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This week, First Person takes a closer look at love and heartbreak.

February 14th is the day we contemplate our hearts. Ideally, we find them robust and whole. Often though, they’re a mess, blistered remnants choking the grate after the fire’s gone. These hearts are Valentine’s vestiges. And they also deserve love.

“Heartbreak,” writes poet David Whyte, “begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot.” Among those things we’re asked to let go: plans, rituals, security, expectation. History. A future.


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As for letting go of Dan, that was an extraordinary idea. After six intense years together, he was knit into my skin. And when he left, I unravelled.

Romantic heartbreak distinguishes itself from other sorrows by the dismissal and loneliness that are stitched through its wool. Here is the conscious exit of someone who has free will to do otherwise. Here is the loss of a partner and best friend and self-worth. Of care and concern and comfort. Here is the loss of peace.

And so this is heartbreak’s grim essence: a message from the universe that you are not precious and a sentence to process that on your own.

For me, heartbreak was all-consuming. It stole all my quiet pleasures – loving my lunch, remembering a movie, filling with music. These were extravagances I could no longer accommodate. Now the whole of my being was occupied with mourning. Figuring, remembering, revisiting, untangling, replaying. Waiting for my phone to fill up with him. I could barely drive or walk or stay upright. My head was so crowded.

I worked to discharge its congestion to Dan regularly, after he left. I e-mailed him letters from sobbing coffee shops, I sent him texts, I mailed him cards sprayed with my perfume so it would travel into the avenues of his brain that we’d carved together. I left shattered messages on his machine, reading from notes in my car, always looking for the words that would convince him of my worth. Sometimes, I videotaped myself so he could see my pretty face and the way his rejection had made it bony and sad.

“Oh, my sweet darling one,” I said, in a mid-March e-mail when I’d been six weeks on my own. “I am in such pain. Please find a way back to me.” I hadn’t eaten since he’d boarded his train for Montreal in January, since he’d left me at Union Station, alone. I’d lost 25 pounds and I told him as much. I also told him to remember our love. “I wake up every morning and just cry and cry,” I said. “Don’t extinguish us.”

But he never said a word.

People’s experiences with heartbreak are as different as people. There is emerging acceptance and enlightened outlook; there is obsession and suicide. And there is madness enough to fire a factory.

History, literature and all the chairs in the coffee shop are heavy with heartbreak. Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe shivered there. “Deeper than melancholy,” she cried, “lies heartbreak.” Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal to mark the scale of his anguish. Portugal’s King Pedro, who honoured dead Ines by exhuming her and making his subjects swear allegiance to her reign. And Queen Victoria, who endured 40 years without her Prince Albert and must have etched with such relief “here at last I shall rest with thee” over the door of the mausoleum when she joined him.

Surely Dan heard my sorrow across the 500 kilometres that had separated us from the start. “I am beside you,” he used to say to me from Montreal when I lay in bed in Toronto. But that was before he’d stopped saying anything at all.

I didn’t stop though. I told him often that I interpreted his failure to write back and ask me to stop my campaign as reason to hope. If he didn’t kick shut the door, I’d say, I would imagine a crack. It wasn’t manipulation – it was a plea for release.

There was no kick and the crack consumed me.

Sappho begged Aphrodite to “come to me again and release me from this want past bearing.” Even Jesus Christ might have lost his life to heartbreak, say the scholars, noting the water that poured from his heart when soldiers plunged their spears there.

In my “want past bearing,” I stayed alive and perceived the sun’s passage across the sky and that was all. I could not listen to music. I could not be alone. I could not sit in my house surrounded by silence and tortured by yearning. I packed up my children for uncharacteristic excursions to table-tennis parlours and arcades and board-game cafés – anything to occupy them so I might climb into myself and wallow in the swill there.

One unbearable Sunday, I cried while driving the kids to a trampoline gym when a song called Let Her Go came on. “You only miss the sun when it starts to snow,” my radio grieved. “Only know you love her when you let her go.” After I parked, I stayed in the car to imagine Dan hearing the same lyrics and having to pull over until he could stop sobbing. The idea filled me with such complicated sadness.

Literary heartbreak allusions hit a high point in 1774 with the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. In this modern novel – considered the first – the sensitive Werther writes to his friend Wilhelm about falling in love with Charlotte, who’s with Albert. Heartbroken, Werner eventually kills himself. “I suffer much,” he writes, in the letter he leaves behind. “I have lost the only charm of life: that active, sacred power which created worlds around me, it is no more.”

At Friday night art classes after my own lost charm, I would splash my sketches with tears and send my friends texts that said I was afraid I might die. Once, I visited an art gallery where visitors wrote wishes on strips of paper and hung them from the ceiling. I wrote mine with great care and attached it to one of the fishing lines, where it was instantly lost among hundreds of dangling desires. “I miss you so much, Dan,” my strip howled. “Please come back.”

I watched the fluttering paper forest for a long time, conjuring a scene where he would come into the gallery and find my note and know the message was mine and that he had to abide it. Valentine’s Day or no.

Laura Pratt lives in Toronto.

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