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The waters that my boat has been sailing in tonight have been rough. I thought it was all going fairly smoothly until one seemingly benign–polite, even–act crashed through my heart, shattering it and its barriers.

The girls’ grandmother from Iowa is in town for a few days visiting. Whenever she comes down, I make it a point to take the girls over often and we always have a ton of things planned to do. I don’t merely drop the girls off, I stay too.

I do this for a variety of reasons but the primary one is really quite simple: I truly care about her. The girls’ dad and I dated and were engaged for 9 years. During that time, his parents visited about twice a year. Though he and I never lived together, me and the girls would go to Iowa about once a year to visit his parents, with whom I’ve always gotten along quite well. When he felt I should tell them about my past, I did so and his mother actually called me days later on the phone just to see if I was alright. It was such a simple act, such a small one, but it meant volumes to me. With the except of my aunt, not one person on either side of my family called, e-mailed or came to visit after learning about my childhood.

Not my grandparents. Not any of my mom’s family. Only one of my dad’s siblings. These were the people who had known me all my life–and yet, no one thought to ask me… anything. No one felt the need to reassure me they loved me still. And yet this woman who had not known me but for a few years, and then only through her son, called me to ask if I was alright. It is a debt of kindness I still have not repaid.

It’s been a couple years since disaster struck and his and my relationship ended. And yet, the girls and I spend all day with them whenever she comes to visit before coming home in the evenings. While we are in the same space, he and I are… polite. We have a working, civil friendship because of the girls. He speaks to me only when he has to; he has gone about rebuilding his life.

As have I.

Still, I find myself playing with the girls in separate rooms of his house, unconsciously avoiding interaction with the other adults because I feel like an outsider now; an alien whose presence is tolerated but not really wanted. At dinner, his mother asked if I was cold because I had myself hunched in a corner. I found myself cutting up the girls’ food for them and talking to them, so that I wouldn’t feel so alienated. I found myself refusing food at lunch because I had forgotten my purse in the car and did not want to them buying me anything, (Abrielle) though they offered. I found myself following the girls around the play equipment, finding solace when I was able to hide in the heart valve tunnels of the Adventure Science Center.

It was a difficult day.

But I was doing alright. While out and about, it was easy to lose myself in play and I have grown quite accustomed to being looked at weird for playing in whatever tunnels or play equipment my girls monkey in: that didn’t bother me. Even seeing them and having a bazillion questions, and humiliation, race in my head… I’d already built that wall before driving over this morning, so I was alright.

Until.

Instead of eating out as we did last night, his mother cooked dinner. Once it was ready, I busied myself preparing the girls’ plates. I found myself beside him as Breathe started to pray for the meal. Automatically, I took Breathe’s hand. The others were not at the table yet but Breathe, ready to eat, took Alight’s. Alight grabbed his, freezing him. He hesitated, I watched his hand barely flutter, but he laid it palm up in front of mine. A hair’s pause but… It was prayer… So I laid four of my fingers on the edge of his palm and bowed my head. He closed his fingers over mine while Breathe prayed, then released them without a word and stepped back to the kitchen.

My heart shattered. Tears burning the edges of my eyes, I stared at my plate and breathed short, controlled bursts of air–the kind I know will prevent those tears from falling–until my eyes cleared.

Broken.

Because I don’t know how to do intimacy. And because I don’t believe anyone wants, has or ever will want, me. And because I won’t let anyone touch or otherwise “pleasure” me because an act is an act is an act. And because I believe in fictional characters and often hide behind them. And because I still wake shaking from dreams I won’t talk nor write about. And because I never ask for help.

Next to genuinely believing that anything positive someone says about or to me isn’t a pretty or disillusioned lie, asking for help is the hardest thing for me to do. When I was going into the hospital for surgery, I did not call my church or my extended family, not even the aunt and uncle I believe care. When my girls were born, I didn’t call. A beloved leader of my church chided me, saying, “A birth, death or hospitalization and you call us.”

When she finally realized how severely ill I was from the lack of iron, my mother said: “Tiffini, it’s absolutely crazy that you can be really, really, sick or really sad and nobody will ever know it.” It’s not that I think I’m superwoman. It’s not even that I don’t care about my physical or emotional well-being: I have my girls to think of now and so I do. It’s that I don’t want to bother others. Telling someone about a problem they can’t solve accomplishes nothing; the problem still exists. All it does then is place a worry on their hearts. Why do that to someone who already has a set of worries of their own to nurse? Life is hard enough without worrying about just another thing. I tell myself that there is nothing life can throw at me that is worse than what I’ve already lived through. Wrong though that is (and I know it), it’s still a lie that keeps me focused. I may hug a pillow sobbing at night, but I will get out of bed in the morning because I’ve felt rock bottom before; the only way left to go is up. And when I have reached the end of my endurance, when getting out of bed requires a little too much effort, I write. All I have to do is breathe in and then breathe out… If I do this long enough, morning, with its warmth and hopeful rays, will dawn.

