26 Shards of Loss

By Ann Klotz

fragments of images with gold filling in the cracks
  1. Loss is not math. In Japanese pottery when a piece cracks, the potter fills the gap with gold: kintsugi. I read and roll the word in my mouth, taste its unfamiliarity. Kin, I know how to pronounce; I am less certain how to say tsugi. We are broken and remade. Where something is subtracted, something else is added. Imagining myself streaked with golden seams pleases me.
  1. Today, our star magnolia tree dropped all her petals. They will be blown away by week’s end, lost. While the tree bloomed outside the window, we cherished the flowers more because we knew their time was fleeting. The hardest losses are unexpected, beyond the waterwheel of predictability.
  1. W.S. Merwin writes, “Your absence runs through me like thread through a needle; everything I do is stitched with your color.” After my student, Jessica, died, we carved that quotation onto a bench in a garden dedicated in her honor. She was 16. More than a decade later, I sometimes l imagine I see her golden hair in the tilt of another girl’s head in the corridor—not that Jess would still be in high school, but in her absence, she is present.
    Isn’t that the way? Loss guts us and fills us, too. We carry all the threads—shadows, memories, ghosts. I have become the fabric I am made of.
  1. At the sink, shelling shrimp, I love excising the thin black vein that runs along a shrimp spine—one flick and it’s loose, ready to toss in the sink. Try it. Very satisfying. There is no way to separate myself from that tangle of threads that run through me. They are twisted, knotted, fused into me, but also lovely, a skein of vivid colors. I am not my losses, but loss is as much a part of my being as breath and bone. Loss and love entwine.
  1. I lost my brother when I was 14 and he was 18. Lost. The verb makes it seem as if I mislaid him; perhaps if I looked hard enough, I could find him again—sock escaped from the laundry basket on the way to the basement. Instead, we put him in the ground and scotch-taped the remnants of our family back together. When people die, it is forever. The shadow of losing my brother was always with me growing up. My mother lost her brother, too; she was 16 when he—22—was killed at Anzio. After the call came that divided my life between before and after, I blurted out, “It’s just like Uncle Jimmy.” And later, when we had a son, I could not name him for my brother (James Roderick), who had been named for my dead uncle (James Leonard), for fear that I could lose my own boy, too.
  1. Clichés about time and healing in the face of loss make me vibrate with rage. Talking with a student about her own dead brother a few years ago, I reminded her of the children’s book, Going on a Bear Hunt. “You can’t go under it; you can’t go over it,” the narrator explains, “You just have to go through it.”  To navigate the landscape of loss is lonely. Acres stretch before us. Even when we are enveloped by love, we are compass-less, without a guide.
  1. On his bookshelf in my brother Rod’s empty room, a copy of The Great Gatsby was annotated in his intricate lefty-print, the green Flair handwriting laborious, so different from my own plain letters. I’ve reinvented my brother a thousand times since 1975, first sitting in his bedroom, examining his copy of a Fitzgerald’s novel I had not yet read, sifting for clues, not knowing I would ever have a son, a boy who also will invent himself. 
  1. In the photographs we discovered months afterward, my six-year-old daughter Cordelia is mugging beneath my sun hat, the towers tall behind her. We’d just taken a ferry around New York Harbor. Six days later, on that warm September evening, we stood on the Promenade by the East River looking south in a crowd of strangers, watching smoke pluming up. “We shall overcome,” we sang, holding our daughters’ hands, hoping to shake the acrid smell from our nostrils. Cordelia asked if we knew whether more planes would fall from the sky. 
  1. We had a gecko once, Gecky, who shed his skin continuously until he died. When geckos cannot stop shedding, they cannot survive. I know. I joined a chatroom to find out all I could as he grew less alert, less alive. A steady diet of loss is unsustainable.
  1. Manhattan, after, was too quiet. No honking. Tiny American flags bloomed on balconies as if we needed to pledge allegiance to a broken nation. On Yom Kippur, we baked cookies for our neighborhood fire station; they had lost thirteen of their crew, one of the first rigs on the scene. By late October, Cordelia and her sister, Miranda, eight, refused to go into their bedroom alone. When we asked why, they explained that Osama Bin Laden might be hiding in their playhouse. We tried to reassure them, reminding them that the doormen would never let Bin Laden into our building. Miranda, solemn and exasperated, sighed, “He’d be wearing a disguise. Besides, they don’t know where he is.”  

    F.U.D.D., a fairy unicorn dragon dog finger puppet, possessed of glittery scales, brought watery smiles back to our daughters’ frightened faces.

