This blog was originally published on Dyingwell.uk, a website owned by Clair Fisher.
In Clair’s words: “Dying Well was my retirement project. A space for me to document my personal journey, to explore the evidence around wellbeing in terminal illness and test out some of the theories.”
Three major abdominal surgeries have left my body battered. Looking in the mirror, the scars seemed to scream at me about how broken I had become. I longed to be ‘better’ and to recover to my former self. As I tried to recover I became frustrated at how hard it felt to try to put the pieces of my former life back together.
“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise.”
This verse (Isaiah 54:11) really spoke to me in those days. I felt in desperate need of rebuilding, but I came to realise that that my restoration wouldn’t be on a ‘like-for-like’ basis. The image of a wall rebuilt, not with stones, but with turquoise really resonated with me. I began to understand that I would be rebuilt in a different way to before, that although the scars would heal and fade they would never disappear.
To celebrate surviving a year after my diagnosis I had a beautiful turquoise ring made with the original stone left in its natural (slightly wonky) shape and the silver left with the marks of the maker unpolished on it’s surface. It serves as a reminder that brokenness can be beautiful and that what doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger!
I recently read about Kintsugi, the Japanese art of ‘golden repair’; using gold to beautifully repair ceramics. Obviously this really appealed to me and I found a kit online to try it.
So today my mum, my kids and I sat together to break and mend our little pots, to make something beautiful and to see what we learned. The first thing we found is that it’s surprisingly hard to break a little bowl! Our initially timid attempts were followed by more determined bashing of the little dishes. Mine ended up flying across the kitchen worktop and smashing on the floor. We each examined the collection of pieces that we were left with, trying to put the jigsaw together. Mixing small amounts of the glue and gold powder, we had to work quickly and found that along with the pieces our fingers were getting stuck together. We had to help each other to identify how best to restore each mini project. Despite our best efforts there were bits that were missing or that wouldn’t quite fit. The results of our efforts were not quite a beautiful as the picture on the box suggested they might be, but I love their clunky imperfections.
My daughter is adding her little work of art to her memory box. A reminder of a happy thing that we did together, and a lesson well learned that it’s harder than it seems to break something and that there can be unique beauty in restoration.
Kintsugi: A response
I was so touched to receive an email with a beautiful story shared in response to this blog. With permission, I’ve published it below in honour of Kathleen’s mother, and with gratitude for the people who love us when we’re broken and know how to hold us together with a hug.
It Doesn’t Matter
I broke it.
It was while I was looking after Mum at home, a few months before she went into a nursing home. She was sitting in her chair in our kitchen, watching as I took down, oh so carefully, each item from the two shelves Dad had put up years ago to store and display her good china. They were long past the need for a wash. I was always nervous doing this job, but it had to be done. And it was satisfying, and very pleasing for Mum, to see everything shiny and looking lovely once washed and put back.
I took my time. I had a system. Bottom shelf first. Cups, plates, dishes down and on the counter top. With the whole shelf cleared, I’d transfer these to the kitchen table, before starting on the top. A chair was needed for this, and nerves of steel. But I never overbalanced; I never dropped a thing. Next the two shelves came off. A good dusting and wipe down before being replaced. Now came the careful washing and drying of each delicate item in the sink. It was so easy to let something slip through soapy gloves. But, china piled up on the draining board, each thing washed and rinsed and waiting to be dried.
I was nearly there.
The thing I loved most on Mum’s shelves was her wedding tea set. It consisted of several sets of matching cup, saucer and plate, each with a different design. Some were of flowers, one of a cottage and a pretty garden, another of a spider’s web on a delicate pink background. There wasn’t room for everything on the shelves, so the saucers lived in a cupboard.
Dad had put in hooks on the top shelf for the cups to hang from, and a strip of wood across the bottom shelf for the plates to rest against so that they could be lined up under their respective cups. This wasn’t always possible as, unfortunately, we had lost a few of the cups or plates. They had, after all, travelled all the way from Australia in crates when we’d journeyed by train, ship and ferry to our new home here. It was a mercy more hadn’t been broken. I’d heard that many a time – how lucky Mum was that she hadn’t lost more. I was just drying the last few items when it happened. It was the plate with the cottage on it.
One minute I had it gripped in my tea-towelled hand, and the next… It fell slowly.
It fell so slowly, I thought I could catch it. It fell so slowly that, when it hit the draining board, I saw it whole and, for a split second, I thought I’d got away with it. After all, in all the times I’d performed this task, I’d never lost one of my mother’s precious plates. In my mind, this made the thing impossible, despite the laws of logic and nature that told me a collision of stainless steel and china had a pretty inevitable outcome.
Then it shattered. It broke into 5 pieces. I broke into many more.
You have to understand, this was a time in my life when I was trying my best to hold it all together. It wasn’t just my Mum, an 84-year-old with heart problems and Dementia. There was other stuff going on that made things almost unbearable at that time, stuff that I had to hide from Mum. I would do anything not to upset her. So, there always had to be a bright smile and cheery chit-chat. And there was – until I broke the plate. I suppose, when I broke it, something inside me broke too. I couldn’t help it. I just burst into tears.
She got up from her chair. She came over to me at the sink. She asked me what was wrong. I told her I’d broken the plate.
And, then, this mother of mine, who had always had a hard time showing her emotions, put her arms around my waist and told me it didn’t matter. I had broken her good china plate with the little cottage on it, the one that had survived the journey in the crate from Australia, all the years in the house, and all the times it had been taken down and washed and put back. But, it didn’t matter. For that short time, I had my mother back. She mothered me, and I cried like a child until her comforting dried my tears.
Now my mother’s in a nursing home, and I have the plate, still in its 5 pieces, in a drawer in my own place. Maybe I won’t glue it back together. My mother will never remember that plate now. And I’d rather remember how she comforted me the time I broke it.