The 12-Year Quilt

On this day in 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and waded into the River Ouse to drown herself. Also on this day in 1941, my mother was born. She would have turned 76 today.

Longtime readers will know that when Mom was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer in 2004, and her doctors predicted she might live as few as three more months or one more year at most, my sister Karen and I packed up our school-age kids and moved from Saskatchewan to Kelowna to be with her until the end. Some people discouraged us from doing it; they thought we were going a little overboard, leaving our spouses behind and uprooting our children from their schools. Mom said, “I’d love to have all my chicks in the nest, but I don’t want you to do it unless it’s right for you.” I remember telling her we’d made up our minds to do it; the gratitude in her voice, the joy. I remember telling her that we weren’t only doing it for her and Dad, but for ourselves too. I knew I’d be a mess if I wasn’t there when they needed me, and that I’d never regret doing everything I could to make her last months the best they could be.

Karen rented a basement suite with her teenage daughter, and I rented the main floor of a house with my two boys. We enrolled them in Kelowna schools. I had a job I could do from anywhere, and Karen found some housekeeping work. I helped her clean an arena that had been renovated. We saw a lot of our sister Joan, who already lived with her family in Kelowna. This was one of the great rewards of being there; these were precious months for we three sisters. We all spent as much time with Mom as we could manage, between our other responsibilities (work, kids) and considering the number of her friends who were also visiting her between trial-drug treatments, radiation, a hospital stay, coping with pain and fatigue and, near the end, a lot of sleeping.

While she was still feeling good, Mom wanted each of her three daughters to start a quilt with her. “At least one of you is going to be a quilter,” she said, determined to pass on her love of fabric and handiwork. So we each chose a pattern and fabrics and began: for me, cutting and ironing and placing and machine-sewing and hand-stitching and so on. My quilt had a lot of appliques to stitch and Mom did a couple and so did my sisters; maybe even Aunt Reta helped when she came up from Phoenix in the final weeks of Mom’s life.

I spent a lot of hours at the sewing machine in the bedroom as Mom lay snoozing, often nauseated and, later, dying. There were small quilts she wanted to make and complete to give to two of her friends, and Reta and I helped her with those. Some may have thought the sewing machine was a bothersome noise, but Mom liked the sound, she said, and she liked us there. Maybe it kept her from feeling lonesome, what with so much time alone in bed. At the sewing machine is where I was until she took her last few breaths.

It’s been almost 12 years since that day. After Mom left us, Karen and I remained in Kelowna another month, till the kids finished out the school year, and then we moved out of our rentals and drove back out here to our homes and husbands.

Over the last dozen years, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve lifted my quilt out of the basket where it was kept. I’d pass an hour or two stitching the squares to get the blanket ready for the binding, or edging, that would complete it. This winter when I stayed at Karen’s to look after her dogs while she was on a holiday, I finished the last square and then took the quilt to town to get help from my aunt, a quilter extraordinaire. She was recovering from a cataract operation and couldn’t yet see well enough to do any sewing without straining her eyes, so I left the quilt there, saying, “It’s taken me this long; another few weeks won’t matter.” I assumed that when she was ready, I’d go back and she’d guide me at the sewing machine, peering over my shoulder.

Then a couple weeks later, she called and said she’d sat down and finished the quilt. She’d hand-sewn the binding and I could come and pick it up.

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Upon returning home, I spread the quilt out on top of our bed and climbed under it. That’s when a jumble of bittersweet feelings hit: memories of those heartbreaking but ultimately rewarding months with Mom, a tearful longing to see her again, and gratitude for the helping hands that gave their time and effort to the completion of this special project that was 12 years in the making. I could almost hear Mom saying, “It’s about time!”

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14 thoughts on “The 12-Year Quilt

  1. Nothing I say could do justice to this story. You and your sisters surely did good. I think even 12 years ago this would be a rare story (still is, by the amount of sacrifice you all selflessly offered). <3

    Now I hear so many stories of women caring for their mothers who are afflicted with dementias and Alzheimer's. One is Jann Arden (Twitter and Instagram) and Anneliese Friesen of For Everything a Season (Mennonite Girls Can Cook). Many of their commenters say "me too."

  2. We were really just there to lend a hand when needed. Dad was the main caregiver and we gave him a break sometimes, making sure he could get out of the condo for a few hours. When Karen went over, she’d spend her time baking and cooking to help Dad out. Other days, Joan would take her three-year-old daughter to visit Mom (“and that pleases me,” she said). I’d rub lotion into Mom’s feet, sometimes help her wash or take orders to run minor errands, but often just sit with her and talk. At least that’s how I remember it. We had the most wonderful, honest conversations and they could go on for hours. Mom said we each brought her something different, something she needed. But mostly I think it was relief that Dad wasn’t having to cope all by himself. She was more worried about him than anything. But we all shared the load, if you can call it that, and none of us carried all the responsibility ourselves. It must be 10 times more difficult for spouses or adult children who are alone with all of it. -Kate

  3. Oh Kate. Crying here. I flew back to Ireland with my 2 babies to be with my dying mother. I must write about it soon. Every time I tried before I break down.

    Thank you, thank you. Powerfully told.

    XO
    WWW

  4. Grace, your mother, was a fantastic lady, women, mother , wife and just all round good friend for so many. When Auntie Lenora passed so suddenly in January the Grovum, Klien and Johnsons came over for a short visit before flying off back home after her funeral. Grace was a regal host for all and of course Don was right there. It was wonderful. A lot of things happened in 2005. It is a year with a lot of sadness. While I was there Grace gave me a bag (quilted) for my music. I have used it ever since as I am in two choirs and think of her every time.
    Thank you so much for sharing your remembrances and your sorrows even now.

  5. Carole,
    They say some people don’t like to talk about their dear-departeds because it’s painful to be reminded of their loss. But I still love to talk about the way Mom was, and remembering her with others and hearing your memories are both very sweet to me. I’m glad you have something she made! I know how it feels to think of her when using or seeing something she gave.
    -Kathy

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