The Heart Is A Muscle
Posted June 30th, 2016
Last Sunday I dropped my eldest son off at overnight camp for three and a half weeks. And then I proceeded to crumble.
No, that’s not entirely true. The truth is that the crumbling — much to my horror — began in earnest the night before.
On Saturday night, I was standing in the kitchen trying to put candles on the strawberry shortcake “cake” for my youngest son’s 9th birthday. A small gathering of our family in the backyard was eagerly waiting for me to reemerge with the lit cake and launch into a rousing rendition of “happy birthday” to celebrate him.
But me? I just wanted to cry. But I didn’t know that at the time. Instead, I was waging a full-out anti-crying assault in my mind:
YOU CAN’T CRY! It’s a goddamn birthday party…this is no time to be sad! What kind of mother cries at her kid’s birthday party?
DON’T BE SELFISH! This is not about you, for fuck’s sake! He’s all excited to go to camp! Don’t make him feel badly because you’ll miss him! You’re supposed to be the grown up here!
SUCK IT UP! It’s only three and a half weeks, for crying out loud! He did it last year and it was fine! Pull it together, woman. This is just silly.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU!? You’re totally losing it for no reason. You’re a camp person! This is what you wanted! You’re supposed to be excited about this. Something’s wrong with you…
These were all the loud voices going through my head pre-crumble. Loud, loud, loud. Very anti-cry.
Apparently I was in the kitchen “lighting the candles” a bit longer than I had realized. Because soon enough, my eldest son appeared in the kitchen asking me if I needed help.
That’s when the first crumbling happened. I pulled him into a hug and sobbed “I’m just going to miss you SO much.” We stood there, together, and just had a quiet moment in the kitchen. Finally, I pulled away and told him I loved him, thinking that would be the last of the crumble.
You know where this is going, right?
Yup. Turns out that initial crumble was the beginning of a two-day blow.
The next day we drove him up to camp, met his counselor, got him settled in his tent, and said our goodbyes with a fair amount of grace — his younger brother was totally fine, and his dad and I were wearing these weird grins on our faces, but by and large the drop off was a non-event.
But then after? I was a fucking mess. I crumbled like all my bones had been taken out. I cried big fat silent tears on the ride home. I cried standing in the empty kitchen. I cried sitting on my front stoop. I just couldn’t seem to stop crying.
None of my usual tricks were working. Trying to reason with myself didn’t work. Trying to “snap myself out of it” wasn’t working. Reading? Making art? Going for a run? Nope, nah, nothing.
I panicked, actually, wondering if my crying would ever stop. I’m mean, is it possible to literally die of crying?
And that’s when it hit me. I was heartbroken.
My heart, like my quads sometimes feel after a particularly long run, had a little tear in it. My heart was a muscle, and it had stretched — like it had been given an emotional workout — to the point of ripping it a little. A Couper-sized rip.
When I made this connection in my mind, something shifted for me. Having been an athlete most of my life, I knew that those little rips of muscle were what made them grow bigger and stronger. That kind of pain was familiar to me – a welcome sign that was often indicative of a really productive workout.
The heart is a muscle. The heart is a muscle. The heart is a muscle.
This was something that started to play in an endless loop during that two-day blow, and with each new loop of it echoing in my mind, I found I was giving myself more and more permission to feel what I was feeling. To have it be normal, expected, and even welcome. To see my tears as a result of my strength, not my weakness.
It felt like a tremendously loving act, that permission.
There wasn’t anything wrong with me. I had simply let myself love with my whole heart…and then a little bit more for good measure. I had let myself love more than my heart had previously been able to hold.
There wasn’t anything wrong with that. There wasn’t any shame in that. In fact…once I thought about it some more, there was a fair amount of pride. There’s a reason the word courage comes from “coeur”, the French word for heart: I was being brave-hearted.
This is good pain I was feeling, not bad pain.
We talk about that a lot in our family — the difference between “good pain” (that comes naturally from growth, learning, reaching, challenging) and “bad pain” (that comes from injury, sickness, an accident, or something foreign being inflicted upon you). To illustrate my point, I have often told my sons the story of their births, and when they ask me if it hurt giving birth to them (“naturally”), I always respond honestly saying, yes, it did, but my body knew it was good pain so I was okay with it.
When my kids are literally experiencing growing pains behind a knee or in an arm, and come to me concerned, the first question they’ll generally hear me ask is: Does it feel like good pain or bad pain?
This connection — a framework, really — of my heart being a muscle that is capable of growing gave me the permission I seemed to need to cry my tears. I found I stopped apologizing (no one had been asking for it anyway), explaining (no one seemed to need one), and worrying (no one expressed concern for my sanity).
I just cried, and let my body heal my broken heart.
Such a simple thing for my body to do, but unfortunately began with such an epic battle in my mind.
When I really let myself crawl inside that Couper-sized rip in my heart, here’s what I found:
Sadness at how the passage of time seems to be going faster and faster with our kids.
Grief for having moved beyond the phase of our kids being small and needing us as much.
Panic that there will be many more — and bigger — drop offs and goodbyes ahead of us.
Gratitude that I have been given the gift of motherhood.
Joy at knowing my son was in his happy place.
Pride at knowing that we had raised a child who felt confident enough to be independent.
And then the most amazing thing happened. I woke up Tuesday morning and felt so wonderful. The “soreness” I had been feeling in my heart from that Couper-sized rip had been repaired seemingly overnight. My permission to feel and cry my tears had helped, much like gentle stretching and the potassium in bananas goes to work on my sore muscles.
I was not only all “better”, I was stronger. I could feel it.
Apparently I had given my heart one helluva workout and discovered that not only was it capable of rising to the occasion, but it was quite naturally ready for more.