Handling the Holes Created by Loss

I’ve never worked in kintsugi gold, but I’ve begun enjoying the other kinds of repairs that I do manage to do. Repairs feel like a form of care for the things that go with me through my days. On the bookshelf, a Joy of Cooking cookbook I inherited from my grandmother has its cracked spine reinforced with packing tape. A favorite coffee cup still holds up well with its super-glued handle. I even brought out my sewing kit recently to tackle the holes in my shower curtain.

Pulled threads and puncture holes—that curtain has seen better days, for sure. My black cat Bo caused most of the damage. Between playing with the hem, reaching for the tassels, and grabbing at the fabric when she’d slip on the bathtub ledge, Bo left her marks on that shower curtain. When I gave her away, it took me a while to think about repairing the curtain. I had so many other things on my mind.

My father passed away not long before the pandemic began, and I didn’t know what to do with a world that didn’t have him in it. I grieved that presence that had always made sure our family had what we needed, made sure we knew that things would work out all right. I worried about my mother, too, facing her own grief and pandemic isolation, suddenly living alone. I knew that my mother and father had come to love my cat, their “grand-kitty,” and I asked my mother one day if she’d enjoy having Bo move in with her. Without even pausing to consider, she answered, “Yes!”

So, I gave Bo to my mother. I felt glad that Bo would be sharing her warm, playful little presence with someone who probably needed it. All the same, I missed her. I missed my father. I missed the cute cat pictures I’d take—like Bo napping on a peach-colored bath mat—to send to my father to make him smile. I missed telling him stories about her, like the bulge in the shower curtain where Bo would hide on the bathtub ledge, peeking out to watch me get ready in the morning.

I cried often at first, sad and lonely for loved ones missing to death and to pandemic distances. Human lives can break in so many ways, but loss and grief make up one very common kind of hole that we find in our days. Some days, I felt like I had about as many holes in me as the shower curtain had in its fabric.

The more I let myself cry, though, the more I discovered something else happening alongside the tears: I’d be smiling or laughing in the middle of crying. Mending snags in the shower curtain, I remembered how Bo could make a toy out of anything and laughed as I pictured her with boxes and bags and yarn. I reached for the tool kit my father gave to everyone in the family one Christmas (as if he assumed that life would invariably need repairs), and opening the box, I smiled as I imagined how he would smile whenever I’d tell him about using something he’d given me.

I couldn’t deny the hole where my father’s physical life with us used to be. I couldn’t deny the hole where a little black cat used to be—always underfoot. Yet, even as those holes pointed to absence, I also found them pointing to more presence than I’d expected. After all, love doesn’t just disappear. In memories and thoughts, in the joy I still took at picturing Bo’s playfulness, in the care I still experienced from the things and smiles and thousand other reassurances my father had given me over the years, I found both of them still felt very much with me, albeit in different ways than before.

I said I’d never worked in kintsugi gold, but I do think that the image of gold filling our holes—all those painful openings introduced by wear and tear and time—has given me a lovely way to handle those holes. The gold has reminded me to see in the shower curtain punctures how the sweet little pet who’d made me smile every day now offers her playful blessing to my mother. The gold has reminded me to notice, in that gap where calls and visits with my father used to be, how I continue to find his care with me, even now. I suspect my increasing sense of repair work as a form of care has emerged from my practice with noticing the tender, gentle gold that appears in the middle of my hurting holes.

The pandemic has given me nothing if not practice. When I’d done what I could do with repairing Bo’s shower curtain, I brought out my father’s tool kit to see what other kinds of care I could give that space. I’d never been one to decorate bathrooms, but I remembered the colorful artwork and shelves of linens that my grandmother used to have around her bathroom, and I tried my own hand at introducing some new color around that old pastel curtain. I found a painting in my closet to hang on one of the bathroom walls. I assembled shelving where I lined up my collection of colorful towels, including the one with pastel stripes and a ragged hem line which belonged to my grandmother.

“Granny would have liked this,” I thought, looking happily around when I finished. “Bo would definitely have found even more to play with.”

I’ve also called my mother a lot during the pandemic, asking how she and Bo are doing. In the middle of a sentence sometimes, my mother will cut herself off and say, “Bo, stop that.” She uses her most gentle, coaxing, grandmother-like voice.

“What’s she doing now?” I’ll ask.

One day, Bo was apparently laying on the floor scratching at the upholstery of my mother’s recliner.

“I’m so sorry, Mom!” I said, feeling somewhat responsible for any cat-related damage.

“Oh, it’s not really a problem,” my mother said. “I’ve wrapped clear duct tape around the bottom of the recliner. She can’t put any more holes in it, and besides, she’s so cute when she tries to get my attention like that.”

I laughed, liking her way of handling holes.

This essay original appeared on the A Kintsugi Life blog on May 26, 2021.

Author: Callie J. Smith

Callie J. Smith is novelist and spirituality writer based in the Indianapolis area. She's ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also serves as a special projects consultant for church-related organizations and other non-profits.

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