When a heart breaks, it opens and then expands

Grief is a personal journey that takes patience and love.

A view of Florence, Italy from San Miniato al Monte

This morning while I was contemplating what to write in my bio, the words “my five-year hiatus in the US” kept spinning back around in my head. I have used those words many times over the years to explain my absence from Florence. It was my way of containing the most challenging and yet also the most significant five years of my life. I rarely explained that time in my life because I was still struggling to make sense of it myself.

When the phone rang one evening as I was about to go to sleep, my mom called to tell me she had cancer. My throat clenched and I could not swallow. I couldn’t cry on the phone, but somehow the words, “I’m coming home,” slithered out. She tried to talk me out of it, but I would not remain in Europe, where I had lived the last ten years, while she was suffering alone.

Within a week, I moved out of my apartment and sent all my belongings back to California. I didn’t want my mother to think I was just waiting until the scale tipped one way or the other before returning to Florence. I wanted her to know that I was there with her and it didn’t matter if I stayed a month, a year, or a decade. All I wanted was to spend my time with her.

Earlier that year, before my mother’s call, I fractured my leg in the Parco delle Cascine. I thought that was a dark time in my life. Then, my boyfriend of two years broke up with me. I thought that was another dark time in my life. It was my mother’s failing health that was the darkest time in my life.

During the year and a half that we had together, our bond became even stronger. Our roles shifted. I took care of her like a mother would a child. My heart and mind focused only on her well-being. I wondered what else I could do for her, how I could help her regain her health, and what she needed from me. A part of me would’ve given my life for her to have her continue living hers. But there’s no bargaining with fate.

When she passed away, my heart shattered. As I was about to fall asleep that night, I didn’t think I would wake up the next day. I don’t know why the thought passed through my head, but it calmed me down. With the sun streaming into the bedroom the next morning, I blinked my eyes a few times in disbelief. How could I live when she wasn’t living anymore? My mind couldn’t grapple with that. Not that I wanted to die, I just wanted to be with her. Not without her.

During those first few months, I was numb. I tried to make myself happy, but my heart was in pieces. Having disconnected from most people in my life, I clung onto only a few relationships. I needed to not just find love; I needed to feel love. Much of my sadness I kept tucked away inside of me because I didn’t want to hear people’s advice (“time heals all wounds” and “your mother is always with you”). I didn’t want time to erase my memories of my mother. I only hoped to erase the terrible memories, so only the good ones would exist.

While I was stumbling around in my grief, my father found out that he too had cancer. I had only buried my mother a few months prior and now I was going to lose my father too.

My father and I didn’t have a close relationship, but in the time after my mother’s passing, he became more present in my life. He never telephoned me all those years before, but then he began calling me every week. During my lifetime, I spent maybe three months with my father until the last month and a half of his life when I went to Oregon to be with him. It was painful to watch his demise. It was as if I had to relive my mother’s passing while he was passing. Much of what she went through, he did as well. Sometimes I raised my fists and my voice at the Universe, God, and whoever was out there.

I remained in the US for another year and a half after my father’s passing. I couldn’t bring myself to run back into Florence’s arms, but I knew the time would come.

And it is in the extremes that we plunge deeper into our hearts to heal them, only to crack them open even more.

As I journeyed through my life, trying to remain positive while still grazing over my feelings about my parents’ deaths, I understood that all parts of life are a gift. Not only the delightful and joyful moments, but even the sad and challenging ones too. It is in the two extremes that we live our lives. And it is in the extremes that we plunge deeper into our hearts to heal them, only to crack them open even more.

Grief is a personal journey that takes patience and love. Writing has helped me tremendously in unleashing my emotions, accepting them, and getting to the other side of them. I’ve been able to see many healers who helped me energetically and spiritually. But the one thing that allowed me to heal my heart was to stretch it open. To excavate all that is inside, embracing each fragment without judging it and loving it as much as possible. The deep sadness I have touched allows me to love with greater abandon. Not in a frivolous way, but in a meaningful and more conscious way.

A friend of mine suggested I write to my mom every day. I shied away from it for months. I knew that if I wrote to her, I would cry. And once I began crying, I wasn’t sure I could stop. One morning, I chose a new notebook and wrote to her. Yes, the first few times, I cried. So much sadness and unresolved emotions bubble up inside me, and I didn’t know what else to do but cry.

What started out as my connecting with my mom through my tears became something unexpected. I felt a connection to her in my heart. It was as if she was always in there, waiting for me to connect to her. My love for her is what keeps her alive in my life. I don’t hear her talk to me or receive written messages from her, but I know she sends me signs sometimes, like a feather on the ground. What I feel is that my love for her is stronger. I don’t need her to respond because my love for her endures for as long as my heart keeps beating. And maybe longer… who knows?

Sadness is more like a touching stone where I am reminded of the depth of my heart and just how much love percolates within.

I now navigate my emotions more mindfully. I feared that if I felt any melancholy regarding my mother, that meant I was still grieving. What I learned was that I needed to just accept those emotions as they come up, like riding waves in an ocean. Even if one knocks me down, I can always get up. And to remember that there is always an ebb and flow. Sadness is more like a touching stone where I am reminded of the depth of my heart and just how much love percolates within. There is no end to sadness, just like there is no end to love. They dance harmoniously in my heart.

It’s interesting for me now to see that something nudged me to come to Florence. I honestly thought I would only stay a few months in Italy before returning to my first love, Paris. But Florence held me in her arms and made me feel at home not only within her city walls but also in my heart. Her love was even more powerful when I returned five years after moving away from her. In these many years that I have now lived in my beloved city, she has inspired me to not only dive deeper into my heart but also to experience life more profoundly. To not only see all the beauty surrounding me, but to feel it through my body and heart. And to allow it to ease my mind, soothe my heart, and bless my soul.

Florence is a mother to me, nurturing me, encouraging me, supporting me, and loving me. She is there when I need her, but I am not dependent on her. Her greatest gift to me was to teach me how to mother myself, and ultimately to love myself more completely. I am grateful to Florence because she brought my heart back to life and taught me I can love as fiercely as she does.

Expat in Florence, Italy | Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer | Blogger | Polyglot (English, French, & Italian) | Hapa | Instagrammer | www.melindagallo.com

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