At the ripe and all-knowing age of 19, I thought I knew everything about love.
I took notes from popular love ballads by anguished singers. I watched romantic movies like I was studying for an exam. I consoled my heartbroken friends who cried over a broken heart. It didn’t long before I came to the obvious realisation that love always resulted in heartbreak.
Even though I knew this, a big part of me still wanted to fall in love. I wanted to feel that elation and passion I’d seen in the movies. I just didn’t want to deal with any of the bad parts of love. I figured if I was smart about it, I could get the falling in love part without the misery that comes along with heartbreak. All I had to do was learn as much as I could from other people’s mistakes. If I played my cards right, I’d come out the other side clean and unscathed.
I entered the first year of college ready to take on dating like a soldier ready for war. In one of my classes, I became friends with a playful extravert who was goofy and sweet. Over time, our friendship began to grow into a relationship. The moment I realised where it was going, I took a deep breath and examined the situation and possible risks. I cautiously entered, pausing often to re-assess. As I slowly inched forward, treating our new relationship like I was walking over a field with hidden mines, he didn’t even waste a second before diving in.
We ended up dating for a year or so. He was spontaneous and fun and knew how to make me laugh so hard I’d fall to the floor in tears. He was friends with everybody and loved being the centre of attention. But over time, I felt plagued in fear that I was settling too early. I started becoming curious about what else was out there. I saw my love life like a voyage across the seas, setting sail to explore different places and ideas. I could not possibly set up permanent base on the first place I stumbled upon. I wanted my heart to be set free and experience what else was out there.
On a cold winter night in Ottawa, I drove to his place. While we sat on his couch, I told him I couldn’t do it anymore, I wanted to break up. He snapped angrily at me and demanded answers. Why? What have I done? I felt horrible to cause him pain. With tears streaming down his face he told me to leave. I remember driving home that night feeling terrible but free; free to untether my heart from this and set sail on another expedition.
But it didn’t happen that fast. I was surprised by the experience of a break-up. I wasn’t prepared for how many threads connected you to another person. I realised that a break up is a process, not a single event in time. It involves untangling yourself from a place that feels warm and comfortable and protected. It’s through this process that you realise you are cutting out parts of your own identity; a part of who you are gets removed.
This was my first experience in heartbreak. It was the tiniest fraction, the slightest chip on my porcelain heart. I was not destroyed by it but it did startle me that despite my armour and shield, I still managed to get hurt.
Soon enough my heart stumbled upon a new harbour. It felt like addiction swarmed me the moment we met. He wasn’t ready for a relationship, he’d only just left from one. He needed time on his own. But patience has never been one of my virtues. It felt like I accidentally tripped and fell into love, grabbing frantically at anything to break my fall on the way. Soon enough he followed me and our relationship developed into something unexpectedly special. We cared deeply for each other and he provided me a refuge during painful times with my sister. But ultimately it became clear we weren’t right for each other, and we parted ways when I decided to move to Beijing.
By then I had been through heartbreak and thought I really understood what it all meant. I learned some powerful lessons and felt matured and wiser from them. But I was still bent-set determined to outsmart love. I figured I’d made a few slip ups but next time I’d get it right. But just around the corner awaited a heartbreak that would go beyond anything I could have ever planned for. It would be so severe it would change the very core of who I was.
On a cold autumn morning on October 13, 2013. My Dad was on a call that seemed to last forever. By the time he came out of his room the color in his face was gone. He told me gently that he needed me to sit down, he had something important to say. Just like the tides of a beach before a tsunami hits, I knew whatever he was about to say would destroy me. His voice cracked as he pushed out the words, “Elizabeth died.” My sister was dead. The words hit me like a gun shot. It felt like the floor had fallen from underneath me. Everything went quiet in my head and for a second it felt like time froze. In that very moment, I could feel the past wedged so closely between us. I felt like if I held my breath and moved ever so quietly, I could reach into the past and pull it into this moment. I felt like I could fix this mess, like I could go back in time and save my sister.
The pain of this was beyond anything I’d ever known or could’ve prepared for. It felt like my fragile heart had been dropped on a marble floor; shattering and splintering into a million little pieces. The pain of my sister’s death crashed through the steel walls I’d proudly built around my heart with malicious ease. I constantly thought about my own mortality. I’d think to myself, if my life were to end right now, would I be happy? Would I be okay to leave this all behind? The answer was always no. It made me want to experience every single thing this life had to offer before it ended. I wanted my heart to absorb as much love and pain and beauty and sadness and joy it possibly could. So, I finally decided to allow myself the freedom to fall in love without protecting myself and without overthinking it. It was clear to me that there was no point in playing it safe anymore. If life was already going to destroy me, I wanted to experience the highest level of human emotion. I wanted to pull the lever all the way.
That summer I met someone. If my inner world was a tsunami, he represented a tiny, laid-back Caribbean island in the sun with party music and pina coladas. I thought we were both on the same level so I jumped into love like a cannonball, I gave every single part of me to him. I held nothing back. I thought, ‘take it, it’s yours, there’s nothing else to lose.’
The moment after I jumped, falling in midair, he nonchalantly told me he wasn’t ready. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a Plan B, I had no safety nets. Instead, I had to brace for impact.
The explosion of sadness that was released when my heart shattered felt like it could kill me. It felt in like my soul was burning at the highest frequency. But that severe emotional pain cleared way for the most intense positive growth. In time I was finally able to find an outlet to let that flood of pain burst through and harness it into courage and strength. It gave me the power I needed to move to a country I’ve always wanted to live in. Like the wind under my sail, it pulled me away from the ruins of my life and brought me to shores of Sydney, Australia.
It took me a year to mend my broken heart, it still has deep scars and burns that have shaped it into something different than I imagine. It has also found its way in the hands of the most amazing man. With him, my heart feels safe, protected and supported. It’s the healthiest and most encouraging relationship I’ve ever known.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my heart finally experienced the depth and sadness I wanted for it. I finally see now that you cannot have love without pain, there is no such thing. It was naive to think otherwise. Love is about the expansion of our souls. It’s so much more beautiful to choose love when your heart has seen such darkness but decides anyway that it’s worth it. It’s worth it all, the highest highs and the unbearable lows, to embark on another journey with you.
I will never forget the way his beautiful hazel eyes glowed back at me like warm honey, telling me without words that I was worth it for him too.