On Holding Pieces of Each Other’s Hearts

She waited on the front porch on her 16th birthday. She waited for her friends to arrive and for the party to begin.

Instead, the calls came in, one at a time. 

The “sorry, I can’t make it” calls. The “not coming, after all” calls. The “oops, I double booked” and the “something came ups” and the “I have to wash my hairs.”

In the end, no one came.

No one.

And she left her porch to go practice driving with her mom.

Party abandoned.

Heart… well, as you might imagine.

I don’t know how long it took my friend Melanie to start telling the story of her 16th birthday. How long it was before she talked about what happened and what she thought it meant about her value as a person and a friend.

I remember she told me last year, at the beach, in her quiet voice as we watched the waves crash, their magnitude powerful and overwhelming. And it’s a funny thing about stories; when you listen to the true ones, they crash over your heart. Powerful. Overwhelming. And my heart broke for 16-year-old Melanie, even though it’s been 30 years since she lived it.

I knew it was a gift Melanie offered. The vulnerable things always are. The ways we unpack the pieces of our soul and hold them delicately in our hands, like the small, wild things with nervous eyes and twitching wings and hearts running away in their chests. We hold them carefully, trying to communicate they’re safe. That we won’t hurt them, at least not more than they already have been. And then we whisper to our most trust-worthy friends, so softly we can barely be heard, “Come look what I have,” and “Shhhh… don’t scare it.” The best friends look. And are gentle. And say, “Oh, sweet thing.” And try to help.

I don’t remember what I said to Melanie when she told me the story of her 16th birthday. Probably wow. Or I’m really sorry. Or that sucks. Or some other inadequate thing to acknowledge that 30 years may pass, but it’s still important to nod at the pain. To hold the vulnerable pieces. To communicate, somehow, “This piece is precious. Do you know it? I’m so sorry it was broken. You didn’t deserve this. You should’ve been treasured.”

My friend Melanie turned 46 recently, and I was invited to attend her birthday party last weekend.

Her friends threw her a Sweet 16 Party.

Another shot at a Sweet 16, except they called it a Sweet 16…+30. 

And here’s my guess: I bet there was a part of Melanie that was afraid. I know a part of me would have been. Because what if no one shows up again, you know? After they’ve seen the piece of her heart, held carefully in her hands. They have the power to hurt it. 

But Melanie said yes to the party. 

She took the chance at having her heart handled with care, which is the most trusting move I know, to say, “This part was hurt, and I’ll let you hold it with me.”

photo 2 (76)We brought Melanie little, ridiculous gifts, like Hello Kitty loot. And nailpolish. And candy and socks. And sparkly bags. And cards that said stuff like, “I’m so glad I got to come to your party! My mom is such a bitch. It’s not like she said I couldn’t take the car to go out with Jake. I thought I’d be grounded forever.

And we laughed and played and laughed the night away… until we got tired and went home before midnight because we’re old.

And we sang happy birthday, the twenty or thirty of us who came. The twenty or thirty of us LOUD women who came. But first, to the light of a birthday candle already lit, my friend Leslie asked Melanie to tell us about her 16th birthday. And so, in the candle-lit kitchen, with the lights dimmed low and all of us crowded around, she did.

She held out her heart. And she let us hold it with her.

And then we sang happy birthday. Loud. Because that’s who we are. And because we meant it. And Melanie buried her face in her hands and wept. And laughed. And wept. 

And I know I say this every time I talk about authentic, compassionate community. I know I do, but I mean it.

It was a holy moment.

A holy, redeemed, painful, precious, beautiful moment.

And then someone yelled, “FUCK THOSE BITCHES who didn’t come to your party!” And the rest of us chorused, “YEAH. FUCK THOSE BITCHES.” 

And we laughed and laughed. Not because they were bitches, necessarily. But because we were together. And life gets better. And we find our tribe after too much searching. And we find out we are, after all, deeply worthy of love, and worthy of celebration, and worthy of people who show up.

And that was holy, too. 

……..

In honor of Melanie’s birthday,
and in honor of holding pieces of each other’s hearts,
please use the comments to let us hold a piece of yours.

What’s your story?

If you need a gentle friend, this is your space.
I’ll monitor the comments section closely, but I have a suspicion, based on the kindness you continue to show each other here, that I won’t have much monitoring to do.
You are some of the very best heart-holders I know.

