I had a quilt made out of my parents’ shirts.
And their buttons, some gold, some brown.
An apron was thrown in, too.
My mother died in 2002 of lung cancer, never smoked a day in her life, and my father died in 2007 of prostate cancer.
We donated bags and bags of their clothes to Goodwill, but some clothes I just couldn’t let go of.
I kept a funny purple sweatshirt of my mother’s with two grinning dolphins on it. I kept a sweatshirt of my father’s with a picture of the Oregon Coast. Both told me something about them. I kept a number of cotton shirts, especially my father’s.
The clothes were thrown into a black bag for awhile in the attic, but that started to seem morose to me, depressing, to keep my parents’ clothes. It seemed sad. They would never wear them again, so what to do?
I thought of a quilt. Could the shirts be used in one? I paid my friend, Barbara Wright, quilter extraordinaire, to sew it up for me. Not only did I trust her quilting skills, I trusted her as a person. She knew how precious that quilt would always be to me. Barbara said she thought of my parents in her sewing room with her when she put it together, which meant that every stitch was done with care.
I didn’t tell her what I wanted in a design, I trusted he and her artistic abilities. I cried when I saw it the first time. Just cried. It was perfect.
I remember my mother wearing the apron, with the red and white stripes, when she baked bread. I remember her teaching high school English wearing the taupe shirt with the lace. I loved the whispy flowered shirt she wore because it was so her – natural, colorful. When I look at that square I remember us having coffee together.
Although she had little money when we were younger, and often little money as a girl, in later years she became something of a clothes horse – probably to make up for all the years of feeling broke. The burgundy sweater with the gold buttons, which are now sewn onto the border of the quilt, was so classy, like her.
My mom, a petite woman with a huge smile and gold eyes, heralding from the south, Ireland, England, and Scotland, is the strongest woman I have ever met.
She did not exactly lie when she was diagnosed with cancer in her lung, spine, and brain, after breaking a vertebrae in her back, but let’s just say she gave the impression that she was going to go through chemo and radiation and be fine.
She told us her doctors were very “positive.” They were some of the best doctors in the state, from the same unit that had treated Lance Armstrong. We were hopeful.
She, however, knew she had about 18 months to live. Her lung cancer doctor told her that on the first visit to her.
“The average person with your diagnosis lives 18 months.” That’s what she heard, alone, in her doctor’s office because she wouldn’t let anyone come in with her.
My mom didn’t tell us that. She put her chin up, smile on, and kept going, spending time with her four children and grand children. When my dad, stricken, asked her what she wanted to do, she told him she wanted to go to Switzerland.
He gave her a hug, nodded, and went upstairs. When he came back down, the Switzerland trip was planned, and they went. She was gone three weeks, the rest of the time she dedicated to her family and wonderful, true friends. Amazing.
We all have been asked what we would do if we knew we were terminal. My mother quietly answered the question: She would be with her family and friends. She would make one last trip. She would love her life, be grateful for the time, and be strong.
Oh yes, that woman was strong. The southern belle pounded more steel into her spine and carried on, no whimpering or whining. She smiled, she laughed. When new medical reports said that the cancer was not responding to treatment she waited until after Christmas to tell us so she would not “spoil the holiday.” On Jan. 3 she died. She had not told us that truth quite yet, either. We learned it later.
You could call it a lie by omission, but this is how I see it: Everyone has a right to die as they want. Everyone has a right to privacy about their medical history and prognosis. Everyone has a right to share what they wish, and keep to themselves what they don’t want others to know.
She made her choices for her own personal reasons. She wanted to protect us, shield us. She did not want her relationships with us to change. She didn’t want us to treat her as if she was dying, but as if she had years to live.
I accept, and understand, her choice.
We sure loved her.
When my mother was in a coma in the hospital waiting for my sister to arrive before she died, I held her hand. Yes, I wrote that sentence the right way, my mom did wait for my sister to fly in from Montana. Forty five minutes after my sister arrived and told her she loved her, my mom’s body shut down.
I wanted to say something profound to her beyond, “I love you so much, mom,” amidst all those tubes and machines and doctors and nurses in and out. All I could think of to say was, “We sure had a lot of fun didn’t we, mom?”
But it was the truth. My mother and I had a lot of fun.
After my mother died my father told me, “God has blessed me. You have to accept the good times and the bad times in life, Cathy. You must accept both. God has a plan for me.” But, man, losing my mother brought my father to his knees. He never, ever stopped missing her. Never even took off his wedding ring in the five years she was gone from him.
I asked him once if the grief became easier to bear in the years since my mom died. He said every day was the same, the grief was as bad as the day she died. You wouldn’t know it. He, too, put his chin up, shoulders back. He was a man in all definitions of ”man.”
My dad’s camping shirts are in the quilt. I love the stripes and plaids. I remember him smiling when we were at the top of Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island. He saw God in nature and he loved both God and nature. I remember him wearing the striped shirt when he set a baked Alaska on fire for my 40th birthday in front of 70 people. I remember him wearing his “Hawaiian” shirt to barbeques at our house.
When he was diagnosed with metastisized prostate cancer, I was with him in the doctor’s office. He was in a great deal of pain, but still joked with the doctor. I knew a lot more about cancer by then, having also lost two friends since my mother. I knew right then he had 18 months. He lived 17 months. He lived the rest of his life exactly like my mother did. With courage, zest, love, laughter, enjoying every day.
I remember we went to an appointment at Good Sam’s in Portland one afternoon. I think he was wearing a blue striped shirt that day, but I was too upset to remember.
He wanted to go to Papa Hayden’s afterwards because they have delicious desserts. The doctor’s appointment was heart wrenching. It was one of those, ‘We can’t do anything else,’ kind of appointments. I cried when we arrived at the restaurant.
My dad became all red and teary as I cried. Not because he was dying and he knew it. He cried because I cried. He did not like to see his children cry. I told him that I was trying to be strong, and if he didn’t see me cry, it didn’t mean I wasn’t crying inside. He said he knew. He loved me. He picked up the menus and said, “What would you like?” We ordered delicious desserts, which is what he wanted. I cried into the delicious dessert.
When it was time for hospice, he did not have time to meet with them. He was too busy seeing friends, going to lunches and parties, visiting family, and traveling to see his brother. Hospice actually had to come to my house to talk to me to get the information.
Can you imagine? My father did not have time to die.
The last coherent thing my father did was to stare at these huge frames with a hundred photos of our family and friends. He stood and stared and smiled and laughed and grew teary. He told us about the memories the photos were bringing up.
Two of my girlfriends were there with me. They had come to make him breakfast, they called me because clearly he’d had some sort of stroke the night before.
We watched him remembering his life and loves in the photographs, with such serene joy and peace, and we stood quietly.
Not so much longer he was slipping into a coma.
My parents lived beautifully. Both of them had difficult, trying childhoods in many ways.
But those hard years taught them to treat others with compassion and sympathy. They were never judgmental. They were kind and thoughtful and when life got bad, they rose to the occasion and met it head on, with grace and dignity.
They died beautifully, too. They did not believe that when you are dying you give up all responsibilities to everyone you love. Quite the opposite. They taught me that your responsibilities to your loved ones never end.
Both of them offered us comfort and more happy memories during that time. They offered us reassurance and courage. They offered us lessons on how to live, and how to die, which we’re all going to do one day, whether we want to or not.
They offered us the most important thing – everlasting love. The type of love that flows back and forth from heaven.
And now, without sounding like a sap, I see that love in my quilt. I seem them in my quilt.
For Bette and Jim….