A couple of things happening at my work this week have got me thinking about the creative impulse—why we do the things we do whether you consider yourself an artist or an amateur or a dabbler or a thinker. What compels us? What propels us? And where does the “thinking about why” come into the process?
It also brings to mind one of my favorite things to write about: death. The following is a re-working of a post I did on my old Mac.com website which no longer exists. I ran across it cleaning out some files and am sprucing it up for a re-post, because it’s popped into my mind several times this week.
I like to think about and write about death, but it’s not morbid, really, I promise. It’s just something I think about a lot because like most people, I’ve been affected by it and, like all people, it’s something that will happen to me someday.
I mean, let’s be blunt. We are all going to die. Some of us too soon. And many of us have already or will have to say goodbye to people in our lives far sooner than we would like.
Contrary to our vampire-obsessed popular culture would have us believe, there’s no such thing as immortality, at least, not in a literal sense.
But, maybe in a creative sense…maybe there’s a little immortality to be had here.
Every time I go home to visit my sister I have a little ritual. At some point during the visit I will find myself alone in my niece’s room (well sometimes she is there with me, but I don’t think she really knows what I am doing) and I start to dig through the oh-so-pink pile of pillows and stuffed animals that keep company on her bed.
Somewhere in there in this pile of dolls and stuffed animals is a little red-and-white patchwork pillow. My brother made it in high school Home Ec class. The batting is all lumpy from age and too many washings and it is a tiny little thing…the size of an American Girl doll’s head maybe. (It often gets used for that purpose these days.)
I like to hold that pillow and examine it…touch the fabric and the stitching and think about my brother’s hands cutting and manipulating the material. I can see the spots where he had to tie off the thread and start anew.
Sadly, the reasoning behind his choice to use black thread on a red and white pillow went to the grave with him.
I like to look at those stitches every chance I get and I revel in the memory that he was, in fact, once here among us, once with hands to make things. I picture his knobby hands drawing the needle through the fabric in those awkward, uneven loops and I feel close to him.
The night he died I lay in his closet and buried my head in a pile of his dirty clothes. I remember wanting to soak in the smell of him for as long as I could…that oddly metallic smell of blood and salt and mucous that was so earthy and unique to my fatally sick brother. I remember thinking that very soon the smell of him would be gone forever, to fade from a physical sensation into a nostalgic memory. I clung to his smell because it let me cling to him.
I feel like that’s the way grief goes. At first, it’s so painful and yet you relish the pain, because you know that once the pain fades a bit, it also means that it has been that much longer since you have drunk in the smell of your loved one. The less pain you feel, the longer it’s been since you’ve seen their face, heard their laughter, spoken to them, held them, touched them, essentially had them.
I stayed there in his closet so long that my sister and brother and brother-in-law wound up joining me there. We sorted through some of his things, cried, talked about him and discovered a journal he had been secretly keeping for the last year or so of his life.
The first pages of it were letters to each of us. I haven’t read mine in a long time…It’s too much….but I do grab onto that little pillow every chance I get.
My dear and wonderful friend Danielle, about a year and a half into intensive chemotherapy for liver cancer, decided to take up knitting.
I remember visiting her one winter day and found her in the front yard knitting. Her carefully tended garden lay mostly fallow around her and she had decided that, for the cold months, a new hobby was in order and this one could be done during her hated chemo treatments.
Every time I visited her after that, she had some kind of a knitting project going. One visit, I brought her a big tote bag to store her growing cache of skeins of yarn and needles of all sizes. Months later, she showed me a ball of mottled purple, brown and grey and told me she had specially picked it out for me. She wanted to make me a scarf….
But first, she said, she wanted to finish the soft yellow blanket she was knitting for her sons.
She never finished that blanket.
I remember the night it did get finished though. I was laying in her bed, lying in the spot where she had died the night before, on a mild June evening shortly before her 40th birthday.
There was a confluence of women in the room….what I would call Danielle’s army. Her sister, aunts, niece, cousins and a couple of very close friends were there, gathered around the bed in which she died. I don’t remember where her three young sons were at that moment. I don’t recall where her husband was. I just remember laying in a spot that smelled of the lavender oil Dani’s sister had rubbed on her as she lay dying there the night before. I lay there and soaked it in, talking about her, about the impending funeral, about life and loss with all those women who had come together simply because we loved the same person for a time. I haven’t seen most of them in several years now.
One of those friends sat in Danielle’s rocking chair in the corner, stroking a finished yellow blanket on her lap.
“Oh! you finished it” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I wanted the boys to have it. I wanted them to have their mom blanket.”
A few months later, I got a package in the mail from Danielle’s aunt Melinda. She had taken the yarn Danielle had earmarked for me and made the scarf that Dani had intended to make me, but had never gotten around to.
Along with it came a note: “I know Danielle wanted to make something for you. I was with her when she bought this. I thought I would knit it up for you. It makes me feel close to her.”
I treasure that scarf like I treasure that pillow my brother made in Home Ec class so long ago.
Shortly after I got that scarf in the mail I became rather melodramatically obsessed with the idea that I also wanted to leave something like it behind for the people I love and who have loved me.
I bought a sewing machine.
In a way, I sew for the same reason I hold that pillow and that scarf. I want the people in my life now to not only remember me when I am gone, but remember that I loved them so much that I thought of them and created things especially for them. And sewing things for people I love makes me happy, even when it makes me crazy, destroys my apartment or when a million little mishaps frustrate and confuse me. There is almost always a moment in which I want to give up on the whole thing (sometimes I do) or I just start hating everything about it (most of the time I find the love again).
And I hope that the people who have gotten my oh-so-delicately (and sometimes pointedly) flawed gifts feel the love that’s woven into them.
I want them to look at all my awkward stitching and design flaws and remember that once upon a time I had real hands and real arms and a living mind that thought of them and cared about them. I think it’s the only immortality I am likely to be allowed.
Part of that pile on my niece’s bed includes a blanket I made for her. It was an early attempt and is falling apart in places and someday she will have to put it away or it may disintegrate all together. But for now she sleeps with it every night and every time I tuck her in with it I imagine a day (hopefully) far in the future, when she’s a grown woman and I am gone from this life.
I picture her holding that blanket, examining the stitches…touching the fabric that I spent so much time handling and positioning and hopefully she’ll think about how very much I loved her. Hopefully she’ll feel very close to me. If so, I feel like a part of me might be just a little bit alive again in that moment.
At least that’s part of how I feel when I look at my brother’s pillow.
I handle that pillow and remember how much I loved him and how much he changed me. And every time I think of him, I think of my friend Dani too. Because they both changed me. And they both left too soon.
I am a different person than I might have been without either one of these people in my life.
For one thing, I sew.