Tears without end: the terrible price of true love

Heartbreak has been the subject of so many awful songs that it's tempting to take it lightly. Then, suddenly, it happens to you. Cole Moreton reflects on the appalling human capacity for feeling loss, romantic or otherwise

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 wise guy 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 Owen," says the voice. 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 houseboat. They're smiling in the photo, looking like the cast of a Judd 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 Owen." 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 Portuguese. 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: heartbreak. A broken heart. Why do they call it that? Because that is how it feels: as if 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 numbness. The nausea. The tiredness. All at once, 1,000 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 50 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 40. Cancer. Leaving a soulmate, 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 heartbreak 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 OK, 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: Tommy Cooper as Ché 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 OK.

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: £50 – 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 till 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.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Chelsea are interested in loaning out Romelu Lukaku to Everton again next season
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
people
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

    £600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

    Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series