After We Are Broken

by Stacy Clark

An afternoon and sunlight slants through the bedroom blinds. She pretends to fall off the bed. She is small, not quite three. Straight dark hair, high full cheeks, pursed mouth, golden giggles. I catch her as she falls. “I gotcha, Hanna,” I say. Now it is my turn. I feign falling. She reaches out her chubby toddler hands, grasps. “Got you, Momma.” All smiles. We do this back and forth, again and again. I save her. She saves me. Isn’t this what adoption is? Catching each other so we will not break. I used to think so. I used to believe in wholeness and perfection and getting home before the dark.

Not so long ago, I swung wildly in the slots of my ideals like a foosball player twirling in a rutted place. A suburban life, yes good, but prescribed, cautious, limited to what I could see. Back then, the curtains matched the sofa pillows; the shampoo bottles matched the bath towels. My daughter matched me. Our first child, she took my genes and her father’s and spun them into blue eyes, soft, sand-colored hair, delicate waiflike features. She took us into parenthood in the ordinary way. She took us into the unfathomable awe of existence and into the brain-numbing world of Teletubbies I will never understand. If there was a perfect, this was it. Her father and I held on tightly to her, to our view of the goodness of life. For four years. Until life slipped out of our hands like a kite string pulled away on the wind.

The Japanese have an art called Kintsugi. Meaning “golden joinery.” It is a way of fixing broken ceramic bowls using lacquered resin mixed with powdered gold. It is the art of turning broken pieces into objects more desirable than the original. The art is a symbol, of course, meaning the pristine is less beautiful than the broken.

This is the broken. I lost a child inside me. A mother across the sky lost a baby from her arms. Someone bundled a newborn with a bag of milk and a torn note and left her by a wall before morning. As if she blew into the crevice, along with the cigarette butts and leaves and food wrappers, on the night’s wind.

Plans. I planned how I would be, the paths I would follow, how life itself would go. Intricately. I had lists and highlighted notes of what was done and left to do. I thought I could direct the wind. I failed to plan for what might come undone. There was little room for diversion or misstep in my plans. A foot off the path could be disaster, a plunge into the dark by the wayside. As a child, I learned plans could keep you safe. As an adult, I learned plans would not save you.

I planned my two children. Each child came on cue, hailing with two pink lines on a white plastic stick. And then, one left before I saw her face, or touched her realness.

In the tiny, fractured moments of healing, I came to understand there are times you cannot believe in what you know. But rather you must trust in what you cannot see—what tugs the string out of your hand.

A different day, before the falling and saving, I am again on the bed, this time with both of my daughters—the one with my genes and the one spun of my dandelion wishes and stubbornness. “Why are you here?” I ask the younger daughter, the one who came from far away, far outside the ordinary. I mean to know what she is here for, as in her purpose in life. We are talking in the gentle ramble of mothers and daughters before naptime, before the lids close, and the secrets go to sleep. She is at the age of literal thinking. She whispers in answer, “The wind.”

There is beauty in imperfection, says the art of Kintsugi. The fractures of a broken bowl are essential moments in its history, not to be hidden.

All along I wanted to hold love up to the light, to hold onto my safe and careful and pristine life. I did not know that none of us starts off perfect and no one ever gets there, to perfection. When my plans fell, I tumbled into the weeds and shadows off the path. I learned marriage could not save you either, not right away, from loss. Marriage is imperfect, too. Shattering, relentless. Yet, it is worth staying for the possibility that one day your husband will stand at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, his back to you, his shoulders slumped with the heavy thought that his daughter coming from China has a brain tumor, and it might break you to find her and lose her. And yet, he will turn and put his faith in your hope, and go get her anyway, and bring her home, because love is more important, more tenacious than risk.

She came home at ten months old from China with the broken promises of her past. Somehow a tumor translated from a cyst, only a cyst on her brow. Things are rarely as they seem. In daytime, she crawled hands and knees, quiet and curious, a whole world to gather. At bedtime, she cried, balling her fists and banging them against her forehead, trying to stave off the darkness.

I did not know how to help her feel safe, to trust, until I did. Until I understood I could not force her to happiness, but I could hold her, breaking with sorrow. After baths, when she was calm, I would cocoon her in a towel and rock her on my lap there on the bedroom floor with the wind rustling the trees out back. I sang to her about being warm and safe from harm, singing long before she understood my English words. Love is our first language, even if it comes late. The crying softened, and faded. The chips and cracks slowly fill with the dust of grace.

In the art of Kintsugi they say we cannot see our true shape until we break. A child falls off the bed in the sunlight of an ordinary afternoon. Again and again, I catch her, this child who came on wishes and wind. She catches me. And now, I think we all catch each other, after we are broken, and this is when we hold the beautiful.

Stacy Clark lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband and two daughters. Her work has appeared in The Pitkin ReviewThe Boston GlobeAdoptive FamiliesAdoption Today, and in the anthology Three Minus One. She holds an MFA from Goddard College in Vermont.