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
134 comments
  1. […] And I want to answer you. I do. I want to champion my son. I want to spread awareness. I want to hand you my heart. But I don’t know […]

  2. I have a big fear of rejection and trust issues going back to years of being treated badly and being bullied by family and friends. On my wedding day, out of all of the friends I invited only two attended, I didn’t even have a bridal party because the girls I asked to be bridesmaids didn’t come. My last three birthdays only my husband and his mother have remembered. For my first child a cousin offered to throw me a baby shower but I said no because I was so scared that no-one would show up.
    I just hope and pray that my two children will grow up to have great friends and find their own wonderful tribes.

  3. […] talked here over the last few days and weeks and months about connection. Human connection. What it means to be authentically ourselves. And to […]

  4. This was me on my 21st birthday. Instead of doing a pub crawl (because pubs in my city give you a free shot for your birthday) with 20 of my favorite people, my most awesome birthday party ever was spent watching TV, eating popcorn and drinking wine, legally, for the first time, with my mom. I never told my friends how disappointed I was in their complete and utter failure to meet my tiniest of expectations, which was really just to spend a nice evening walking around town with my friends, shots optional. To this day, I don’t bother telling anyone I have a birthday coming up; its just another day.

    1. Yesterday was my birthday, by the way.

      1. Happy Birthday Susan. Happy Birthday.

  5. This is me… but at 17. I pulled up at the local Pizza Shoppe, asked for the take out order my parents had told me to pick up, and went went back out with a pizza that the people at the counter thought must have been mine.

    Went outside and my parents were pulling into the parking lot. I was so confused, why were they there when they had sent me to pick up the pizza?

    There was supposed to be a SURPRISE party for me. But no one came. No one. Not even the gal organizing it.

    I was mortified. But I held my stuff together and smiled and accepted excuses from the gal who organized it. I pretended it didn’t matter.

    A week later, a different friend offered to let me latch onto someone else’s surprise party. This time, my parents warned me what to expect before I went inside. I hated every single minute of it. Even more embarrasing than not having anyone show up to my surprise party, was having to attend my “make up” surprise party.

    That next school year (because the unparty and party were in the summer), I felt small and useless. I waste of everyone’s time. I just stopped caring about my interactions with other people. I gained weight like nobodies business. Know what it’s like for your mother to have to let out your prom dress because you’ve gained so much weight in the 2 weeks since you bought it that it no longer fits? I do!

    It’s been a hard thing to compensate for, the feeling of not mattering to friends. I can’t say I’ve ever figured out how to live with it.

    1. Just noticing that this was originally posted on my son’s birthday. I spent the entire lead-up to his party worried no one would be able to come. I nearly cry every time people show up.

    2. Hugs Jen, you’ve hurt so deeply. Holding your heart and hurting with you today. Xx

  6. I’m 70 years old and crying like a baby at the sheer beauty of your compassion and wishing I had a friend like you to redo some of those awful times in my life just for the joy of putting them away permanently and forever. God bless you, Beth, and God bless Melanie too.

  7. Dang, Beth. I was there, and you still made me cry reading this. It was a great party, and I love that Melanie was so delighted, when I think everyone there was even more delighted and honored to have been able to participate in stomping all OVER that memory! Thanks for writing this!

  8. […] On Holding Pieces of Each Other’s Hearts. This is a beautiful piece on community, love, and friendship (via Laura). There is a language […]

  9. When I was 16 I went on a trip with my youth group. That was the time when my ‘best friend’ stopped talking to me. In fact, the ignored me altogether. I was utterly invisible to her, while she was the life of the party. No one noticed. I just wanted to die. It seemed to be proof that I was utterly unlovable, and not worth anybody’s notice. The youth leader may have noticed what happened, but he was really good friends with her. And he didn’t say a word. If someone had even just said something and validated my pain that would have helped, but I wasn’t even that noticeable. I recall him walking alongside me somewhere we were going, and the thoughts in my head were along the lines of ‘why are you here with me, clearly I am highly infectious with some awful disease, so you should just go away, before you catch it too.”
    It all just seemed to prove what (I now realise) my family had shown me throughout my life, that I was invisible, unlovable, and just not good enough. Every friendship I’ve had since then is tinged with my utter certainty that I’m boring them and I’m a burden to them, and lately, at 42, it’s been real lonely, with one good friend who is there for me (oh, I am so thankful) but the others just not seeming to have time, or desire for me in their life. My mum is slowly dying of end stage dementia. My alcoholic father is frail and demanding, and gives no love in return for what I do for him. They’re all going through their own stuff, but I actually want to be there for them and support them too (listen to their problems, not just be the one ringing with her own), but as everyone stops calling me, I’ve stopped calling them first, because clearly I am a burden to them. I thought friendship went both ways. Oh how I long for a safe community around me where there could be some hugs and sharing instead of this incredible loneliness… And how I wish I felt like god loves me, like deep in my heart kind of love. Thanks for a safe place to share this. Hugs to everyone else who’s struggling

