02/25/2016 09:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When You Break Open, It Happens by Surprise


This is what broke me open.

The heart attack didn't do it. The complications from the heart cath and stent of a 90 percent blocked major artery didn't do it. A hole in my femoral artery didn't do it. My disbelief and anger at being told it was all in my head didn't do it.

This tiny bottle did.

The moment I saw it today after John brought home all my new prescriptions, I could see my hands fly to my mouth as if in slow motion, and feel the sobs start.

This is what broke me open: a bottle of nitroglycerin pills that I will carry in my purse, my blue jeans pocket, my car, my suit jacket, my beautiful hand-painted silk tunic, for the rest of my life.

The tears were immediate, hot, unrelenting. I held my incision to reduce the pain from my sobs moving my abdomen up and down, causing paroxysms of hotness. John walked in, wondering, and I held up the bottle, and tried to speak:

"This is what Daddy had. This is what he had in his pocket when he died. I found it in the pocket of his blue jeans when we got home from the hospital after he was dead. And I kept it. I kept everything he had in his pockets that day, in a little box. With a tiny bottle of nitroglycerin just like this one." My words rushed together, largely unintelligible because of the crying. John stood still.

I had been young when I carried his clothes home from that hospital, but old enough to recognize the lunging desire to capture mundane everyday life when it becomes so, so precious. So I smelled his clothes for months after he died, until the scent faded, and I would catch my mother doing the same sometimes. I hid away in my room the tiny box with the things he carried: nitroglycerin, a small pocket knife, loose change, his wallet, a receipt for a Mother's Day card he had bought and signed early for my mom, which we found in the trunk of the car with a gift to her. He died on Mother's Day.

I sobbed. I sobbed for the fact that if the technology that saved my life this week had existed then, he would have lived. I cried because of the vulnerability inherent in this good Southern family man tucking a tiny bottle of nitroglycerin into his jeans pocket, his dress suit pocket, his nightside table, his car; suddenly faced with my own bottle of it, I recognized him in a way I couldn't when I was 19, and couldn't since.

This feels like resurrection, like being able to fully identify with his pain at leaving so young, younger than me now. It feels like a reunion, like a nudge from him to carry on and do my best work now, my best living now. There is no doubt it feels like a beautiful, poignant, hotly difficult and beautifully circular camaraderie of two people who have been having a conversation for all these years, and finally meet up in a hospital operating room.

This little bottle is what broke me open. We can never really be sure what will do that breaking open, can we? Or when.

Because we suspect it will be something big, something we have been broken open by before, or an anniversary when breaking open is expected and even demanded, but it surprises us and confounds us when the breaking appears in a pharmacy bag or in a receipt for a Mother's Day card he would never be able to give her.

When I was in college, just after Daddy died, Mama sold a prized collection of "First Ladies" by Madame Alexander, a set of dolls of Presidential wives that were housed in their collectible blue boxes. Daddy had bought them for her, but she sold them to pay for me to study in Munich for a semester before graduating. She used the same proceeds to visit me there at the end of the semester, a sheer miracle for someone who had never flown or left the United States until she boarded a plane alone to come to me.

When I had first arrived in Munich, I went on a class hike with a German hiking club, not understanding that this is a national sport in Germany, and that Germans three times my age would kick my butt on those mountains. Finally we reached the monastery at the top of a long uphill hike, and commenced with the drinking of the German bier, which by any measure is approximately 10 times more volatile than any American beer I had ever tasted. Suddenly, my pidgin German seemed fluent to me. I was charming and fluent! And I felt drunk from the hot sun, the drink, the hike. As we left that mountaintop and started down to the buses far away, a man twice my age from the hiking club asked if I would like to hike down a different way with him and see the most beautiful lake.

Of course I did. Only later when friends expressed shock that I would hike for 5 hours to a lake with an unknown German while drunk did I realize that I might have been in danger of being chopped up into tiny pieces in the Black Forest. My naiveté is charming, isn't it? Let us assume that "trust" is another word for naiveté.

Nothing untoward happened. We hiked. And hiked. That damn lake was very far away, like hiking from Memphis, Tennessee, to York, Pennsylvania, or so it seemed. But it was as beautiful as he said. And so, at last, the lake, and a coffee in the brisk, beautiful day. He asked if I had a photograph of my father. Surprised by the request, I slid the one I carry with me across the table to him.

He looked at the photo for a long time. Among many other things he said to me, he said this: "Your father was a man far larger than his circumstance, He was a man with the heart and soul of a world traveler. He had an understanding of the world that was far larger and deeper than who he was and where he was."

I sat, exhausted by the hike, sunburned, looking at him as he spoke truths I thought only I knew about my father.

All of this is what broke me open today.

Be prepared to be broken open. Let it happen. Meaning will emerge. And healing.