While I was caring for my Mom last year after my Father died, I took up the hobby of quilting. I’ve spoken about it before: how quilting helped me get through a very difficult time with my Mom who’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease on the same day we held my father’s funeral, now two years ago.
That wasn’t an easy year. I expected my background in mental health would sustain and inform me about how to care for another human being on a daily basis, twenty four seven, who was succumbing to such a paralyzing and bewildering disease. Alzheimer’s Disease wipes away brain cells as it moves counterclockwise around the brain erasing memory, good judgment, healthy inhibition, recognition, and eventually, language.
When I arrived at my parent’s home and settled into caring for my Mom, I quickly realized that I needed something to keep me busy. I’ve never been much of a housekeeper, neither is my Mom, so in this regards we were a good match for each other. Waken at 6:00 am and want to clean house? Nope. There must be something better to do.
Quilting was an obvious choice because as I wandered my parents five bedroom home, there was evidence of quilting everywhere. One thing I noticed in particular was that many of the closets, dresser drawers, and plastic containers stacked in the closets were full of fabric. I began to investigate.
“Hey, Mom. Look at all of these leaves. What were you gonna do with them?” I handed a stack of fabric leaves to her all sewn onto 12-inch squares of muslin. There were three-dozen of them.
It may seem like an obvious question. Of course, she was going to make a quilt with them. But as I began to dig deeper in the nooks and crannies of my parent’s home, I began to see evidence of something odd that I never noticed before. Not that I hadn’t noticed fabric stuffed everywhere but I’d never looked closer to see that so many of the piles of would-be quilts were in utero and had never actually been birthed into finished quilts.
There were dozens of future quilts in various stages of the creative process. Matter of fact, there were more undone quilts than there were finished ones. Since I was now living with my Mom, it was an easy question to ask her. Before, when I would visit my parents at the time my father was still alive, it felt intrusive to say, “Mom, what are you gonna do with all of this fabric?” My parents were living their lives and had been without any of their four children for forty years. Previous to returning home to live with my Mom, I’d be at my parent’s home for temporary visits. I didn’t feel as though the title of ‘daughter’ gave me the right to probe their personal choices. If my Mom wanted to collect fabric, well then, let her collect fabric.
Now, as I was beginning to quilt, with my Mom’s eager blessing (“Jess, I never thought you would become a quilter!”) I was curious. My Mom had always identified herself as a quilter with enough pride and enthusiasm in her voice to indicate it was a beloved hobby. I had never been interested in quilting, so I suppose, I’d never paid much attention to the fact that there were quilts in all manner of disarray throughout the house.
I don’t mean there were fabrics pushed willy-nilly into drawers without any organization whatsoever. My Mom and I were not much for dusting, vacuuming, and cleaning toilets but both of us had a penchant for collecting certain things, be it dishes, clothes, earrings, shoes, or books. Oh yes! With a significant level of fastidiousness the fabrics were folded and stored in labeled boxes, oftentimes color coordinated, with even sample templates of the patterns that would eventually be pieced together into a quilt.
When I asked my Mom, “What were you going to do with these leaves?” it was with an eye for opening up a conversation with her that I’d never had before. I wanted to understand my Mom in a way I’d not quite been able to before now. Why were there so many projects that had never been finished?
The question opened up more than what I’d bargained for. In the haze that Alzheimer’s is, there are moments of clarity that are like golden coins found at the bottom of the ocean depths in the midst of a sunken vessel and I’d chanced upon one.
My Mom took the pile of fabric leaves; all zigzagged in the center of each muslin square, and handled them gently, even lovingly.
“Oh, Jess. I was going to make a quilt with them.”
A quick aside to help you understand why her answer was so heartbreaking: Alzheimer’s is a thief! It takes the ability for nuanced cognition away from its victim and leaves them with a thought process that is a shadow of their former abilities. To make things even more maddening, in the very next breath, the thought process would be back to “normal’ as though the short-circuit never occurred.
These truncated dialogues happened over and over while in conversation with my Mom and there wasn’t a damn thing to be done about it. I hoped in this moment, her thinking would rally, if only temporarily.
“Mom, how come you have so many quilts that you never finished?” I asked the question carefully. My Mom may be losing her mind, but she was aware of tone and accusation, she even looked for it at times, and I didn’t want her to think I was accusing her of being unproductive, or lazy, or undisciplined.
In addition, as a mental health provider it was difficult for me to see her without the psychological bias that suggested unfinished business was unfulfilled desire—my Mom had a difficult time giving good things to herself. I wanted to hear what she had to say rather than what psychological theories told me. My heart was motionless as I waited for her response, my breath caught at the back of my throat.
“Jess, I don’t know why I never finished things.”
Did my Mom just say that? It was unlike my Mom to be vulnerable about whom she perceived herself to be without a veneer of put-down and blame as though her core was flawed. There was no longing or remiss in her voice. She was honest, a ragged honesty that caused me to want to burst into tears. She was real in that moment of not knowing. Her statement wasn’t tinged with guilt, disappointment, or regret. It was a comment that was candid, a candidness that was full of tenderness and without subterfuge.
My immediate reaction was, “Oh, the unfulfilled longing at never quite completing something you say that you love to do!” Yet that was my sentiment, not hers.
“Your father knew that about me when I married him and he accepted me.”
“Did he ever say anything to you about not finishing things?” I’d never noticed the unfinished quilts before but neither had I noticed that my Mom had a difficult time completing things. It was only here and now, interacting with her on a daily basis, that I came to see how many projects had never been finished.
“No, he let me be who I am.” An edge of defensiveness had crept into her voice and I knew, Alzheimer’s or no, the conversation was over.
“Can I make a quilt with the leaves?”
“Oh, you don’t have to, Jess, but you can if you want to” and there was the hint of a smile in her voice as she handed the pile of quilted leaves back to me.
It was the first unfinished quilt that I completed while staying with my Mom. In an unexpected, even crazy kind of way, I was getting to know my Mom in a manner that we had not known each other before. Amidst the forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s there was a pulling away of the veil to show an authenticity in my Mom that hadn’t been present before the disease had moved in. Working on that quilt was a way for me to accept and embrace my Mom and her unfinished business—something she had accepted in herself years before I was able to.