    Did we understand that we had lost our bearings? Not then, I think. Now, we define Manhattan’s skyline by the absence of the towers.
  1. I do feel satisfied when I purge old clothes, shoes left unworn for decades, books I will no longer read. People, though, I can’t give up. I cling tenaciously, barnacle to hull, determined to stay attached. Old boyfriends, former colleagues, friends where I do all the work, ghosts—I hoard them as a magpie stockpiles shiny objects in her nest, bright threads woven among twigs, stolen bits to cherish.
  1. As a little girl, most Saturday mornings, I would creep upstairs to my brother’s room, tucked under the eaves on the third floor, to play pirates. We had a game that involved diving to the bottom of the bed under the covers and leaping our way across the carpet. Were we sharks? Deep sea divers? We’d hop from one side of the rug to the other, making up new rules each week, pretending impossible obstacles to overcome.

    And then Rod went away to boarding school, and the summer after graduation, blinded by the bright morning sun, he crashed his white Vega into an 18-wheeler parked by the side of a Pennsylvania highway. 
  1. Nests remind me of eggs, shells bright and fractured in the spring grass or left unhatched or scavenged. Miscarriage, I reflect, almost 30 years after a fifth pregnancy ended without a heartbeat pulsing on the sonogram, a spill of tears and old blood, is the loss of that hopeful shell. When pregnant, it’s impossible not to anticipate the bundled baby who should emerge nine months after the joyous news.

    “Think of it as fixing the plane while we fly it,” our infertility guru explained. “You can get pregnant, but you can’t stay pregnant, so you need to shift your expectations. Someday, you will have a child, but each pregnancy will not lead to a baby.” 

    “Think of it as the same baby circling, trying to get to you,” Diane, the Alexander Technique teacher, counseled. “It’s not five losses; it’s the same baby trying to find her way,” she offered gently, while I wept, face-down on the massage table.
  1. My mother taught me to do needlepoint when I was a little girl. You push a needle down through one square in the scrim, trailing thread behind, and pull it up through the square below. You work on a diagonal. At night, sitting with my husband Seth, I stitch, the colors gradually forming pansies, heart’s ease, in purple and lavender on my canvas. I need good light over my left shoulder to see—and glasses. Stitching quiets my mind. It does not require words, just the soothing rhythm of the needle moving in and out. Just breath and habit. My mother taught me the back of the canvas should be as tidy as the front. Mine rarely is. But I like the shape of the basketweave stitches on the back. I make pillows and give them—an orchid for Meg, my best friend, when her mom died. My tapestries last longer than real flowers—the fetid scent of flower water makes me shiver.
  1. My atheist Jewish husband never loses faith, and our daughters arrive—miraculous, querulous—their presence, a mandate that I enjoy them every moment, which, of course, I can’t. I understand, even before they are born, long before our son appears, how terrified I am of losing any child I love. That fear is the first cousin to the dread that thrums through me during lockdown drills when I, head of a school, must rattle locked classroom doorknobs. What if someone tried to kill the children in my care? What if this were not a drill?
  1. “Do you have a child named Tobin in the school?” the police chief asked me.
    “I do. Natalie—she’s just starting 9th grade.”
    “There’s been a fatality, Ann. She’s dead.”
    I tried to make sense of his voice through my phone. “Dead? A car accident?”
    “The whole family, Ann. It looks as if the father killed them all and himself.”

    Later, we learned the father shot his wife, Natalie’s twin brother and himself. But he strangled Natalie, my tall, book-loving, gentle, volleyball-playing advisee, whose favorite color was yellow. For weeks, I try to push away the terror I fear Natalie faced. 

    I realize I am grateful that my parents refused to allow me to see my brother’s shattered face. Natalie and Rod are in my mind’s eye, unbroken, frozen. I did not lose their faces.
  1. I lost algebra and geometry, theorems I once proved with confidence, lost the whole idea of how to solve for x, lost whatever I knew about chemistry, stuffed into my head one summer the year after my brother died. What I remember was driving to summer school each morning with Brooke, in her aqua VW Rabbit and our teacher, Mr. Cresson. What I remember was my sister’s wedding that same summer, my grandmother in her wheelchair, the pale green bridesmaid’s dress. I remember feeling hollow in the church, a cardboard cutout of myself. I knew already that my sister did not love her husband, that she loved another man, but could not call off the wedding when a soup tureen in the shape of a cabbage sat displayed with the other presents on the dining room table. I lost everything I knew about chemistry that summer.  It did not stick. 
  1. The other day, my son, studying for the National Latin exam, murmured to himself, “Quid annos habit?” and from across the room, I responded, “How old are you?”
    “How did you know that?” Atticus asked, indignant.
    “I took a lot of Latin,” I answered.
    “You never told me.”
    “You never asked.”
    “I cannot believe you know Latin.”