    1. Holding these pieces of your heart close today, Lulu. x’s and o’s to you.

    2. oh. lulu. i know how you feel. i am praying for you that you find the family you need. look to your church. go on a retreat. it will help you more than you will ever realize. i know, i felt the same before i went on my first retreat. you will not believe how He will make you feel. please,just try it. you will find the sisters you have always been longing for. just do it. Many Blessings, Vicky

  10. I can’t think of a story, because I am overwhelmed by stories I could tell.

    Will you hold my heart anyway?

    1. Of course, Erin. Sending love.

  11. I had a really hard time as a child and early teens with making and keeping friends, but during my college years and most of my twenties I did great. So I figured I was just a late bloomer. Managed to move to a new country and make some pretty great friends in my twenties. Moved back to my home country again about 9 years ago — different city — and a very different experience this time. Invested a lot of time in more people than I can count on one hand who just cut ties years after. They stop returning calls. Make plans and don’t keep them. Don’t reply to emails. After a while you get the hint. And I feel like I’m an awkward 13 year old again, wondering what I did wrong. And with each one it makes it that much harder to invest again in someone else.

    1. 🙁 So much love to you, EMac.

  12. Today is the 18th birthday of my oldest son. And earlier today I was guilting myself over not being the kind of mom that does parties for her kids. But really, Melanie’s experience is one of the reasons why I don’t. I’ve heard too many stories of similar heartbreak on party day. (Another one is that I have 6 kids… that’s a lot of birthdays!) My amazing, sweet, quirky son spent his special day surrounded by family, chose the restaurant for dinner, opened presents (including a paper clam with googly eyes and a tinfoil “pearl” made for him by his 7 year old brother), and heard a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” before blowing out candles on 18 cupcakes. It was good. And in one week I drive him across the state to drop him in his dorm room, where I pray he finds his people, his tribe, people who will hold his heart as tenderly as I do.

    1. Praying with you, Carrie. xo

  13. […] because I was already feeling a little more reflective than normal. I’d just read a blog post by Beth Woolsey about my friend and co-writer’s sixteenth birthday party, or rather her birthday sans party […]

    1. That’s my main concern with fostering. The pain is so much that I’m afraid I couldn’t do it. But the love you give them may be the brightest light that gives them a chance to hold on to hope and love others during their lives.

      1. Sorry, didn’t realize that I accidentally moved this comment from the story I was trying to reply to! I guess that’s what happens when I try to do all this from my phone!

  14. So thankful I saw this blog post on Jere’s FB page! Excellently written and very touching. I am a Birthday Girl…! I have celebrated my half birthday since I was a teenager…! I am silly that way. Who seriously expects two birthdays a year…? Someone born in the summer!! LOL! My pre-eighteenth surprise birthday party was not so much. I was leaving for college a few days prior to my turning 18… Leaving the state mind you. Very few friends showed and one that did just wasn’t to good at keeping surprises. In the end I truly appreciated the few and my family that gave it their all to show the love! The fun part in this, is that a few days later I celebrated turning 18 on my actual birthday in North Bend/Coos Bay in front of 7 Eleven with my soon to be college roommate and a few of her friends. Talk about fun, thoughtful, and memorable!! There are the birthday lows… Eating by myself celebrating 30 at Beaches Restaurant in Beaverton in the Lounge… The Salmon was good, but I missed being with folks. Then I quickly recall having had two birthday celebrations when I turned 25!! It is wonderful that Melanie now has a beautiful replacement in her memory! That is heart loving friendship at its best! I recently contacted a few friends to throw a surprise 45th birthday party for a dear mutual friend at the end of the year… I am glad that I am taking the initiative to help others celebrate their day! I am motivated by this post… Surely the love can be shared, I mean two birthdays a year is plenty…
    I also connected to your message of sharing your heart… Thankful for my adult girlfriends that do this so well and allow me to do the same… It is special, valuable, and necessary!

