Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear.
Trouble it might drag you down,
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home. — Home, Philip Phillips
The air smells like wood smoke, nearly freezing rain, and wet pine needles. The stroller wheels slosh through the river running down the sidewalk, kicking mud and decaying leaf bits onto the front of my snow boots and jeans. Nate sobs, hunched low under a bright red and blue blanket, his face pressed into the canvas at his side, and periodically emits a high-pitched keen of protest that resonates in the hollow spaces inside.
“I want to finish the puzzle,” he howls again.
“We need to pick up Saige and Garrett at school, baby, but when we get home I’ll help you.”
Home sticks in my throat. Something in me rejects the word lately, though I accepted this sweet, north-facing, snow-kissed city as my home years ago. My first instinct – maybe born during my childhood as a military brat, moving every two years, able to leave behind small embarrassments, mistakes, and relationships grown complicated – is to run as far and as fast as I can. It’s worked in the past. I ran so fast after college, I was on a beach in Greece three months later before I looked back. Matt and I grabbed hands, held tight, and ran half way around the world when life as big-city lawyers threaten to drown us. I ran to Haiti when we lost our first baby and when that wasn’t far enough, we ran to Saipan together.
The urge to flee starts with the heavy feeling that something is irrevocably broken, beyond repair, and slinking away in the night is the best option. Best not to even try and pick up the pieces. Fresh start. Bright morning. New vistas. Slowly, over a life time, you realize that the broken things can’t be fled. They are inside of you, chips in your fire-hardened porcelain surfaces. The knowledge that you can try your very hardest and fail, that babies die, that friends get sick, and life’s most vicious aspects are its most unexpected has twisted something in your chest until it snaps under the tension.
We wish it would reach the surface and bleed because then it would be recognized for the crisis that it is. A spiral fracture. Terrible. Weeks of rest. Months of rehabilitation. But our souls accept no casts beyond the smell of woodsmoke, puzzle pieces laid out across a flat table in the middle of the hot schoolroom, a baby’s bright, tear-stained cheeks under a red and blue blanket, frozen feet in sturdy snow boots, and icy rain melting on our faces.
At home, we carefully match colors and patterns, looking for clues in the shading and shape. The puzzle is an ornate folk art depiction of Pike Street Market with 500 tiny pieces. I show them how to test each piece when the colors are the same, keeping the ones that don’t fit in a little pile so we don’t try them over and over, separating bits of birds from bits of buildings, and flowers spilling over pots.
“I can’t do it,” Quinn complains in his high-pitched, fluted voice. “They won’t go.” He throws the piece he holds onto the table and our organized piles scatter in the face of his ire.
“You have to be patient,” I say. “You have to keep trying. It’s like someone dropped the picture and broke it. The pieces are all there, they just need to fit. Take a break, but don’t give up and don’t throw all your hard work away.”
We concentrate, arms touching, for fifteen minutes. Pike Street Market takes shape beneath our fingers with seagulls wheeling in the air above it and fish flying between fishmongers on the brick pavement. The pieces fit faster toward the end as the piles dwindle and the picture forms around the holes.
Quinn places a hard piece where I tap with the end of my finger and gives me a huge smile. “You’re better at this than me. You’re good with broken things, Momma.”
“Well,” I tell him, “I’ve had a lot more practice.”