    I smiled. Why did Latin stick when theorems vanished? Was it because I love words more than numbers? What sticks? What disappears? What melts away like the pile of snow and ice in the school parking lot during a slow thaw, vanishing, until I forget it was ever there? 
  1. I have lost my brother, favorite earrings, things I do not remember losing, dear friends, Jane and Stephen, mentors, four students, confidence and hope, my mother, and my youth.  I’ve lost my temper, lost my patience, lost jobs I wanted and opportunities. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Elizabeth Bishop writes, but when I misplace objects, despite the fact that I tell myself, “It’s only things; they’ll come back when they are ready,” I don’t believe my own self-talk. To lose anything makes me feel off balance.
  1. A few years ago, on a plane, Atticus, then twelve, looked up to see a toddler gazing fixedly at him. “Do you have your finger puppet, Mom?” he asked. I dug into my purse to retrieve the plush dog wearing a wizard’s hat, and Atticus spent the rest of the flight entertaining the little person standing backwards in the seat. I realized that make believe had ended, too, a different sort of loss. I had waited so long for our children, but while I paid attention to other things, they grew up, grew out of make believe. There was no warning, no moment when I understood that we were finished playing puppets, that I had stopped impersonating an obsequious French waiter offering mac and cheese to giggling playdates. 
  1. When our daughters left for college, I missed their daily presence in our lives, the sweep of one’s heavy ponytail, the other’s wide blue eyes at dinner. Now, our son inches towards the end of high school. His impending departure makes me ache.
  1. Where else does loss lurk? Our blind dog, Diva, hates bedtime. If we don’t sit with her, she barks and barks, her small shih tzu-mutt-self quivering in distress. We take turns putting her to sleep in half-light, waiting for her to settle. I sit on the kitchen floor, tapping my phone, the only thing I can read in the dark, and murmur, “It’s okay, Deev—you can rest now.”   

    Her coat sticky with oozing sores when she arrived, Diva, the second of our three rescue dogs, is part of the constellation of our family. She came to us, by accident, eight years ago. On the day he returned to the agency to adopt our first rescue puppy, my husband met Diva, slated to be euthanized because she had a nasty habit of lunging at men’s shoes. Her case of mange was horrific, but Seth, rescuer of lost things—dogs and a wife—brought her home.

    “I thought she deserved a chance,” he explained. 

    I worry this is the beginning of the end. I think of all the nights I sent our children into sleep, their glowing fish lamp casting spinning shapes upon the wall. Another time gone-by. 
  1. When we lose what we love, we search for memories, just as I hunt through the tiny boxes in my dressing table drawer looking for a mislaid brooch or earring, sighing in satisfaction when I discover it, pressing down currents of anxiety when that object cannot be found. But is it gone if I remember? Sometimes, I dream my brother’ face, my mother’s voice, unexpected, precious. 
  1. I write to the families in my school about raising children in our violent world.  “We cannot become inured,” I say. “Our humanity lies in our ability to be affected, to feel, even when we would prefer not to feel.”
  1. All is not lost. I am more than my losses, though they have shaped me. There is much I have also found: a sister I did not really know until our brother died, a husband and the three children that we have made. I’ve found writing, purpose, theatre, a passion for teaching–all as a result of loss. My life is poorer, but richer, too. Penelope tore out her tapestry each night, waiting for Odysseus to return. It was his shroud and her power; once finished, she would have to accept that he was gone. I keep weaving, threads of loss, life, love mingled, shimmering, stronger for its textured weft and warp.
  1. We cannot see around corners, I tell my students, cannot know what will come. Loss is aching grief and absence and, eventually, the gold seams filling, joining before and after. I am acquainted with its shape and dimension–the space that it takes up inside me. Like a Greek god in disguise knocking at a peasant’s door, loss will arrive, and again and again, like a good host, who knows the rules, I will open the door and invite it in.

Ann V. Klotz follows the lives and learning of 550 children at Laurel School. Her essays have appeared in Yankee magazine, the Brevity blog, and Literary Mama. Her Tiny Love Story appeared this summer in The New York Times. She is an MFA student in creative nonfiction at Bay Path University.

Original art by Catherine Butler, photo courtesy of the artist