanted me to stay home and keep the kids. It was a closed casket, anyway, on account of the kind of bullet he'd used, but I was still bitter about missing it, about missing him. They told me his ex-girlfriend did cartwheels after the service, and I thought then the same way I do now: that grief can make us do the strangest things.
I was seventeen. We'd been best friends for all our lives. It was a Sunday morning when the calls started to come through, trembling hands holding paper thinned by falling tears. I'd never cried harder than I did the day we said goodbye, the church way over capacity and the sky the kind of blue you only get in December, frost under our feet as they lowered her into the ground.
I was twenty-one. The bare light bulb threw shadows all around the garage while my boyfriend told me all the reasons I deserved better than him, and I knew he was right, but my body still ached to press up against his. I wanted to comfort him, I wanted to kill him, I wanted to rip the air from his lungs with one long kiss, but I let him leave me. I counted to ten and I drove away and my chest caved in around the steering wheel under the weight of my wasted love.
I was twenty-three. I watched the world burn down around me on 9/11, footsteps fighting to be the first out of the way, to be the first to make it home. There were bodies in the sky, bodies on the ground, bodies wandering the streets like ghosts on fire, like ghosts clothed in ash. Sometimes we held hands, and sometimes it was too hot, and when the smoke finally cleared, I was blinder than I'd ever been.
I was thirty-one.
I was thirty-four.
I was thirty-six, two times over. The last time I heard my mother's voice. The way her breathing changed at four in the morning in the middle of me binge-watching Pretty Little Liars. Clearing out her closet, dressing her dead body with dignity. Coming apart after every last inhalation. Coming away a different person after every last inhalation.
If I asked, I bet you could tell me every detail of the first time you really understand what it meant to have a broken heart. We hear that word a lot, in various iterations.
"That's breaking my heart."
"He broke my heart."
It isn't until it happens to you, though, that you can truly comprehend how heartbreak changes you and what it means. It's just an abstract, random words thrown together to try and approximate a feeling that can only be experienced, never explained.
Attempting it is a child's crayon drawing, but heartbreak itself is Picasso, van Gogh, Michelangelo creating Adam in the heart of a vaulted ceiling. It molds you into something worthy of worship even if you're an unwilling medium.
And really, we're always unwilling mediums.
Who would volunteer to have every emotional bone snapped and cracked just to see what new shape comes out of that carnage? Who would raise their hand and say yes to opening up their sternum, spreading their ribs apart, letting life in to blow through their body like a barely contained hurricane for the sake of observing where everything eventually ends up?
But for all that, for all the stubborn self-preservation, there's an inexplicable kind of power in seeing your heart shattered on the floor, in looking down at everything you thought you were, lying in pieces at your feet. You can choose which parts to pick up and put back together, and which parts to let go of, to crush under your heel, to sweep up and toss with the trash.
Because heartbreak changes us. It gets into our bloodstream, rewrites our DNA, snakes around our spinal column like wisteria. It beats in the delicate jackrabbit pulse of our neck, the hummingbird heartbeat behind the thin skin of our wrist, making music we've never heard before that will soon become just another soundtrack to our lives.
Meryl Streep was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. Her message was strong, clear and full of the kind of measured wisdom she's known for onscreen and off. But it was her closing line that stood out to me:
"As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art."
And isn't that exactly right? Willing or not, stepping bravely into the light or dragged kicking and screaming out of the darkness, our broken hearts make art of each of us.
You may not see it in the wake of your mourning, but you are a masterpiece.