In the Wake of Pain and the Gold of Care

“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.

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.