“How’s your back doing?” my father would ask with a hope-you’re-okay smile from across the dinner table.
He struggled to remember many things during the last years of his life, but he remembered that my back was hurting. Perhaps he worried, knowing at his age how pain can accumulate and weigh us down. I felt that weight on the morning my mother called to tell me he’d died. That news hurt like nothing I’d experienced before.
I didn’t quite know what to do with myself in those days, and one of the ways I dealt with that involved riding a mountain bike trail near my home. Something about the position of reaching for handlebars felt like a relief to my back, and something about the physical movement felt like a relief to my heart and mind.
Deer came to the trail, too, most days. I’d watch them lift their heads from grazing to watch me. Turtles piled on top of each other on a log in the river. Dragonflies darted above prairie grass. I’d often catch myself making a mental note to tell my father about them the next time we talked. Then, I’d remember he was gone. I’d take a deep breath to keep from crying. He’d loved animals. I’d gotten practice loving what he loved.
Though I didn’t see many people at first out there at the trail, I knew that other people must be spending a great deal of time there, too. Someone had hung a wooden sign on a branch along the way that declared, “Peace.” Unseen others would cut back brush from the path and, after storms, move aside fallen branches for those who came after. I started doing a bit of the same. It felt comforting to find myself in a place where people cared for things and for each other. I don’t think it mattered whether I gave the care or received it, but only that I found myself in the middle of it.
I tried to take care with the people I did eventually start finding. I saw an older hiker with a walking stick one day and asked him from behind if I could pass. He jumped and turned around with worried eyes. I felt bad for surprising him and promised myself I’d ring my bell next time so as not to surprise anyone else.
Before the next hiker, though, I surprised myself. Pedaling through a narrow space I’d often cleared before, my foot got stuck this time in the knotty base of a tree. I fell with my bike down a hill and laid in a fern patch, waiting to feel what might begin to hurt. I became aware of something other than pain, though. I became aware that I could almost hear my father asking: “How’s your back doing?”
I’d thought of him so often out there in the woods as I rode. Pain may accumulate, but so can care, and I’d received so much of his care over the years. Warm memories stored up inside of me seemed to have begun rising back to the surface—slowly, here and there—in the quiet of the woods.
Like gold that a kintsugi artist uses to fill cracks in what she repairs, a sense of care seemed to have begun flowing through the cracks left in me by my father’s death. His love hadn’t died, really. It was more that I was finding his presence with me in different ways.
Laying there in the fern patch where I’d fallen that day, I actually whispered out loud, “I think my back’s okay,” as if my father were still asking. I stood and climbed gingerly up the hill. I still felt a little “off,” of course. When I saw the hiker with the walking stick soon after, I reached for the bell on my handlebars and found nothing. Had the bell broken off? I came to an awkward stop to look for it. When I glanced up, I saw the hiker had stopped to watch me.
“I meant to ring my bell and warn you,” I explained. “I just couldn’t find it.”
He smiled. “That’s okay,” he said. “I heard you coming this time.”
I’d needed that smile. It wasn’t my father’s smile, but it still touched me somewhere deep to be seen in a way that made another human being smile. I grinned back and wished him a good hike. As I rode on, I pulled the bell right-side-up onto my handlebars from under the shift lever, where I’d found it. I gave it a test ding.
“You found it!” yelled the hiker from somewhere behind me. I heard laughter in his voice.
From then on, the hiker—he introduced himself as John—would watch for me and step aside, always waiting with a warm expression on his face. It became a favorite part of my bike ride to find him and others with whom I could smile, grin, or laugh. A young jogger with a large dog, two women on bikes thrilled to see another female, a father and a son resting from their ride who clapped when they saw me trying, and trying, and finally making it to the top of a difficult hill—we all had smiles for each other. It felt like dwelling in a form of care together, too.
In the wake of my pain, flowing through those days like kintsugi gold, I found the warmth and presence of other lives with mine. I even found that my father’s love, woven so inextricably into my own life, seemed not so very absent, after all. Care went with me. I tried to remember this. When pain would come, as it does, I would try to remember and to watch for the gold of care that so often flows in its wake.
It helped when I had my worst fall yet from my bike. I found myself on the ground with pain in my back and chest deepening. I tried to remember not to get discouraged as I made it home and then to my doctor. I explained to him what parts of me hurt—right, left, front, back, all of it. He grimaced when I mentioned how I’d fallen, but his face held no judgement. I’d learned over time that this doctor smiled brightest when talking about mountain bikes, and I saw that smile clearly begin to emerge when we’d determined that I had no fractures.
By the time I was laying on a table for electrotherapy on my spasming back muscles, he and I were chatting about bike skills and laughing. The laughter hurt even more, but I didn’t care. I suspected it helped me as much as the electrotherapy did. When it was time to go, I got up slowly and walked towards the door.
“Have a good weekend, Callie,” the doctor said with a hope-you’re-okay tone of voice.
I looked back and smiled. I thought I just might.
This essay originally appeared on the November 21, 2021 A Kintsugi Life blog.