Stick with me here. You’ll read the first few paragraphs here and wonder how in the world this is going to have a happy ending, but … it does. I promise.
* * *
I have struggled to name this quilt, as well as to write about it. It goes without saying that 2011, thanks to Jeff’s accident, was … hell, let’s pick a few adjectives:
- life-changing (and not in a good way)
Let’s just go with those to start. Mix in that as Jeff’s survival became assured, and his return to (first) consciousness and (second) independence became more apparent, it became harder to write about what was going on in my life. Jeff and I were always private people, and every time I started to write about his recovery from my perspective, I realized I just couldn’t talk about it to the Internets At Large. He wasn’t able to speak for himself, to say what he was, and wasn’t, okay with me discussing, so I shut up and stayed shut.
I think I can say this about 2011: after having lived through it, I will rip the fucking throat out of anyone who ever again dares say to me, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
No, it doesn’t.
If it’s bad enough, it cripples you emotionally, shatters your ability to cope, makes you fearful to reach out to your friends Yet Another Time because you know you are the person who needs more help than any single person can provide …
… and you learn to get by with less, or nothing, because you have no other choice. (Sheer stubborn endurance is not automatically equal to positivity. Sorry, self-help industry. Find another sucker.)
I came out of 2011 with an unhealthy dose of resentment, but I also came out of it with a bright spot. I started 2011 with a spouse barely clinging to life in the second of two ICUs, and I remembered one thing a nurse told me in the first ICU:
“This is either gonna be really short, or really long. You need to prepare for both possibilities, because no outcome is guaranteed.”
Meaning: injuries like Jeff’s don’t have quick recoveries. They can have quick deaths, but any potential recovery from a near-fatal brain injury is measured in years, not days or weeks. (Also, for those of you who weren’t there at the time, it’s the only time in my life I’ve known anyone to celebrate moving TO the trauma ICU … because it was a step up from the neurological ICU.)
About six months in, it became harder to ask people for help. I had drawn down so deeply on my friend reserves, I was past “favors owed me” or “favors easily paid back” to … “how the hell do I ever start paying back what I’ve already asked for, much less what I’ll need in the next few months?”
The funny thing? Some people stick around. Having survived 2011, I can also say this: if you are ever in a position like the one we were in, you will NEVER be able to predict who turns out to be a long-haul friend. Sure, you can point to your bestie-since-pigtails and guess that one, but there will be some Someones in your life who just won’t disappear, and who they are will surprise you.
They’ll be the ones who have the uncanniest timing, who will call you on the day that you simply cannot handle the six most recent One More Things™ that have just been thrown at you, and say, “We were wondering if you had eaten dinner yet. We have extra, and would like to bring it over.” At that point you do NOT cry with relief, but you put a smile in your voice and say, “That would be wonderful, thank you.”
– and you totally don’t mention it’s the first hot meal you’ll have had in a few days. Because you’ve got PRIDE, buddy. It may not keep you warm at night but it WILL get you through the next thirty minutes.
… and these people, whom you didn’t know at all before the accident? They keep calling. Not all the time, but just enough to know that you’re on their radar, and they remember that life didn’t magically go back to normal just because Jeff was released from a rehab hospital. When he’s not strong enough to travel, they bring food to you; when he is, they invite you to come visit them and eat there, at a table, like you remember civilized humans doing, once.
It’s enough to remind you, yes even cynical you, that there really is a LOT of goodness in people, if you make it possible for them to show it.
So what do you do if, on one of those invited dinners, this person who has fed you repeatedly over the past year comments on the quilt you’re binding and says, “You know, my mother started working on a quilt for me before she died. I’m not sure how far she got. I’m curious now, so let me pull down the bag…”
This is what we call in Amy-land a CELESTIAL HINT.
So let’s recap.
- Worst year of my life to date? Check.
- Chatting with a person who has been unexpectedly, repeatedly, and frequently generous to us during said year? Check.
- Said person lost a parent years ago, before that parent had completed an instance of a craft that I just happen to know how to do, in a pattern that I’ve done a few times before? Check.
Hello, universe, I’m Amy, and I’m still taking hints here.
Of course I asked if I could finish it out for her, precisely because she was the kind of person who would never, ever ask if I could. Her genuine intention was so plainly obvious: to show the fabric to someone who understood, and then to pack it away for that Someday that would come after her two boys were grown and her job was calmer – that magical Someday in which she would learn how to finish the quilt her mom had started for her.
Jacob likes to tease me sometimes about my complete and utter soft-heartedness that can be found underneath my cynicism. He jokes that I am rescuing orphans from the Island of Misfit Quilts, one at a time, and setting their worlds right: fixing them, finishing them, and putting them in the hands of people who will love and use them.
It’s silly, and I laugh about it, but he’s right. I do it for that very reason; I grew up with these items being both useful and treasured possessions, and I derive a massive sense of satisfaction in seeing each of these orphans to their forever homes.
Here’s everything you need to know about me, in a nutshell: massively overcommitted, massively overwhelmed, but I looked at this fabric and the story behind it and I could. not. say. no. The thought of this fabric getting put back in its little bag and packed away for another decade, until another appropriate conversation happened, just saddened me.
So I cut the little arc pieces, and I bribed Hallie, who was interested in picking up some simple sewing jobs, to do some of the straight-line sewing, to get them to about this point:
She completed a large swath of the arcs, and returned them to me, neatly packaged, awaiting me to have the time and brain capacity to work on this quilt.
In that time, I’ve struggled to name this quilt. I don’t even know the name of the woman who started it; I know that she named her daughter Jennifer, and her daughter turned out to be a generous and decent human being, and that’s about the extent of it. It’s hard to name a quilt when you know so little about it. I know that Jennifer chooses to live her religion, rather than speak about it, and I found myself thinking about words that had to do with the intersection of memory, duty, and religion.
The Greek word for memory, anamnesis, stuck with me a long time. It plays a subtle and important role in Christianity; in liturgy, worshippers are encouraged to remember, starting with Jesus’ instructions during the Last Supper: τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν. Do this in memory of me.
The word didn’t seem right, though. Every time I tried using that word, or one similar to it, for the quilt, I could feel the wrongness. I eventually decided to start sewing, with or without a name for the project, hoping it would come to me.
It hit me, a night or two ago: in Judaism, there’s a term for a deed done because it is the right thing to do: מִצְוָה, a mitzvah. The Hebrew term originally referred to commandments by God, but its usage has filtered down several levels: a commandment by God, a moral deed done as a religious duty, an act of kindness done because it is the right thing to do.
Exactly. This one finished piece was just enough to show me the intended pattern:
…my hands can do the rest. I do not claim to be religious, but there is a rightness to this task that comforts me. I cannot pay back what was given to me in 2011, not now and not ever, but I can finish this project. When it is done, it won’t get one of my traditional care labels, but instead one of what I found in the bottom of the bag:
The Island of Misfit Quilts will have to live without this one.