So…if everything will work itself out, why bother others? It doesn’t make sense to me so, instead, I smile brightly, consciously focus my attention on the positive things I intentionally seek out and answer: “Oh, I’m fine, how about you?” no matter what. It’s not that I’m strong, it’s just I believe in the power of Father Time. Unfortunately, I’ve been forced to learn the hard way that we were never intended to be all that strong.

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Holding hands is special. You see, for 9 years, we held hands. If we were in the same room, we were holding hands. We didn’t argue or fight, but if we weren’t holding hands, we both knew something was wrong. And then, one incredibly painful conversation, it just stopped. The world kept turning, the pain was finally anesthetized, then faded to background noise. Days turned to weeks turned to months turned to years without holding a hand. And loneliness has become a companion.

I schedule every day. I stay busy on purpose. Even the hours after midnight are scheduled and planned. When I stop, lie in the hammock or the hot tub or the bath, I tell myself that if I think of anything painful, I have wasted the opportunity to find peace. So I don’t think about it. About any of it. I just live. I teach and I look for joy in the small things; I have taught myself to make a genuine effort to nurture friendships with women whose names and faces I’ve known for years but into whose life stories I haven’t inquired.

You learn to laugh. You learn to stop crying. You learn to stop hoping. Your broken heart glues itself back together and time marches on. When health crisis come, you assume no one wants to know, so you don’t tell. Friends need to be surrounded with positivity, so you point out what there is to be joyful about and you create joy where you feel a loss every day until you stop thinking about it.

Until someone holds your hand, even someone who didn’t really want to, even if only so lightly you only barely felt their fingers over yours, and unwillingly reminds you… Reminds you that if something is broken, glue fixes it, bonds it to something else so that it is put together again.

Oddly enough, I really have been doing relatively well. Improved health (did you know that iron can totally resolved awfully cracked feet?), a touch of Spring, wonderful classes to teach and a calendar full of wonderful things to do can all bring joy. It’s easy to be strong when the waters are calm and talking to fictional characters isn’t all that novel for a writer. I don’t have anything to complain about … My life is a lot more peaceful and… good… Than it has been in a very long time. Years. The smile isn’t a charade as often these days. The end of that relationship was good for both of us. It wasn’t a longing for something that’s not in the cards, it was a longing for something more personal…hope.

I’ve lost a lot, and in a pretty short span. Today, I missed having a hand to hold. I missed feeling like maybe someone could see the rest of his life with me in it. Rather silly. Why, after all, choose a broken vase over a healthy one? Still…It made me ache for a friendly hug. It made my heart squeeze from the need to need to talk about … Nothing, to just tell someone about my day, to not be strong for fifteen minutes. The need to be .. normal, the need for a friend—not a specific one, just someone who might make me believe I’m liked. A simple touch of the hand made me feel more alone than I’ve felt in a long time. Touch can do that. It can alienate you. But I also know that it can pull you in until the only thing alienated is the rest of the world. Feeling beautiful isn’t only reserved for romantic situations; the touch on the shoulder can make you feel cared for and that will make you feel beautiful.

My greatest weakness is not asking for help. It makes it hard to care for me. Courage is the ability to stare that weakness in the face, to confront it and walk past its rain cloud to the rainbow behind it. So…

Hold my hand. Tell me I don’t have to be strong, that everything is taken care of. Wrap me in a hug so that I can be reminded friends aren’t only imaginary but also real. Remind me that laughter isn’t only for children and that there is a time to rest. Erase with presence the fear that scars only push others away.

I didn’t cry until I sat in the bath staring at the candles. I cried until I felt ridiculous for indulging in what is really nothing but a bath of self pity. There are quite a few folks way more in need of companionship and hot, candle-infused baths than I. Nonetheless, what I had with me after the bath was a much needed extra dose of strength (really believe in those baths!)

Fairytales aren’t really true, because everyone is scarred from something, but people… People are real, from the sweet and beautiful to the ones trudging through the mud and into the forest just for the chance to see the rainbow. Fairytales aren’t really real. But hope in a bright tomorrow is.

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