  15. Friends, you have given me permission to share a bit of my broken heart. Last year, I was ordained as a Priest – a huge, life changing, Spirit-full, scary step. People from all the Churches I have been in were there, family members I only see once a year were there, mentors and fellow priests were there… But none of my friends. Not a single one.

    It still hurts so much.

    I can’t share this hurt, because it would hurt them and there’s nothing to be done for it now. And I’m sure none of them knew that no one else would go… But there is a part of my heart that will always feel that no one cared enough to be there at my ordination, the biggest day of my life.

    Thank you for holding my heart.

    1. Holding your heart, Josie.

  16. On the last day of school in eighth grade, I brought a little gift for everyone in my social circle. I wasn’t going on to high school with them, and while I didn’t have any spending money to put towards the project, I wanted to give all of my “friends” a little token of the time we’d spent together.

    So I had spent all of the previous weekend making bookmarks for each of them with word art of their name and the name’s origin and meaning written out carefully and double-mounted on some cool graffitti-themed scrapbook paper I’d gotten for Christmas. I handed them out, and people said thank you.

    But over the course of the day I saw the bookmarks discarded on the floor, stepped on, in garbage cans in big groups, and I heard people laughing about it. Like it was some kind of joke. Like how could I have had the audacity to think that I meant enough to them that they could be gracious to me about a simple gift on the last day we’d ever see each other.

    It was a long time after that before I felt like making anything. It was almost a decade before I felt confident enough to give handmade things as gifts again. I passed on the opportunity to make things for my first baby because I was still so embarrassed about those stupid bookmarks.

    1. I’m so sorry! That was cruel and unfair and you all lost so much.

    2. That IS sad. I wish that didn’t happen to you!

    3. This story is heartbreaking, Elizabeth. I’m so very glad you’re hand-making things again. Sending lots of love and hugs to middle school you.

  17. In 8th grade I sat with about 10 or 12 girls at lunch.. Maybe 2 or 3 of them were my close friends.. The “ring leader” of the group was outgoing , a little bit of a bully. We didn’t understand that back then, she was cool and we all ate lunch with her. Anyway, it was common for ALL of us to get up from the lunch table at the same time and take our trays to be emptied . One day I was done eating, needed to go to bathroom… Got up , took my tray, went to the bathroom and came back to the lunch table. As I sat down EVERY GIRL at the table got up and left me sitting there… And they laughed at how funny it was.. Even my “close” friends. WORST DAY OF SCHOOL EVER..

    To this day I pray at the start of every school year that my kids will have a friend to eat lunch with!

    1. Been there, and it’s awful. Stays with us for a very, very long time too. I am so sorry! My hope is that I use that experience to teach my own kids to be much more compassionate and thoughtful. Hugs!

  18. I just sat at my desk reading this and cried and cried. And then laughed. Because in the midst of a holy and beautiful moment, you all screamed, “FUCK THOSE BITCHES.” Which is exactly what I needed to hear when this same thing happened to me at my 28th birthday. The tribe I thought I had wasn’t my tribe at all. Their own insecurities and unwillingness to be real or vulnerable led them to have their own party, in another state, on my birthday. And I was invited. And I was left.

    And it still hurts.

    I’m reading all these stories, and all these responses, and how kind you all are, and how even still – it hurts. But the load is somehow lighter because it is shared.

    I’m so glad Melanie was brave enough to tell her story.
    I’m so glad you gave space for others (like me) to tell mine.

    I hope that someday – even if it takes 30+ years – that my birthday might be redeemed. That I will find my tribe. That I will become friends with people who will celebrate me and not leave me for other people or other excuses.

    I have friends like that now. Good, brave, and honest. And I am so thankful. And I can’t wait for their friendships to coincide with my birthday – so that a new story can be written.

    1. So glad you shared that. What a deep pain! At 46 I have found some old, new friends and I know you will too. I hope you get your birthday party and I would definitely come!!! Thank you for the reminder that we all hold each other’s hearts.

