The girl with the broken smile


Here’s the song reference.

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Back in the brave year 1982, my Dad was living with one of my cousins and her husband after my parents’ divorce.  Cousin had, at the time, a seriously adorable redheaded toddler, who we’ll call Wildling, because it fits.  Wildling loved me.  I was all of eleven at the time, but, as is sometimes the case with eleven year old girls, I was a bit self-absorbed and quite convinced that I was too old to play with little kids.  That said, the hero-worship was kind of nice, though, coming as it did at a time in my life when pretty much everything was awful and terrifying.  Dad had weekend visitation with me back then, so I stayed with him at Cousin’s house, with her husband and Wildling.

I awoke rather ill one Monday, and Dad, after consulting with Mom, didn’t think it was a good idea for me to go to school that day.  Since Dad and Mom both worked, Cousin said I could stay with her and Wildling, and they’d figure out later how to get me back to Mom.  Sick as I was, I was quietly delighted with this turn of events, as Cousin had this remarkable luxury called “cable television,” with a really stupendous channel known as “Home Box Office.”  I might be sick, but I would at least get to watch shows I never knew existed, which, to eleven year old me, sounded like a perfectly fine tradeoff.

Wildling, of course, was quite pleased to find that I was still there when she awoke and finished her breakfast that morning.  Two year olds don’t really understand the concept of “leave the sick person alone” terribly well, so she spent most of the day bringing me toys and treasures, trying desperately to pry my attention away from the screen that held me transfixed.  For my part, I was completely absorbed in a documentary about the tragic fire at the Cocoanut Grove (I’ve always been kind of a nerd), and thus failed to appreciate the lengths to which my sweet little ginger cousin was willing to go to get my attention.

She stepped – stomped, really – between me and the television, holding something I couldn’t quite identify in her wee hands.  “Kewwy?  Kewwy?”  she inquired.

“KEWWY!” she yelled – and threw the object in her hand directly at my face.

As it happened, it was a glass piggy bank, a possession of which she was quite proud, and simply wanted me to notice and appreciate.  I absolutely did notice it at that point.  Unfortunately, I also noticed that its impact with my face had broken off a substantial chunk of one of my top front teeth.  I screamed, she screamed, and for a while, it seemed like pretty much everyone in the house with the breath to do so was screaming.

I’m not entirely certain of the sequence of events after that, but eventually, everyone did stop screaming, and Mom took me to the dentist to have a crown made.  People were kind enough to patiently explain to me, over and over, that Wildling hadn’t acted maliciously, and that this was the sort of thing that two year olds simply DO when they’re ignored long enough.  Plus, Wildling still loved me, and that meant more thank I thought it would.  My smile had always been a little snaggly anyway; a little more unevenness from the crown didn’t really make much of a difference.

I grew up, and Wildling grew up, and both of us dealt with the fallout and anger and loneliness from our parents’ divorces.  We’d see each other at family reunions and family Christmas parties and family weddings and family funerals.  She was always the first person I looked for when I arrived, and she would always come and find me.  She was usually muddy, even after she grew up, and if there was a dare being made, she’d take it.  And when we saw each other, after she’d grown up, we’d stand off to the side and I would tell her about some of the remarkably bad choices I was making.  I didn’t realize they were bad choices at the time – they seemed very progressive and cutting edge to me, then – and she always had the same response.  “Love you, you crazy woman you.”

We were bound by a love born of brokenness.

Social media came along, and I could stay in touch with her more easily.  She met the man of her dreams and married him a couple of years after she was a bridesmaid in my wedding – really, I could not imagine having the most important day of my life without her and Cousin there.

wedding day with nikki

Wildling is rolling her eyes at me on the far right, wondering when we will stop all the kissy stuff so we can get to the party, already.

I’ve never been able to decide if Cousin is warning her oldest daughter to behave or joining her in wishing we would get out of the church and off to the reception, here.

We were bound by a love born of brokenness.

And that love would endure.  She forgave me my moments of inattention, even when I had to miss her wedding.  I cheered her on through all her adventures, from afar, for I’d moved to another state and didn’t make it back for reunions and Christmas parties too much anymore.  We saw each other mostly at funerals over the last decade or so.  But when I found out she was expecting her first daughter, Beauty, I sent the only shower gift I possibly could – a glass piggy bank.  We were pregnant together four times, and it was glorious.  It got to be a bit of a joke between us that if one got pregnant, the other had best watch out.

We had both found that no matter how angry we’d been at God as children, He had always been waiting for us, with open arms, ready to welcome us as His beloved, just as we had always been willing to welcome each other.  We shared Scripture, and prayer requests, and an exuberant faith rich in mercy and resounding with joy.  And we found that our brokenness did not diminish the beauty He saw in us.  The crown on my tooth gradually chipped away from age, and I decided to leave it as it was – because when I looked in the mirror, I saw love.

We were bound by a love born of brokenness.

Several months ago, Wildling had some bitter news.  She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer, and her prognosis was grim – two years, tops, if everything went according to plan.

Things did not go according to plan.

Six days ago, I received a text from Cousin asking me to call her.  Cousin knew how long and how well Wildling and I loved each other, and she gently told me that if I was going to come, it needed to be very soon.  The next morning, I was on the road before sunrise, for all the times I had not come before.  She woke, and recognized me, and I received the exquisite gifts of being able to tell her I loved her and give her a kiss.  I loved her in her brokenness as she had always loved me in mine, and her beauty was undimmed by her exhaustion.  The old fire, however, was gone, replaced by weariness.

Wildling left this world yesterday, in the early afternoon.

I have many regrets – times when I should have made time to answer a message, drive a couple of hours, write a letter.  But as I sit here staring at yet another screen tonight, reflecting on how the Lord worked through her to make so many places more joyful, to remind so many people to love the person who stands before you, however broken that person may be, I’m thankful.  I am thankful for the brokenness I have from her, for the brokenness I shared with her.

She’ll be with me, and live through me, every time I smile, though.

I think that when the day some that my teeth finally fail and I need dentures, I will ask the mold maker to make them just exactly as they are now.  Because there is a deep and wild beauty that can only be found in brokenness, and I would not part with it.

Today’s prayer:  Lord, thank you for the moments where I have been so broken that all I could do was turn to You.  Thank you for using my brokenness to teach me the infinite value of a child’s love, and that authentic love truly does bear, and forgive, all things.

Peace be with you.

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