Love Doesn’t Break Down Love



She was dying when she said it. Dying slowly, but still dying. I was supposed to be taking care of her. It was my job, swing shift in a nursing home, to help her get ready for bed in the way you do with people who don’t get out of bed. But this evening I had come in nearly skipping, hardly able to see straight. It was something about a boy, and a date… There might have been some kissing.

Hazel was propped up on pillows, fairly exuding good will, partly because of that real deal spiritual maturity that comes to the elderly and the dying, but also because her days were boring between people coming in to change linens and give pills, and she liked me.

I hummed a little as I helped her sit up, drink water, get into her nightgown. I couldn’t keep my hands still.

“You’re just like the cat who got the canary,” she said.

“What?” I narrowly missed tripping over the cord to her oxygen machine. “Did I forget something?”

“No, honey,” she said. “I’m telling you you look happy.”

“Oh.” I looked down, sort of ineffectively fluffing a pillow on her chair. “I guess so. I’m sorry.”

She made a sound that might have been a laugh. She was in her eighties. I was seventeen. She looked at me over the oxygen tubes pressing into her cheeks and said, “Honey…it’s okay to be okay.”

Then she laid back into the pillow then and smiled a smile that was not for me. Maybe it was for a younger version of herself. She looked just like she was sharing some important secret, with her very favorite person in the world. I tiptoed out.

There were harder times after that for her, moments of pain before the nurses gave the morphine that always signaled the end. I wasn’t on when she died. Two weeks later there was someone else in her bed.

I have wondered, since then, just how Hazel knew. Did she know that at seventeen I had already been through a certain amount of adversity, so much that I had allowed myself to get used to it? Did she know that I would struggle for the next ten years to feel permission to be healthy, let alone to thrive and grow? Did she know these things about me? Could she somehow spot them? Or was she just smart enough to know that everybody needs to hear it, sometimes?

“Honey…it’s okay to be okay.”

There’s a twisted thing that makes you think that in order to be in solidarity with someone who hurts, you have to move yourself into misery. Break your own heart clean, cut off your feet, eat sorrow with a spoon. It can look like that, I know. These threads are hard to pick apart. But Hazel knew.

True love disrupts injustice. It does not disrupt itself. Love doesn’t break down love. In your insides, where your love is, it is always okay to be okay.

Several months ago I had a conversation with a wise friend, someone with a heart for justice like my own. I told her I was tired, and sloppy, and ineffective. I said, “Can you tell me what do you do when you get tired?” She said, “Right now, I’m going to the theater with my girlfriend. For right now I’m just going to be a woman, who loves the theater.”

I involuntarily exhaled.

“Honey, it’s okay to be okay.”

A big love doesn’t demand of you that you don’t feel your small loves. A big love doesn’t demand of you that you don’t feel. A big love wants your humanity, your joy, and your capacity to appreciate. It wants the squishy feeling you get when you’re being opened up to vulnerable joy.

Why should we let the world have us desperate and running scared, when we can grab on to joy and health instead? We are much more dangerous this way.

Wholehearted, we can hand out freedom recklessly. We can make more room and more room and more room. We can hand out permissions generously and every which way…maybe even, like Hazel, from our deathbeds.

So come on over close, and let me tell you this so it sinks in. It’s okay. It’s okay to feed yourself. It’s okay to rest. It’s okay to take up space and breathe deep glorious air and love the things you love.

It’s okay. It really is, I promise. It’s okay.