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Empty Altar, Broken Heart

The 15th century Italian poet Dante once wrote “remember tonight, for it is the beginning of always.” Sitting alone in my apartment on this December evening, I am still struggling to grasp that “always” looks nothing like it did a week ago, and that the very fabric of my life lays in rags at my feet, hoping to someday be patched back together again.


It’s a shocking contrast from just three weeks ago, when I left the south suburbs of Chicago for rural southern Illinois like a king coming home with the spoils of war. I had just celebrated my 25th birthday, and I was coming back into Fishook (my hometown, population 37), not as one who is chasing a dream, but as one who is living it. When I left home, I always wanted to bring honor to my amazing family, and to make Fishook proud of me, and I accomplished a lot to be proud of. The ratings for my radio show were booming, my Emmy-winning TV program had just been renewed for a fifth season, and I had a new diploma—a masters in business—to hang on my wall. But most importantly, I had a beautiful girl in tow with a ring on her hand.

I will always remember that weekend as one of the most joyous of my life. I took my stunning bride-to-be around to meet various church members she hadn’t met been introduced to, shook the hands of my cousins, Dean and Derek, as I asked them to stand up with me, showed her the remains of the home of my great-great-grandparents, took a walk through a field that saw me grow from boy to man.

And as I took Jaimie’s hand in mine for the Thanksgiving dinner prayer, I stole a glance at the clasped hands of my own grandparents, Lozelle and Leta Henthorn, intertwining fingers tanned by the sun, weathered by the prairie wind, and scarred from the holy task of bringing food from the earth. Somehow, I could see over 50 years of life and love embodied in their firm grip … and I looked forward to my legacy being characterized by the same rock-solid commitment. It was a moment of breathtaking beauty and endless symbolism, the kind that life only gives us once in a great while, lest we begin to take wonder for granted.

When I drive back to Fishook for Christmas, I will be returning as a completely broken person. Two days ago, I ended my relationship with Jaimie. It had become very clear that, regardless of loving each other with all that we were capable of, we were not meant for one another.

My life so far has been good, but it has been far from easy. I have buried my only brother, and laid my cousin who was like a brother in the same cemetery. I have been beaten, threatened by a mob and heard the words “it looks like cancer.” But for all I have faced down, nothing in this world could prepare me to look into the eyes of the girl I promised to never leave and tell her I was leaving.

I have no pride left, and the swagger in my step has been replaced by bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, laying like a helpless child on the floor, unable to speak, or move, or do anything except gasp for the next breath.

I keep getting these phone calls from friends, asking me how I’m doing. The truth is, it depends on the moment. For a few minutes at a time, I am OK. But reality always comes rushing in again, and I am hit with the knowledge that my life now moving away forever from the only girl I’ve ever loved. It has been said that you can never stop loving someone, and as of Sunday, I believe it. There is an empty place inside my soul, a room in my heart locked off, never to be opened again.

My friends tell me that this suffocating burden will ease, that time makes things better, that the events in our lives happen for a reason and that I will love again. As a writer, I’ve been drawn to these morals, the statements of purpose that we humans craft to try and make some sense of this ever complex, swirling world we are caught up in.

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But this time, there is no moral of the story, no quote for the refrigerator door, no closing statement that explains the hurt away and lets me move forward a better person. Each morning, I get out of bed, even though I don’t want to. I cry unexpectedly. I carry an ache that is always with me; I smile when I can. I show up to work and try my very best to go through the motions. I perform mundane tasks like laundry and try to face the terrible things, like returning the ring. I ask around the office for referrals to a good therapist, and sit at my kitchen table and wonder how to go about canceling all of the reservations for what was supposed to be the happiest day of my life.

I don’t know where to go from here. I don’t know how I’ll ever have dinner with a woman who isn’t my precious Jaimie, or when I’ll break the habit of checking my phone for a new “I love you” text-message, or how I’ll ever find what “normal” is again. All I know is that hope comes in very, very small slices right now. But perhaps those slices can one day be put together in a way that might help right a fractured life, or begin to mend a completely shattered heart.

It’s going to be a very long walk back from this terrible place of heartbreak. Nearly everything I thought to be true about my life changed in five short days. And honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to get there—how these pieces can ever fit together without Jaimie. But Dante was right, tonight is the beginning of who I am becoming. So tomorrow I will do what I can, though it isn’t much. I will get out of bed, even though I don’t want to. I will carry the ache inside of me, and show up to work to go through the motions. I will sit at the kitchen table and think about the looming questions that demand answers. I will cry unexpectedly.

And I will smile when I can.

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