What is it like? It is like a telephone ringing in the shadows of a clapboard house in an American suburb, and a man coming in from the yard to answer.
He is Sean, a friend of mine. Short, stocky, a bit red in the cheeks now that 50 is only a memory, but just as quick as ever with his tongue. The wiseguy used to be a politician, but he’s over it now. He works for his old school, and cares about his community on the Hill, a place where people like his mother and father first made their homes half a century ago, when they moved to the States from Ireland. They never moved on.
It’s Saturday, and he’s been painting a fence. Or mowing the lawn. Or eating a steak sandwich from the corner deli, like we did when I was last there. We laughed as the juices ran down our chins, and we washed the meat down with milk. We dozed on the sofa, half watching a game of proper football on an Hispanic channel, and while the commentator gabbled in Spanish, Sean lobbed lazy insults at “this dumb game”.
Me and my friend Sean. I don’t really know where he was or what he was doing before the telephone rang, on the Saturday I’m telling you about, because I was far from there. I can’t ask him. Not now. I can only imagine: Sean skipping in to the shadows from the light of the garden, muttering – “What?” – picking up the heavy black receiver and holding it to his head. Listening.
Here it comes now, without warning.
“It’s about Owen,” says the voice. Owen is Sean’s son. Another friend of mine. Another one of the good guys. A bright boy, a cross country runner, a good-looking redhead, with a strong desire to make himself useful in the world. The last time I saw him was in London, when he came to study. He was thinking then about becoming a journalist. Lately, there was a piece in the New York Times about Owen and his friend, a couple of “hipsters” living on a house boat. They’re smiling in the photo, looking like the cast of a Jud Apatow movie. But not on this day with the ringing phone. Owen is not on the boat any more. He moved out, to a flat in Queens. And that’s not Owen on the line.
“It’s about Owen.” What then? Sean’s proud of his son, with good reason. Journalism was too shallow for him, quite rightly, so he went off and got a masters degree in international politics, and worked for charity in South America, learning Spanish and Portugese. Not bad for the grandson of a woman who grew up on a remote, windswept island off the coast of Ireland with barely anyone her own age for company. She took herself off to Dublin as a teenager with not a word of English to her, just the Irish. Then later America, like everyone else. She used to see a lot of herself in Owen. That spirit. She loved him with laughter and teasing and care. Just like his Dad does now.
Sean and his son are buddies. They like each other. Owen is down there in New York working on a project to supply fairly traded uniforms to schools across America. Owen is passionate, strong, motivated, fit and good fun. He has lots of friends. He is 29 years old. He is dead.
“Owen is dead.”
Here it is now. This is it. This is what it feels like. Suddenly. Now. Here. Heartbreak.
It’s the feeling – the lack of feeling – in a man in his fifties standing by the phone, unable to stand, unable to understand what has happened.
Owen is dead.
His flatmate found him. Face down, after a seizure. Obstructed airway, that’s the phrase so hard to take in. Nothing they could do. Found too late. Too soon. It’s too soon. It’s Owen, the kid, the boy. Not his turn. It should be me, Sean must be thinking, somewhere in that maelstrom. Somewhere in the ice storm.
Here it is: heart break. A broken heart.
Why do they call it that? Because that is how it feels: like the organ in your chest that pumps blood to your body, that gives life, is broken. Like a burning, like a chilling, like scream under the rib cage. The aching. The shock. The numbness. The nausea. The tiredness. All at once, a thousand times over. Like electricity in the veins. Like life flooding away. Like the telephone ringing and a father picking it up, listening. Understanding. Losing his son. Like the weeping that will not come, because tears are not enough.
God keep you, Owen. God help you, Sean.
In every greeting there is a parting. In every love, a broken heart. We all know that. We have all seen it, felt it. Lived it. Looked around, at the empty bed, the flowers tied to a roadside railing, the beach after the tsunami. It has always been this way. “I looked for sympathy, but there was none,” says David the Psalmist, the lonely, rejected, heartbroken inventor of the Blues. “I found no-one to comfort me.” Woke up this morning, found my pillow was a stone. Without the blues, without heartbreak, Shakespeare would be a comedy writer. And not a funny one.
