A shattering sound breaks the early morning quiet and sends me shuffling from the sofa into the kitchen. He stands frozen, penitence in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he says as he gently gathers the pieces of the broken mug from across the counter. “I accidentally hit it with my elbow when I turned around.”
“I know that meant a lot to you,” he tells me as we stand side by side picking up shards of ceramic. He knows it was a birthday gift from Rob. I keep my eyes down. I don’t want to let him see them fill with tears. I assure him he is forgiven. Things break. Accidents happen. “I’ll just glue it back together,” I say as I head to the cabinet for the super glue. “It’ll be as good as new.”
As I stand at the counter, reassembling the pieces of my shattered mug I think what a lie that is. Good as new. After brokenness, there’s no such thing as “good as new.” However well I glue it, my mug won’t be the same. Even with the cracks filled, I couldn’t drink out of it anymore. There is no going back to the way it was before. My mug can have a new life holding flowers or pencils on my desk. But the moment it fell, its old life shattered with it.
This isn’t the first sentimental mug that’s broken since Rob died. Each time, I scramble for the glue and painstakingly place the pieces back together. My attention to detail feels almost desperate. Amidst all the ways I can’t control the brokenness in my life, I just want this one repair to work. I pull out the tweezers, prop up broken pieces with toothpicks and silverware. The tips of my fingers grow rough with the coating of super glue that dries on my skin as I try to hold the pieces together, working hard to make it all fit again. I’m so tired of feeling powerless to fix broken things.
In a neat row in my china cabinet, stand three repaired mugs that tell the story of my life with Rob. The mug from our college days from that little cafe. The mug from the national park. The birthday mug with the rim of gold. All precious to me, but now unusable. Still beautiful, but cracked now, their shapes marred by kitchen calamities. I run my hands around their once smooth bodies and feel the sharp edges of brokenness, the lumps of glue that didn’t dry flat. I look at them, and my heart fills with sadness. Even with deft hands to repair them, they will never look the same.
Traditional Japanese ceramicists employ a technique called kintsugi to turn repairs like mine into an art form. Filling the cracks with the dust of a precious metal, often gold, these repaired ceramics illustrate a philosophical acceptance of imperfection, the reforming of brokenness into beauty. Many times this analogy is trotted out for grieving people — that our lives though broken can be mended by gold into new things of beauty.
But when I hear this illustration, I’ve often gotten the impression that for many onlookers, the goal of brokenness repaired with gold is that little white lie I told my son. That if we add some beauty to the rough edges, our lives — like those broken vessels — will be “good as new.” We’ll find a “new normal” that offers the same usefulness and satisfaction as the old. Ask anyone who has lived through grief, and they’ll tell you nothing could be further from the truth.
There is nothing beautiful about the mending process that comes after brokenness. We might wish to romanticize it, coat it with a shimmer of gold dust. But the reality is that mending after brokenness is messy. It is super glue all over your skin. It is deep cuts on your fingers — and your heart — from handling so many shards of a life that has shattered. And if you try to reassemble the life that was, it is never going to look the same. It may enjoy a future, but it will never serve its original purpose. There is no such thing as “good as new.”
I look at the pieces of what was — our family, our homeschooling life, our marriage, our home, our travel, our dreams. Our life, shattered by Rob’s death. So many well meaning people have stood in the wings for the last almost eleven months, ready to help me pick up the pieces. While I am ever so grateful for that loving intention, it is hard to communicate that whatever my life becomes, it will be drastically different from the life I lived before. The pieces can’t be reassembled; it’s not going to look the same. The life I live without Rob will be one whose shape even I do not know yet.
I avoid using the term “new normal,” but I hear it a lot from people who hope to see that I’ll somehow discover a life that bears some resemblance to the life I lived before. I’ll find a place to plant myself, send my kids to school, and somehow I’ll reassemble this life that broke. And like the jigsaw puzzle that you complete only to discover there’s a missing piece, I’ll reconstruct a full life with a single piece missing — my husband. The holes created by his shattering absence will eventually be filled with gold, the rough edges bonded together with seams of precious metal. If it were possible to compartmentalize life, perhaps this could work. But death shatters everything.
A number of years ago, I participated in an art class where we created mosaics. Each student brought a dish to class. We placed them in paper bags, grabbed hammers and smashed our dishes to bits. As I poured the contents of my bag onto the work table, I smiled at the results of the cathartic activity. There were pieces of all sizes. Some that, though broken, still fit like puzzle pieces together. Others so small you could hardly see the original decorative pattern. And ceramic dust — remains that could only be discarded. Grout would hold the usable pieces together,
Artisans will tell you that though they begin a mosaic with intention, the design emerges on its own. Brittle elements — pottery, glass — dictate what they can do. Shapes and sizes can be modified, but much of the art comes from the artist accepting the pieces as they are and creatively finding space and purpose for them. Over time, as the design emerges, the new image cannot be separated from its original pieces. But no one will look at the mosaic and mistaken it for a ceramic dish or a plate of glass. It is something entirely new.
Almost a year out from Rob’s death, I am convinced my life won’t become a kintsugi masterpiece. The new life I shape won’t be a repaired replica of what I lost. I’ve already tried it. It is discouragingly impossible. I cannot make my life “good as new.” Life without Rob will never be normal.
I also am convinced that I can’t live fully again surrounded by mounds of broken pieces. I have to do something. Perhaps, instead, I’ll make a mosaic of this life that has been shattered by loss. I have no idea what the design will look like. I’ve just barely begun. Like an artisan, I’ll trust the process, trust that the design’s intention will emerge. I can’t remake what was, but I hope I can still build something beautiful.