I still feel nauseous when I think about it.
My mom had died the week before and I had been given 30 days to pack her belongings and move them out of her small apartment at her assisted living facility. As much as it seemed like 30 days was a long time, it wasn’t. There were still boxes that had not been unpacked from our move from Florida and boxes that were still unopened at my apartment in New Hampshire. I felt like I had completely lost my sense of “home” and couldn’t come close to imagining how, at 86, she must have felt during this difficult transition.
But I realized, I just needed to stay in her room at the assisted living place and finish everything while we also planned a memorial service for her and my dad. Some boxes were easy, sometimes, I knew immediately what to keep and what to let go of. Other times, when I would open a closet or a drawer or look at a picture, I felt like I was going to throw up right then and there from the combination of sorrow and grief mixed with the intense sadness that went with missing mom.
Every time I opened the door to her closet and looked at her clothes, I felt sick.
This went on for another week and became more and more uncomfortable until I knew I had to do something because I was running out of time.
I took all of the clothes out of her closet and separated the ones I could donate and the ones I had no idea what to do with because of all of the memories they carried with them. Slowly, I went through piles and piles of clothes.
I had heard that when people die, there are websites listed on the internet where you can make quilts out of clothes. As I skimmed from site to site looking, they all seemed robotic and impersonal. When I told one of the staff members at the assisted living place that I was thinking about this, she said: “I have a relative who makes quilts.. all by hand.. they’re beautiful; let me ask her”.
A few days later she returned with a phone number and said, “she hasn’t made a lot of quilts but would be willing to help you, just call her”.
So as I sat on mom’s bed among the piles of clothes, I called her and introduced myself and asked her about her willingness to help me with a quilt. She agreed and told me about the quilts she would be able to make and asked: “are her clothes dark colors?”.
I looked around at the piles of (mostly) shirts alongside me. “No,” I told her, “there are several really bright colors; she really liked bright colors.” I hadn’t realized how bright the colors were, or how distinct some of the patterns were, but as I looked at them, memories came back of us sitting on the back deck of the boat cooking dinner as we looked out over the harbor in Block Island or, more recently, cruising around our neighborhood in the golf cart in Florida or sitting together on a bench eating lunch as we looked out over the intercoastal waterway watching the dolphins.
Looking at them and remembering those days, I started to realize that, as sad as I felt, everything would maybe eventually be okay. I wasn’t sure, I felt a little better, but I still really missed mom.
“And what should I do with the remainder of the clothes that I use or the ones that I don’t?” she asked.
“Keep them,” I said, definitively. I couldn’t really explain why but the thought of some of her bright colors going into making a quilt for another person – another family, seemed like a really good idea to me.
Aristotle once said “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”, I felt that by spreading all of the bright and dark materials, colors, and textures that mom wore broadened the perspective she brought to us all.
When I ended my conversation with my new quilter friend, the intense sadness I felt became a little more manageable.
A friend had told me about a “fluff and fold” place about a mile away so the next morning I filled 2 large duffle bags with the clothes for the quilts and dropped them off. My brother would be flying in to help in a few days so it was nice to have everything a little more manageable beforehand. Her large collection of cookbooks had been dropped off at the local library. Coats and dishes had been donated to the church and furniture had been donated to a thrift shop in town.
While I still had 3 long “to do” lists hanging on the door to one of her closets, my thinking was, if I kept to the pace I was at, I would be finished in less than 30 days.
When I picked up my brother from the airport, we stopped for dinner and then drove back to the assisted living place. On the way, I pulled into the “fluff and fold” laundromat and said “I’ll be right back, I just have to pick something up” and ran in to get mom’s clothes. From there we drove to Fed-ex where I weighed the two fully stuffed duffle bags and sent them out.
“What are you doing?’ my brother asked, “what is that?”
“I’m sending mom’s clothes to Virginia, I have an idea”, I told him, preferring to wait till they came back before I told him the rest of the plan – about this project I was working on that had made this huge cloud of grief a little easier to manage. I thought it would help him too – to have quilts made for both of us out of the materials, colors, and textures from mom’s (and some of dad’s) clothes.
There were only two additional emails from the Quilter which followed our initial call. Questions about patterns (I sent her the photo I had of a quilt that mom’s grandmother had made for her), the sizes of each quilt and my budget followed by many months of silence until just the other day when I received an email informing me that they were done and on their way to me in New Hampshire.
“I hope you like them,” she wrote.
Since sending the two duffle bags of clothes out, I had consistently thought that the day I received them would be like Christmas morning. Knowing I would be receiving a really great gift while having no idea what they would look like.
From a woman I’ve never met, who has agreed to preserve the legacy of someone she has never met whom I loved very much. Sometimes the world is amazing.
The quilts arrived in October. It was exactly like Christmas morning and I couldn’t help but stare at them because of how beautiful they are. I took pictures and sent them to friends as I was so impressed with the end result. The hand stitching was beautiful as was the juxtaposition of color and texture in the materials that were used.
After about a week of being completely in awe of how beautiful they are, I took them to a friend for show and tell. I said “it feels like I’m looking at a legacy in color and texture”. Sort of like that poem, “the dash” about the quality of your life from the time you are born until the time you die but in the form of the colors and the materials we wear. And honestly, as I explained this, I got a little bummed out when I realized that if this was my quilt, it would probably consist of a lot of black, grey and navy blue.
The picture of the quilt (top photo) is just a small fraction of the two quilts. And a row or two down on the right-hand side are two of dad’s pajamas – I was glad we still had them and could include them in both quilts. I decided that when I have to decide which quilt to keep, this (top photo) will be the one I hold onto because of the animals in the square, the abundance of paisley and the presence of mom’s Christmas t-shirt with Santa’s on it. It also has the shirt she was wearing on one of the best days we had together right before we left Florida to head home to New England.
When I think of all of the decisions I’ve made since mom died, having these quilts made is one I will never regret. And while the goal of this post is not to get overtly depressing, I would like to challenge you to consider where your thoughts go the next time someone talks to you about “living your dash” – because if you’re like me, then maybe the subsequent thoughts you have will be more related to colors and texture and animals and Santas and the time you had that shirt on when you did that thing that you remember because it was such a great time.
Live your life; foster your legacy.