“If we broke up, would you feel relief or grief,” I asked my boyfriend while hanging out together on the rooftop of a Chelsea apartment building. “A little of both,” he answered, and just like that, I let go of and lost the man I thought I would marry. The fact that he did not fight to keep me confirmed that he didn’t love me enough. Now, twenty years later, I realize we probably could have worked it out; we were so incredibly compatible. It’s clear to me now that he had been a little distant in order to get through his medical degree, and I was too immature to know that couples in love can survive without seeing each other every day.
After saying goodbye to the person I had loved more than I thought humanly possible, I walked around for blocks and blocks, trying to process and pray over what just happened. I'm not the kind of person who sits and sulks. I like to be active, even when feeling my pain. Most of Manhattan is continuously well-lit and peopled, so walking until 2 in the morning was not a problem, and no one paid any mind to a girl in her twenties crying and sometimes audibly pouring her heart out. But this is not really a story about a broken heart. It’s a story of the mysterious ways healing comes to us.
That very night—or rather early morning—when I sank into bed, I was at peace. What else could I be? I had poured it out and given it up for six hours; surely that was enough. But then something remarkable happened. First, I should explain that I was a graphic designer. I had never any aspirations to be anything else. But as I was falling asleep, a vivid inspiration hit me. All of a sudden, I felt compelled to put together a book of quotations on death and dying. I immediately thought there were two sources behind this odd inspiration: God who is the Alpha and Omega of creativity, and my sister Jill who worked in the cancer ward of a hospital and would be the authority on the matter. Actually, I put the two sources together. I thought God was giving me a project to do with my sister and would thereby help me heal. My aforementioned need to be active, combined with the fun of working with my sister, would be the perfect antidote to my loss.
At dawn, I called Jill and relayed the idea. I described it in detail, as the specifics were there in my head. She agreed to be coauthor, thus assuring me that the inspiration was for real. Throwing myself into the project full force, I spent days at the library and weekends with my sister in Boston, collecting and narrowing down the material. Once the quotes were all copied on individual index cards (what people used to do before laptops), I resided in coffee shops, flipping through the cards and arranging them with the goal of achieving a series of poignant quotes that would gently help a person through the stages of grief. The whole process took over a year. At one point my good friend Roy Bickley—who actually had a career in publishing—gently and appropriately told me, “You know, not everyone who works on a book gets published.” This was news to me! I hadn’t even considered it. While I don’t advocate such ignorance, it was a blessing in my case, as the book was ultimately taken by a literary agent who gave it a title and sold it to Random House.
The ironic thing is, all the time I was working on this book, I had no idea that the material I was absorbing about death and dying was also meant for me. I thought the intense project and close time with my sister was what I needed but didn’t realize the actual content was ministering to my heart and mind, too. I consciously grew in compassion and understanding in regards to the person who was experiencing the great loss of a loved one due to cancer, an accident, or any number of heart-wrenching things I came across. I was humbled (and still am) by it all, but believed I was shoring up wisdom for some future time in my own life. It wasn’t until many years later when someone who had just discovered my book asked me, “Who died on you?” that I knew. The blunt question evoked a brief response, and it became obvious. “My first love,” I answered.
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