Swatches of fabric come to me in my mailbox every day now — a brightly patterned piece my friend saved from a trip to Senegal in her 20s; the bandana my cousin’s beloved therapy dog wore to nursing home visits; a tattered old dish cloth embroidered, “Be kind to one another.”
“I’ve been saving this piece all these years for some unknown purpose — which I now know,” wrote my friend Jennifer.
From my local friend Chic comes part of the sweatshirt her brother — activist and Kent State University shooting victim Alan Canfora — wore when he protested. And from my former obstetrician, remnants of the pink cotton examination gowns she had custom-made so her patients wouldn’t have to wear paper.
My cousin’s wife sent a piece of the Depression-era flour sack she found in her old farmhouse. My goddaughter sent pieces of the fabric her now-deceased mother used to cover the dining room chairs we sat in for holiday meals. My hairdresser friend and her healer daughter sent a piece of cloth they consecrated with reiki and essential oils. And a woman I only know through Facebook sent the uniform she wore during the 16 hard years she worked as a custodian and yet survived.
They are pieces painstakingly dug out of attics and from the bottoms of forgotten sewing kits, from old boxes of fabrics bequeathed by grandmothers and from a collection once used to make Barbie clothes.
They are pieces of purpose and meaning and story my friends and family have redesignated for my family’s “healing quilt” — an idea that came to me as I was falling apart at the end of the summer.
Clearly nobody escaped 2020 and 2021 unscathed.
In our family, in addition to a pandemic, we were also navigating my estranged husband’s early onset memory loss and my chronic and debilitating health issues, each situation requiring decisions and doctors, consultants and lawyers and our three children to come home from scattered cities to help.
It was an unprecedented time in the history of our family and friends. Sometimes all we could do was pray.
Now here we were at the end of the summer, preparing to move my children’s father into a facility during the same week as our 34th wedding anniversary, even as my children knew we were also preparing documents for the divorce I’d started moving toward a decade ago.
I thought at times to curl up in the fetal position.
I also thought to mark the moment.
And so two days before what would have been our anniversary, I painted the hair around my face purple.
I put together a collection of prayers and readings and set a tiny altar. I asked as many friends as could to meet me in the back yard to pray and commemorate and uplift.
It was only at the last minute that I thought to ask each to bring a piece of cloth.
At first I asked for 5-by-5 swatches, the idea being to make a uniformly sized and quilt signifying order and pattern, a quilt much like I’d made by hand 20 years ago. But as the pieces rolled in — whole scarves, the entirety of a friend’s shirt that no longer fit, the bandana my 70-year-old friend wore during her “hippie days,” it occurred to me that exactness didn’t matter. What mattered is that each piece had been chosen. What mattered is why and who.
“The cloth examination gowns was my way of showing my patients love — by letting them be covered, warm and protected,” my OB wrote in the note she attached to her pieces. ”I hope the fabric can continue that as part of your healing quilt and that all the stories and fabrics keep you well.”
My friends tell me they spent hours considering the right piece. But rather than out of a sense of duty or burden, choosing the right fabric — sometimes making the right fabric — felt like the act of community and resonant love they had been longing to give.
“This is as life-giving for me as I think it might be for you,” wrote one friend.
To date, I estimate I have some 225 pieces. They sit beside my bed in bags, notes still attached to each piece. I bring them out at key times, once during a blood transfusion in the ER when I shared each piece with my daughter who had come to sit with me.
I don’t know when I will get around to putting it all together, especially since pieces continue to come in. I may enlist the help of an Amish quilter who helped me finish my last quilt. The quilt may end up being the size of Montana. For now, I bask in the presence of meaning and care that has been called into our family. The pieces sitting in bags beside my bed feel like life and breath and love.
One of the first pieces I received came from my good friend Suzanne, who sent a square cut from the now worn linens she and her husband slept on during their early years of marriage. The fabric is so soft. I close my eyes and hold it to my cheek.