In every good joke, a sadness. And a broken heart is not just poetry, or so the doctors say. The old folks are together fifty years then one of them goes, and the other can’t stand it. A week later. A month, maybe. Reunited. A sudden flood of stress hormones, caused by grief, causing the heart to spasm. “A broken heart,” says Ilan S Wittstein of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, “can kill you.”
A sudden flood? That’s how it felt when they carried my friend Ali out of her home in a wicker coffin, and across the road to a church where a thousand people were waiting to mourn. The place was draped with beautiful fabrics, and candles burned, and their flames reflected in the works of art made fabulously from bits of glittery junk, as Ali the magpie artist loved to do. Oh sweetheart, where are you?
Dead at forty. Cancer. Leaving a soul mate, Chris, and two very young children.
She died in her own bed, as dawn was breaking and people she loved were at her feet, singing songs of faith and hope. That was some way to go. She taught us how to die. Going home, Lord, I know I’m going home.
Now what though? We go on. And on. The heart break is gone, we think, guiltily, remembering the apocalyptic rush that must have consumed Sean and that consumed those of us who loved Ali when we heard. Me, I stood by the kitchen window, looking out, looking nowhere, as the kettle boiled and cooled and turned cold untouched. Now, a year later, there is just the ache. Not exciting or dramatic. Empty and ordinary and a pain in the bloody arse.
There is something else, though, that I can’t stop thinking about. The thing Ali said a few months before she went. Someone had told her, in a well-meaning, stupid way, that they were sure she would still be around, somehow, to see her son and her daughter grow up. “That is terrible,” she said, eyes closing on tears. “To think that I would have to watch them make all the mistakes they will make, and suffer pain, without being able to say anything or help. Like window shopping? That would be heart breaking.”
And it would. I hope you’re okay, lovely. Or just dust, that feels no pain. But enough of this. I am writing these words while wearing a t-shirt Ali laughed at when she saw it: Seanmy Cooper as Che Guevara. I’m sitting in the chair Owen used when he worked at the paper for a while. At least I got some copy out of him this time. He’d laugh at that, shake his head and ask, “Have you no soul?” He had bags of that. So did Ali, who would try to cheer me up with a story about playground heartbreak, because why should miserable grown-ups have a monopoly on it?
And why indeed? So here’s a story for her, and him. For the laughs we had. A long time ago there was a girl with golden hair, and a gorgeous smile. Lisa. Not much of a name, but for the East End of London in the Seventies it was okay.
Lisa had everything: looks, personality, availability. She liked me, for reasons I never dared ask about, and while our parents were drinking at the social club we’d sit out the back dunking cheese and onion crisps in our Coke and talk about getting married. In a while. It did seem a little young, 10.
We kissed only once, properly, after a year of being too nervous. It was at a school Christmas disco, to the sound of Seasons in the Sun. She tasted of Spangles. And that was that. Puberty came, and Lisa went. Off with the cool boys. Woman, thy name is cruelty. But that’s not the worst of it. Oh no. Fast forward to the end of the school year and a grand raffle. Fifty pounds. Enough for a space hopper and a chopper and some coppers left over. Clutching pink tickets, I wait.
“The winner is … let me see, is the name written on the back?” Mr Brown the headmaster looks down through half-moon specs. “Ah yes. Lisa!” She runs for the stage, I choke on my Bazooka Joe. And watch as she takes the envelope. And want to cry as she walks back, past me without a look, to where her big, strong, hunky new boyfriend Wayne is waiting. Making plans to help her spend it.
Oh, the burning in my chest. Oh the panic in my mind. Oh the despair. The burning oil running over my scrawny, despairing body. The worst feeling in the world, or so I thought. So did Sean when it happened to him as a lad, I guess. So did Owen. So did Ali, waiting at the cinema for a boy.
What none of us knew as kids was that heartbreak is a sign of life. A sign of huge feelings. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t get our hearts broken. That’s why people sing about it: heart break is a sign of big, fat, glowing, wonderful love. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, do you?
And none of us knew then, until the phone rang, until the dawn rose, until the body was carried to the church, what a terrible cost true love demands.
This piece was originally written a week or so after Owen’s death, for a book published by The Independent.