Last week, I was having my second cup of coffee, using my beloved Princess Leia coffee cup. As I added to my iced coffee, I slipped. Princess Leia fell. The cup broke into pieces.
I was stunned. I started cleaning up the mess on the kitchen floor.
My brother gave me that coffee cup in 2004, with its cartoon image of Princess Leia. This Princess Leia, though, wasn’t cartoonish. She was confident. She was fearless. She had character. As a feminist, as a young professional, this Princess Leia was the person I hadn’t become yet. She was the person I wanted to be.
As I got older, the Princess Leia cup entered my life in more complicated ways. Her image became more and more central to my life. I drank from her every day. She became the image of my body: She was my picture on Facebook, in Gmail, and on my blog.
Princess Leia became part of my regular morning routine, long before other things had happened in my life. In 2004, I was perfectly healthy. I still lived in Tennessee. I had important career decisions to make. I was years away from becoming Maybelle’s mother. In 2004, I got to imagine all kinds of possibilities for my life, long before my brain tumor was found, 12 years before being told I might have only months to live.
And then the cup crashed onto the kitchen floor. She was gone, broken into five pieces. Drenched with hot coffee, I started to clean the floor. Several kitchen towels were required. And as I cleaned, I started crying. And I cried. I cried so much that I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stop.
After several minutes, I finally knelt on the floor and softly, carefully, touched Princess Leia’s face. Her face is fierce. She holds a blaster, facing to the right but looking to the left, as if she has just noticed someone. On the other side of the cup, it reads “Don’t even think about touching my coffee, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking, nerf-herder!” The nerf-herder quote is from The Empire Strikes Back rather than the original Star Wars, but that doesn’t matter. There Princess Leia was, in my hands, broken but defiant.
That evening, Maybelle watched me. In her bath, she commented on my feelings. “Sad,” she’d tell me. “Can’t I smile?” I asked. “No,” she said, “cry.” So I made a sad face. “Cry,” she said. I would hang my head and cry — not quite real tears but close. Maybelle was incredibly interested. She watched me, and when I asked her if it was time to be happy, she’d shake her head. “Cry.” Later, she leaned over and held me.
Maybelle understands that things are changing. That my head must be shaved every three days. That I have gained weight as a result of taking a larger dose of steroids to prevent my brain from swelling. That I am having a harder time reading to her, especially late in the day.
Times have changed for me in radical ways. My chemotherapy is more powerful, though these treatments may be less effective than the drugs I received a few years ago. Because the brain tumor is growing, I now have 36 small electrodes stuck to my bald head. Those electrodes are attached by wires to a battery-powered medical device that generates tumor-treating electrical fields. Everywhere I go, I carry a backpack full of medical equipment.
The neuro-oncologists say there’s a chance that my current treatments will help, but we all believe the help will only be temporary. I’m dying.
After Princess Leia was broken, my brother found descriptions online of kintsugi, the elegant Japanese art of repaired pottery. As a speaker in one video explains, the art demonstrates “the fragility, the resilience, and the new and unique beauty of an object that has been both broken and repaired.” Kintsugi mending uses a lacquer mixed with gold dust to make a mended object in some ways more beautiful than the old.
“Look,” my brother said. “You can change Princess Leia.”
My brother and my husband are both eager to repair the cup for me. Knowing how much the cup meant to me, I know they would spend far more than it was ever worth to have it put back together, to try and return Princess Leia to that moment before the cup shattered on the kitchen floor.
The point, though, isn’t for the coffee cup to be fixed, with its injuries rendered invisible. The point now is to recognize the beauty of the effort to mend what is broken, however imperfectly, however incompletely.
The old Princess Leia is gone, after 12 years and thousands of cups of coffee. My old body is gone as well, the result of age and illness. Neither the cup nor I can be made as good as new, and I won’t pretend otherwise.
There is value, though, in the effort — the expensive, difficult striving — to put together what has been broken. To honor what was lost, but also what has been gained. In even the failed repair, to see compassion in the work of both potter and physician.
The broken pieces of Princess Leia now sit on a shelf in the living room, next to the photos of a younger me.
Princess Leia is remembered as she was. And she is loved as she is now and will be after she is remade by kintsugi. In whatever form this Princess Leia takes, she will inspire me to be that better person I once wanted to be, and I hope I occasionally have been.
My family and I will hold the broken pieces together, whether the broken pieces are Princess Leia’s or my own.
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