05/19/2015 12:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pushing Humpty Dumpty Off the Wall

His arm hung by a thread. Stuffing foamed out of the stump. A purple ring of thread on the top of his faded, once dark green velvet egghead was the last evidence of his purple-yarn topknot. Around his fat egg waist, he wore a wide, faded woven belt with three tan leather buckles, striped in the colors of my grandfather's WWII Royal Canadian Armed Forces division. I touched the white yarn puff of his nose and traced the smile of his red fabric mouth.


Beside Humpty Dumpty was Bernina, a soft fabric doll with straw-colored yarn hair, pulled up into two decomposing buns on the side of her head. Half-blind, the felt dots of her eyes rubbed raw, she still wore her purple cotton flowered dress.


From their perch of many years on the top bookshelf in the cramped green guest room of my parents' house, Humpty and Bernina had watched over my sleep during visits for the 30 years since I'd left home. The green room was never mine. My younger brother had it first, and then, when I left home, he took over my big sister corner bedroom. They were the vestigial presence of my childhood, relocated and preserved.

I was back to help my mother with some house clearing as she got the place ready to sell. So soon, people said? Two days before, I had packed my father's clothes, except the shirts my mother kept to make a quilt, into plastic bags that sweated in the sun beside my rental car as the stack accumulated. At Goodwill, the man who helped me empty the brimming trunk and backseat was friendly, in that mild-tempered way associated with my home country Canadians. I didn't say, "These are all my father's pants and jackets and ties; all his slippers and shoes and boots; his coats and hats and gloves, his belts and suspenders, his socks."

I was feeling like the visit was an exercise in patience. My mother professed to be ready to clear the house, and yet it seemed to me that she was having trouble letting go of even the smallest things. Every object deserved to be touched, its story told. She was originally going to spend a year on the project after my father died, but was now on a mission to list the house for sale before two months had passed. I woke on my last day there with the conviction that to have more compassion for her, what I needed to do was some purging of my own.

In my parents' house, there were only two things left that were mine. Humpty and Bernina.

I went downstairs and announced to my mother that I was going to dispose of them. "But we were going to bring Humpty down for you in the car when we drove to New York last year," she said; a trip that was aborted when my father's melanoma had renewed its assaults. And then she told me a story about driving around with a giant stuffed turtle won at a silent auction and destined for my niece Rachel, buckled into the passenger seat of her Mini Cooper. My father, in his turn, had driven the turtle to a labour arbitration in Windsor. Before my mother could launch into the next story, I carried a half full garbage bag back upstairs with me.

Something short-circuited inside me when I touched Humpty and Bernina and I began to sob. I put them in the bag and then took them out again. I hugged them and kissed them, these dolls I'd barely touched for more than 30 years. Finally, I went and got one of my father's shirts. I swaddled them in his shirt, added some pictures of myself as a child, closed up the bag, collected myself and took the bag out to the garage. I pretended to my mother that it had been an easy goodbye.

Later that day, when I got home to New York, I spent some hours curled up on the couch, crying. The next morning, I felt like I could barely breathe during my regular run and had to stop five times to walk. "They're suffocating in the garbage bag," I told my partner.

Grief, in its sly way, had curled up and secreted itself inside my childhood dolls Humpty and Bernina, biding its time, then felling me with a concentrated dose of loss as soon I dared lay hands on them.

It seemed I had achieved my compassion for another goal -- that is, induced a glimpse of what my mother was going through with every item she had to part with. But not, as my partner and friends pointed out to me, with much compassion toward my own self. I was tired during every workout. My self-image was at an all-time low. I was checked out on my partner.

"Call your mother to get them out of the garbage," my partner said. I didn't. Some days passed, and I began to feel like I was getting enough oxygen again. Garbage day in my mother's neighborhood came and went.

The grief tucked away in Humpty and Bernina was mine, not my mother's. And throwing them away had not only opened a window onto how my mother was feeling, but also had opened the door to allow in what I was feeling and had tried to push away. We are a stoic family, schooled in bearing up. I was -- I am -- discovering that not bearing up has its own powerful healing properties, as if giving into my grief has leached some of its power.

I once took a martial arts class where the instructor taught us how to catch an attacker off-guard by moving with them in certain circumstances, to disarm them with our seeming compliance. Buddhism, too, has similar principles, of moving toward discomfort, not away. For me, pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall allowed my own heart to break to pieces.

Unlike Humpty, my heart can be put back together again. We build our muscles by literally causing micro-tears in the fibers as we workout, which then heal stronger. I believe that it is our willingness to experience our heart breaking that enables us to love, love more, love again and love ourselves.