I was fifteen the day my heart broke. I was sitting in the nook off the kitchen inside my grandparents’ house, turning a tiny glass heart over and over in the palm of my hand, inspecting it as the light above us bounced off the trinket’s harsh edges, revealing a multitude of trapped rainbows. The heart was 3-D, reminiscent of Cinderella’s pivotal glass slipper, fitting snugly in the palm of my hand.
My grandmother, my mother and I often sat in that nook, playing cards or board games, snacking and talking and giggling. But that warm summer night in 1994, something unforgettable happened.
The heart, a gift that I had just been given, slipped from my fingers, fell onto the tile floor, and shattered.
I looked down, staring at the splintered pieces, devastated. My heart was already broken, and now this heart had broken too. The symbolism never left me.
The day the Cinderella-like heart broke, I was devastated because I was a mildly obsessive compulsive teenager, washing my hair excessively in the course of a single shower, turning off the light switch repeatedly and always checking to make sure the doors were locked—checking and checking and checking.
So a heart breaking on the floor was more than a trivial mishap—it was surely a sign, a sign of impending doom, maybe death. It caused me great anxiety.
“I’m so glad that you broke that heart,” my aunt said.
My obsessed mind was jolted back to reality. I was certain that something bad would come of a delicate, glass heart cracking.
“Now you can be free,” she continued. “Your heart can be free.”
Free? What did she mean? She certainly didn’t know about my OCD or about my real broken heart, the one beating inside of me, and yet she knew something, something a good teacher always seems to know. She had intuition and understanding.
I didn’t understand. I didn’t know the meaning of the word free. I didn’t have the confidence or the perception to understand free at 15. Nevertheless, my aunt’s words hit me profoundly, lifting a little bit of weight off my shoulders.
The obsessiveness I indulged in was a way to control my world. When the heart broke, I lost the control that I thought I owned. In that moment, I understood that my control was a facade.
I am free. I am free, I silently repeated, sitting in the chair in the nook after cleaning up the scattered shards of glass, attempting to hide my fears. Free. What a concept. No one had ever taught me that idea before.
And of course my aunt would be the one to teach me. She who’d never married, or had children of her own, she who taught classrooms of the little buggers every day as a teacher—she taught me about freedom. She taught me without knowing what was churning inside of me. She taught me an invaluable lesson—one I’m still learning.
Looking back, I think I was lucky. I was lucky my heart broke—both of my hearts. I was lucky I realized that neither of my hearts needed to control.
I was lucky to share a sturdy old table with fine sturdy women—my mother, my grandmother and my aunt. I drew strength in those women and in the hope of my broken heart, gradually learning my heart did break, was broken, and would break again.
But I was lucky . . . because now I know that even if my heart gets broken, it doesn’t mean I am broken.
I am free.