On the single bed in Mom’s sewing room were several clear plastic bags filled with fabric remnants. Each remnant had a small red tag stapled to it with its price and length marked in pen as though they’d been tagged and neatly folded for quilters to purchase for their next project. The prices varied from a dime to two dollars.
“Where’d you get these bags of fabric, Mom? Can I use some of it?” I asked, with a fair sense of certainty that she’d found them at a second hand store while shopping with my father and that I could use all that I wanted.
One of my parent’s retirement activities had been to hit all of their favorite stores once a week. In fact, they’d been perusing second hand stores for as long as I could remember. But Mom wasn’t doing a lot of second hand shopping since my father had died six months ago and I didn’t recognize the stuffed bags from previous trips to their home.
“Oh, we must have picked them up at Deseret or Goodwill. Don’t really remember, Jess. You know I don’t remember things these days.”
I knew she wasn’t remembering well these days. I’d asked with a purpose in mind. Was she planning to use the fabric? Or, was it just a find that she’d brought home with nothing particular in mind for its use?
Quilting was a natural thing to do while at my Mom’s home since coming to care for her three months ago. I was immersed in quilting paraphernalia: sewing machines, bolts of fabric, closets full of half started quilts, quilts on the beds, boxes of spooled thread, half a dozen pair of scissors, measuring tapes and tools, rotary cutters, quilting magazines (some fifty years or more old), and piles of fabric remnants in dresser drawers, in plastic containers, and on the single bed in the sewing room.
Mom boasted of being a quilter and her house could certainly attest to the fact. Together we had lots of free time and taking up quilting was relaxing for me to learn and pleasurable for her to watch as I went after the hobby with beginner’s zeal.
“Look at this piece here.” I pulled a small remnant from the bag. “I think I’ll make a quilt with this as a centerpiece”. I loved the images and colors the moment I’d discovered the small remnant a few days previous. The single yard looked like it had been water colored with soft brush strokes and muted colors that created a pleasing palette of singular figures. The red tag on it read, “1 yd/$1”.
The images were of desert colors and desert people: women standing in stair step fashion without any background. Women: standing and at peace. Colors: my favorites in sage, pomegranate, linen, rust, pine, and butter cream. Along the woof of the fabric was the name of the design: Indian Sisters.
“Jess, use whatever you want. I don’t remember where those bags came from but you’re welcome to use any of it.”
Within a month’s time, I outlined a quilt pattern on brown paper. I wanted to incorporate the diagonal look of the standing women and accentuate the color in their clothing with coordinated solids. The border of the quilt would be done in subdued color lines.
Mom and I fell into an easy schedule in the evenings. She loved to watch Family Feud in her big, easy chair while I worked on the quilt. I would lie out all of the fabric pieces I’d gathered and ask her for advice as I began to coordinate the various colors into the design. Mom had a good eye for pattern repetition. She would say, “Jess, I think you need to switch those two colors, don’t you?” I would switch the colors and, more often than not, the change was a good one.
“Jess, where did the fabric come from with the women on it?” she asked one evening.
“I found the fabric in those plastic bags in the sewing room,” I glanced up from the floor where all the fabric was strewn about. I knew better than to say, “Remember?” because I knew she didn’t.
“Oh, that’s right,” she said flatly. Even as short as the month before, Mom still recognized that she was losing her memory. Every time she forgot something, and recognized she’d forgotten, she became embarrassed and she’d quickly come up with an explanation for her lapse in memory. Now I suspected she remembered that she couldn’t remember but her embarrassment was a lot less intense. She was losing track of her memory while also forgetting the reason for her embarrassment.
I’d learned quickly not to remind her of what she couldn’t remember except when she asked where my father was. It seemed merciless not to answer her question without an honest answer.
“Where’s your father? Did he go to the store?”
“He’s not here, Mom.”
“Well, where is he?” She had an edge to her voice that said, “Tell me again because I refuse to believe he’s gone.”
“He died last summer while you were visiting at Stephanie’s house.” My voice had as little intonation as I could possibly interject. Every time I said, “He died” I felt like I was twisting a knife in an open cut and then rubbing salt into the wound.
For months, this reminder would prompt her to launch into the story of my father’s death. I’d heard the story dozens of times, as did many of my parent’s friends and church acquaintances when we’d chance to run into them. I knew her need to tell the story over and over was part of the grieving process.
My father had only been dead six months and likewise it had only been six months since the doctor had confirmed that Mom had Alzheimer’s disease. To be grieving the loss of a spouse of 63 years amidst the agonizing grip of a terminal disease affecting memory was either a cruel hoax or a blessed salve. The meaning was entirely dependant on the event and dialogue at hand and that meaning seemed savagely random. This inconsistency fueled the fire of her loss.
After my father’s funeral, Mom digressed rapidly. For years, my father had covered up for Mom’s progressive memory loss and without him to bolster their united denial she wasn’t able to keep up the ruse for long after he was gone. The denial began to crumble shortly after his ashes were delivered from the funeral home.
Work on the quilt continued as did watching Family Feud. In fact, Family Feud played nearly continual re-runs. If we’d wanted to—and Mom wanted to—we could watch five re-runs of the wretched show every evening. Soon I began to recognize a poison dart generated by the disease: Mom’s cognitive abilities were atrophying. Family Feud was one of the few shows that she could watch and continue to grasp as much as she could of the interplay between the show’s participants. Even then, she began to ask about contestant comments.
“What did he say, Jess? What does that mean?” It wasn’t her hearing that was becoming impaired; it was her ability to track thought process and meaning beyond the concrete. When contestants talked too quickly, Mom wasn’t able to keep up.
One evening, she looked down at the quilt laid out on the carpet. I was learning how tricky it was to make points come together in a triangle pattern on a quilt at the same time I was experiencing how painful it was to watch Mom lose her mind.
“Your father loved that material. I remember when we picked it out.”
“I love it to. It has some of my favorite colors in it.” Initially, I failed to grasp what was happening—she was creating a story when memory failed her. Denial is an insidious companion to pain and anguish even for caretakers. I very nearly said, “Mom, the fabric came from a Goodwill bag upstairs.” But I wouldn’t say that. I didn’t want to break those tenuous threads in Mom’s psyche that was weaving a remembered story of love and affection for her husband who was no longer living.
A month later, the story continued to evolve. I was ripping out a mismatched point on the quilt for the third time while Family Feud host, Steve Harvey, was ribbing a contestant for a silly response. Mom must have missed the exchange that took place on the television because she turned to me instead.
“Your father would be so proud of you! We never thought you would become a quilter. He picked out that fabric and wanted it made into a quilt. I remember when we saw it at the store and he insisted we get it.”
My heart broke anew as I turned to her from where I was seated on the carpet. Mom wasn’t one to tear up, and she most certainly did not cry often, but the smile on her face expressed what tears usually do. The smile was faint and tinged with sorrow. Her grief would come and go with no regard for the present moment like a fog that moves at its own mercy.
“I miss him, Mom. I wish he were here with us. Sometimes when I work on this quilt I think about him and how he would have enjoyed seeing it.”
The next time Mom mentioned the quilt, which was growing in size, I could barely give Mom eye contact without tears welling up and slipping over the rim of my eyelids. It seems the quilt had become a symbol of her connection to my father and I had been woven into the narrative.
“You know, Jess. That was your father’s favorite fabric. I remember shopping with him the day that he chose that very piece. He’d be so proud of you! We never thought you’d become a quilter. You’ve done such a good job on that quilt. I love it.” And all I could do was whisper softly, “Thank you, Mom. I love you, too.”