Wounds are strange teachers. Ten days ago, I sliced through the tip of my left ring finger trying to pry leftover ice cream cake off the cardboard. (Don’t worry; I assured my inquiring brother-in-law that the cake was unharmed.) The sting was worse than the blood. And the days of tending to the sensitive finger were worse than the stitches.
Watching wounds heal is a sort of miracle. A clean cut with three neat stitches, wrapped carefully. Each unwinding revealed a change. Skin resisting being held together. The formation of a scab. Body and stitches working healing together. The wound pulling away from the knots and lines. Stitches laying on the table and scales of dead skin flaking away to reveal tender new skin holding a scar. It all looks amazing – if messy – and it feels weird and unfamiliar.
I wish it were so easy to watch the healing of grieving heart wounds. I can feel the pulls of the necessary staples and stitches, hasty explanations and supports put in place to keep the heart beating through the breaking. Memories and absence tug on a damaged heart that is tender with the work of healing. The pulls measure how far I have come, and how far I have left to go. The finger makes it easier to see what is happening beyond the reach of my eyes.
All the understanding of what led to Abbie’s death will not restore her to her life here with us. The beauty of the celebrations, as much as they sewed stitches, pales in comparison to sharing laughter with her. Meals and laundry help made it possible for me to breathe for two whole months. Though help continues in different forms, I am breathing on my own more easily now. The stitches and staples are gradually giving way to reconnected muscle, wounds bruised and aching, but healing.
And still I am surprised how often a physical movement takes my breath away or a memory makes my chest ache. Our family went to the lake for the long weekend, an annual tradition, and I sat teetering on the edge of making new memories and resisting the urge to run away. I want to ignore the grief. Changing the dressing exposes the wounds, and I see death again. It is painful to witness the healing; moving forward takes me further away from the last time got to hug her and hear her voice.
Broken hearts, unlike fingers, are tied up with our emotions, in what we hoped for and what is lost. But if I didn’t go for stitches, change the dressing, and keep the finger clean, the finger wound would rot and fester, eating up a lot more of me than a finger tip and a slower typing speed. Tending to the broken heart also requires time and effort. The grief is both easier to ignore, and harder to sit with.
My head knows that wounds move either toward healing and new life or toward destruction and death. I can feel myself sitting on the edge. Not choosing is a choice for decay. Moving on is not an option because the statement belittles the loss. Moving forward or back is before me. One of my favourite passages in Deuteronomy, paraphrased: “I have set before you life and death. Choose life, so that you and your loved ones may live” (30:19). God has stitched my wounded heart in ways I will discover for the rest of my life. Do I want to tear them out and bleed, or will I learn from the scar?
I have been practicing leaning into the memories that bring on tears. I am eating the crackers she left in my pantry the last time she came. When I get ready for the day, I wear her earrings – even when they feel a bit ridiculous. I am noticing when the stitches break, and feeling deeply the pangs of guilt that come with my heart getting stronger. Abbie has whispered into my joy that she shares it with me still, even though I would rather a world with joy that has her beside me in the flesh.
Just days before I cut my finger, a friend sent me the most bewildering and beautiful drawing. It’s an anatomical human heart sewn together with golden stitches, with flowers growing out of the veins and arteries. The picture deserves a perfect place to hang, but for three weeks it has been sitting right in the middle of the counter I cook on. I cannot bear to move the frame from the place I set it when I opened the box, ironically right beside the knife block. “Beauty instead of ashes,” it whispers…