Like most quilters, I started quilting as a fun, creative, escapist, hobby.
And, like most quilters, I soon realized that it can go deeper.
Quilting, Grieving and Healing
In the spring of 2001, I completed my most difficult quilt. Technically, it wasn't too much of a challenge. Mostly squares and rectangles.Very little seam matching.
What made it difficult was that it was made from the clothing of a extraordinary, precocious, delicious, 4-year-old named Rebecca, who had died of cancer a few months before.
As a friend of her mother - and myself the mother of two young children - I was deeply shaken by her long illness and her cruel death. I could not imagine a way that I could even begin to help her parents to heal - let alone ease my own pain and confusion.
Shortly after her death, I sat with them in Rebecca's room. They were trying to figure out what to do with her stuff. Her mother couldn't imagine giving it away---each piece was loaded with memories.
With some hesitation, I told them I could make a quilt from her clothing. I was afraid they'd think it was morbid---and that maybe it was. I was afraid they'd be offended. Most of all, I was afraid they'd say "Yes."
Months later, I again sat with my friend as she unpacked her drawers into bags for me, telling me stories over each piece. We both cried. I took the bags home and put them in my closet.
I procrastinated for a long time. When I opened that closet, I would look away from the bag.
I wasn't much of a praying person, but I realized I had to do something dramatic if I was to keep my promise. I lit a candle, put it in a beautiful stained glass cup adorned with glass jewels, and sang a bunch of prayers. (At the time, this was not the sort of thing I regularly did). Then I held a rotary cutter over one of her tee shirts.
I couldn't do it. The rotary cutter seemed too harsh. I put it aside, picked up a scissors, and started cutting off sleeves and collars.
During the project, I continued to pray and sing.. I also became more cheerful. I started talking to Rebecca, to my own departed ancestors, and laughing over the clothing and its telltale stains (lots of food, paint and nail polish). I asked her mother lots of questions about Rebecca and read through a memorial book of letters written by many different people. The more I knew about her, the easier it was to create a focus for the quilt. My focus - a complete surprise to me - became: Pretty. This must not be sad. This must be pretty. Rebecca loved pretty.
Then there were the more obvious miracles.
For example, the day I realized I needed butterfly fabric.
Rebecca loved butterflies. And it was a metaphor that a wise family friend talked about a great deal, for the transition to the spirit. I thought it was a wonderfu, comforting image, though I wasn't sure I believed it. But I knew butterflies would be important to the quilt. And I didn't have much butterfly fabric-only a quarter yard of a hideous brown. (Question: Why do manufacturers make hideous brown butterfly fabric? Why do I own it?) Rebecca loved bright colors. She particularly loved shiny beads and jewels. The brown fabric was out of the question.
So one day, when I was realizing I was at a technical stage (approaching the borders) where I really could use a coupla yards of really wonderful butterfly fabric right NOW, I hopped in the car to pick up my son from school, muttering to myself, "Gotta find butterfly fabric, gotta find butterfly fabric." I promised myself I'd drive the circuit of my three local high-quality quilt fabric stores that weekend.
Eventually, I mentally changed the subject. I was a little early for pickup, so I stopped in at a secondhand store near my son's school. Occasionally, I score great old aprons, neckties, and tableclothes there--- not in good shape, but still lovable to a vintage fabric junkie. I wandered over to the linens and started leafing through the hangers. Past the usual pilly sheets, worn towels, torn bed skirts, and brown-and-orange granny-square afghans .
Suddenly, on a hanger in front of me, I saw the most gorgeous, 2-yard piece of jewel-toned, gold-detailed butterfly fabric (a brand-new uncut quilter's cotton fabric from a fine manufacturer) that you have ever seen in your life.
I think I started to shake. I looked skyward, but the only thing there was fluorescent lighting.
Strange coinicidences? Evidence of an afterlife? Or just one helluva bargain at a buck a yard? Don't ask!
What I do know - and what ultimately became most important to me was that this quilt became a small but tangible way to help Rebecca's parents. It allowed them to keep the memories associated with each piece of clothing, but also to move on a little bit . For me, it did much more. I finally felt I had DONE something. I had helped. I had fought back against an unjust universe. Just a little.
And it had allowed me to share Rebecca's spirit---a spirit of joy, of play, and of course, a spirit that revels in pretty.
Excerpt from Rebecca's mother's journal:
"A few days before she died, Rebecca woke up suddenly from sleep in the hospital. She was already on oxygen, but excitedly and breathlessly told me about her dream. She said she was in a special place with raspberry and blackberry bushes, a tree with jewels on it, and a waterfall going into a pond with red rubies and red pearls. There was a garden with green onions, radishes, chile peppers, and pork. (Yes, pork---'From a pig, mommy!') There was a rainbow you could see every day, and there was always a perfect sunset. Best of all, there was a place you could camp out. Her dream was very vivid, and she told me over and over how it all looked. Then she went back to sleep."