  19. SO many sad stories 🙁 My heart is shattered today too. I’m rocking my 9 week old foster baby who’s withdrawing from drugs and is yet to smile or make social eye contact, and worrying about my last one. He was restored to his dad and we got a call on friday to see if we could take him over the weekend, which we did. Dad is relinquishing custody and wants us to have him, we want to have him, but we’re the wrong culture for 1/16th of his heritage, which apparently is more important than the amazing bond we have with him…
    I’m worried about his dad, I’m worried about whether we will get him or not, I’m worried about having to say goodbye again because I don’t think I will survive the pain again. When he was picked up by his dad mr 2yo ran to me and clung to my legs saying, “no, my mummy” over and over, and my heart broke for his dad, for him, and for me. He hasn’t seen me in 3 months and this is the reaction after just 3 days with us.
    If we have to say goodbye to this new tiny baby, I think we’re going to have to stop fostering, the pain is unbearable.

    1. Oh wow. This is gut wrenching. I’m so sorry. Life can be so very hard.

    2. Oh, Sim. How hard. You and your sweet boy are in my thoughts and heart. Sending love and hope your way. xo

    3. Hugs Sim xx

    4. God Bless you for sharing your heart with these unfortunate children. May you find the strength and hope to keep helping.

  20. I had a party just like Melanie’s for my 19th? 20th? It was mortifying. A painful new experience as I was used to lots of people showing up to have fun and hang. I winced for years just thinking of it. The only person who showed was an ex boyfriend. Man, it hurt.
    Now, when I think of it, it helps me remember to consider my friends’ hearts a little more carefully, to remember to keep my promises, even if they’re just coffee.
    Thank you for sharing this. It’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one.

  21. Let’s try really really hard to see that new stories like that of Melanie’s 16th birthday party don’t happen, that instead we do go to one another’s parties and bring small gifts. Better yet, let us be willing to defy the busyness of our culture to make time to say “I love you” to each other even when the birthday party isn’t on the schedule, so that when the inevitable misunderstandings hit us, we cannot seriously listen to the little voices that say “no one loves you.” Let us love one another.

  22. Oh how many memories from the past just came rushing forward from a far away, buried place. I was the kid that no one wanted to play with; I was chubby- a condition, if you can call it that, that I have fought all my life – and sensitive. It hurt that, while I didn’t necessarily know why, people did not want to play or hang out with me. I had a sense of this rejection hanging over me like a black cloud. I was ALWAYS insecure about meeting new people, and being faced with new situations. I was always sad because it felt like even my siblings didn’t like me. But when I felt this isolation the most was when I was 17 and was diagnosed with bone cancer. I underwent an amputation of my right leg 17 days before my 18th birthday. I once again was faced with desertion and the loneliness that a 17 yr old doesn’t understand because it’s too hard for others to face their own mortality when one so young is force to. I was so lucky though. I had a friend who is still my friend some 35 years later, who loved me and stood by me regardless of what was happening, even to her. I knew she was afraid of losing her best friend, and I was scared of dying. It was an energy that neither of us understood but we stood together regardless. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel alone,cause I did. It was hard to face and there are still times in my life when I feel those same raw emotions of not being accepted or feeling deserted because I’m not good enough or pretty enough, or just enough for others. I was so taken with how eloquently you were able to put this whole kind of experience into words. I feel vulnerable and empowered at the same time. Thank you!!!!!

    1. Thank you for gifting us with your story, Deborah. What a heartbreaking time for 17-year-old you. And how amazing you are for finding the silver lining of friendship in it all. Sending you lots of love and hugs.

  23. I was lucky enough to be taught by Melanie and am very grateful for her wisdom and influence in my life. I’m also thankful that our growing-up years aren’t our only formative years. She’s awfully blessed to have great stories like this one to make up for the shitty ones of yesteryear. Coincidentally, I also had an awful 16th birthday… Melanie, sounds like we should swap stories!

  24. What a beautiful essay and story! I am holding a piece of my daughter’s heart right now. She’s so sweet and empathetic. I know she will be there in that room with Melanie and all of you.

    AND, I love Melanie all the more after reading this piece. I can’t believe her friends let her down when she was 16, but I’m delighted by how much good her carefully shared story has done already. I know it will do even more.

    On carefully selected curse words. . . . They have so much more power when spoken by those who normally don’t use them. Betty White comes to mind for some reason. 🙂

    1. What a beautiful piece of writing about fragile hearts and heartbreak. We’ve all been on both ends of this topic– hurting and being hurt. I love the 16 plus 30 party– love everything about it. Especially that Melanie shared the story again so everyone could take another look at it and honor the memory and the antidote to the memory.

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