The hard plastic chairs of the Chinese government building were different than the hospital beds I was used to giving birth in. We watched as the other families held their long-awaited children for the first time. The babies didn’t cry during this kind of birth.

Our son was the last to arrive. We watched him get out of the van in the parking lot. A nanny from the orphanage accompanied him and he walked ahead of her with swag in his step. He had a mohawk, a muscle tank, and a necklace with an aromatic pouch, a Chinese token for good luck.

We knelt to greet him. He smiled at us like a stranger. I offered him a juice box and goldfish crackers. He took them and ate and drank. When his nanny started to walk away and wouldn’t let him follow, he started to cry. The mouthful of crackers spilled from his lips. I picked him up, bounced him, tried to soothe him like a baby. He was not a baby though—he was a solid toddler with more words and emotions than all the children in the room.

When he started to scream, I carried him out of the building. We walked around the parking lot as delivery trucks came and went. Acid rain fell on our sweaty skin. My son wept and clawed at his scars. I feared I would drop him as he flung his head and arched his back. His pain became my pain and poured from my mouth in the form of prayer. Help me. Please. Now.

We returned to the States about two weeks later, to a home we’d just moved into, still full of boxes, and a town where we knew nobody. My son’s grief was palpable; his dark eyes the shade of distrust. He and my youngest daughter, Lucy, were only 11 months apart in age, and fought like waring territories. He bit her. She smacked him. I came down with mononucleosis that winter. The adrenaline wore off. Depression ensued.

INSTIGATE. You can’t mention this word without mentioning the mess created in its wake.

Last month, we celebrated five years of Ren being our son. Somehow, in slow increments over many years, we’ve risen from the trenches of depression and civil war. The complex bonds of human attachment have worked through our family like yeast kneaded into dough—hard-pressed and molded, rising up, pounded back down, and rising up again. My countertop is still a mess.

In his poem, “Tear it Down,” Jack Gilbert writes,
We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.

Last week in poetry workshop, my students and I were talking about this tension.

Life, faith and relationships often don’t become authentic until we tear them down and redefine them for ourselves.

“We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.”

My son, Ren, has jokingly been referred to as “The Instigator” because of his uncanny ability to find our buttons and press them. This yielded rage and power struggles in the first year, when we were still figuring each other out. Ren instigates laughter and play and exasperation. I wonder if all little brothers possess this talent? The swag and mohawk he wore the day we met him are still present in his spirit. He’s the wild card in my deck.

The ferocity and tenderness of my son’s spirit deconstructed our family. He instigated a richer love, deeper bonds, and a more whole understanding of what family is. He showed our hearts how God loves us and welcomes us into His family. We come to Him with heads flung, arched backs, clawing at our scars. God’s grip never fails.

I’ve never considered myself much of an instigator. I was more of a peacemaker in my family of origin. But now I suddenly find myself in situations where I feel like the one holding the gun with a shady expression. It reminds me of an old photo I have from my military days with an M16 in my clutch.

I suppose I’m not as timid as I think I am. I don’t fear disorder like I used to. No compelling creative work is born from a tidy process. As Picasso says, “Unless a painting goes wrong, it will be no good.” Sometimes the current structures and beliefs must be brought to ruin so a new thing can rise up. My son has shown me the beauty that lies on the other side.


Libby Kurz holds a BS in Nursing and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in The Poet’s Billow, Relief Journal, Driftwood Press, and Literary Mama. A veteran of the US Air Force Nurse Corps, she now resides on the coast of Virginia with her family. When she’s not reading, writing, and keeping tabs on her three kids, she works as registered nurse and teaches poetry workshops. She is passionate about a good cup of coffee, bumming on the beach, and finding meaning in the ordinary moments of life. You can find her at www.libbykurz.com.