Why I Sew

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.

I sew.

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.

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Nope, no islands here.

Welp, it’s April 6. Seems to come every year this time.

It’s early morning on Wednesday April 6, 2011 and my brain is kind of stuck in the memory a different April 6.

I can’t help thinking about Thursday April 6 2000–the last day I got to see, touch, talk to, laugh with, smell (all those wonderful things humans get to do to and with the people they love)–that was the last day I ever got to do any of those things with my little brother.

For a long time after that day, Thursdays were hard and it was weird because prior to that, Thursdays were rather delightful. I was in college, working on the weekly entertainment magazine at Arizona State. It came out on Thursdays, which meant, for the space of a day or so I could lay my hands on that tangible product, enjoy for a moment the hard work of the week before (a.k.a freak out over editing mistakes or bad color correction) and take a breath before becoming completely frantic over assigning, writing, editing, coming up with story ideas, etc. for the next issue, on top of a full-time school schedule and two part time jobs. (In truth, I would not trade those frenetic years for anything…perhaps some of you reading this were part of them and can understand why).

Anyway, college time…Thursdays also kind of signaled the beginning of the weekend. Something was always happening on a Thursday. Thursdays were good days for the most part.

Not that one.

I remember walking out of the hospital on that particular Thursday, it was a fucking perfect day…one of those Arizona spring days in which the relentless sun is just making everything look so shiny and alive rather than wilted, brown or sunburnt like the oh-holy-hell-i-live-in-Dante’s-Inferno days that summer in Phoenix brings.

But that Thursday’s perfect sunshine was just so out of place, so disconcerting. I remember walking to the car from the hospital slightly dazed, seeing people and cars and feeling the sunshine and thinking “oh yeah that’s right, all this is still going on, how odd, how odd that all of this is still happening out here, when my brother is up there in that room not breathing anymore.”

And he wasn’t. I knew he wasn’t. I was there. We were all there. We watched him stop breathing. No hope of a mistake, no moment of denial on being told the news that your brother is dead. Nope. Just pure saw-it-with-my-own-eyes confirmation.

He just stopped breathing.

On a Thursday. A bright, sunny April Thursday in Phoenix. And the world kept on going without him.

We’ll all stop breathing someday, and the world will just keep on going, the sun will just keep on shining without us. It’s a humbling and daunting thought.

I’m not trying to be maudlin just for its own sake. I’m getting to a point.

Anyone who knows me probably knows just how random my brain can be. Imagine actually living in it. The internal Jessica I know so well (who doesn’t much look like what I actually see in the mirror or photographs btw), well that poor girl gets the brunt of all the shit I’ve seen and read over three decades, all of it cropping up in my brain at inopportune and opportune times.

Floating to the top of that litany of grey matter of late was this John Donne poem. Even if you’re not a poetry lover (or Hemingway lover for that matter) you probably know of or have had some kind of connection/frame of reference to this poem.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

I started thinking of this poem after I read an article in LA Magazine this month about this blog. I sat up way too late and read practically the whole damn thing Monday night and cried my eyes out. The way this guy tells his story really got me you know? His wife died a day after giving birth to their preemie daughter. He chronicles his heartache and the love for his baby that kept him going in this blog. (It’s a book now too).

For a long time, in his blog and in his mind Matt Logelin was marking Tuesdays the way I did Thursdays. Every Monday he would celebrate the week-birthday of his daughter, then every Tuesday, was the same-week anniversary of his wife’s sudden death, which he witnessed because he was in the room helping her into a wheelchair to see their baby for the first time when a blood clot burst in her lung and she died.

So sad and so uplifting at the same time. This guy, through his blog, discovered he was very much not alone, not an island. Even though the person he wanted, the person who should have been beside him charting a course through parenthood, was missing, he was not alone. A wealth of family, friends and strangers are part of his story of dealing with loss and going on with his life.

It’s marvelous and devastating to discover how un-alone we are in loss. It’s the oddest kind of catharsis in the world, but I remember feeling it a lot after my brother died and people would tell me stories of losing their own loved ones.

It’s like, something about that kind of a loss just makes us fucking remember that ultimately, we all really do belong to each other more than we don’t and we should probably behave like it more often and with more earnestness than we usually do.

So that Donne poem, in its beatific ubiquity has become a cliche….and while that one proves itself to me to be true over and over again, there’s another cliche that I’ve discovered isn’t quite as true.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds.

In fact, in a way, time opens these particular ones up a little bit more. I mean, 11 years have passed and I still miss Jared every day, still think of him, still wish he were here. Sure, the pain is less, but it’s stabby in a different kind of way because now I have to really grasp to remember what his voice sounds like, what his laugh sounded like, what he smelled like. All those little things that went when he went.

But here’s what I do think is true.

Time plus love. That’s what makes some of the healing happen. Time has stripped me of many of the strongest sensations of my brother, but the love keeps me yearning, keeps me aching for them, and hanging on to that kind of pain is OK with me. That kind of pain is healing, at least for me.

I love him just as much as I did the day he died. Just. As. Much. Even though I haven’t heard his voice in more than a decade and never will again.

And I know… am not an island. (each man’s death diminishes me… for I am involved in mankind).

He’s in here, he’s out there, he’s in all those spaces where the people who have lost someone they love live and work and write and mark the passage of time. We’re not islands, none of us. We’re not floating aimlessly. Shit sucks sometimes. But we have each other. And that’s pretty OK.