I still feel nauseous when I think about it.
Four years ago, when my mom died, the assisted living facility where she lived gave me 30 days to pack her belongings and move them out of her small apartment. As much as it seemed like 30 days was a long time, it wasn’t.
We had relocated back to New England from Florida, a few months prior, and some boxes remained unpacked as we struggled with the transition. I felt like I had completely lost my sense of “home” and couldn’t imagine how, at 86, she must have felt during this very challenging transition. I had hoped she would have lived longer — being closer to the places she knew best and the friends she loved.
After she died, 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. They had just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary when dad died, but mom asked me to hold onto his ashes saying “don’t bury him until we can go together”. She battled vascular dementia, an ascending aortic aneurysm, and community-acquired pneumonia dying in her sleep early on a cold morning in February.
Later that week, I sat on her bed looking at the boxes she had, struggling to figure out where to start; struck with grief. As the days progressed, sometimes I knew immediately what to keep and what to donate. Other times, when I would open a closet or a drawer or look at a picture, the immense sorrow that went with missing mom would continue.
Every time I opened the door to her closet and looked at her clothes, I felt sick. My sadness went on for another week and became more uncomfortable until I knew I had to do something because I was running out of time.
I took all of her clothes out of the closet and separated the ones I could donate from the ones I knew I needed to keep because of all of the memories they carried with them. Slowly and meticulously, I went through piles and piles of clothes.
When people die, I heard that 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 distant 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 mostly bright colors; mom loved 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, my memories came flooding back. I saw the shirt she had on when we sat on the back deck of the boat cooking dinner as we looked out over the harbor in Block Island, and then one she was wearing more recently when we cruised around the neighborhood in our golf cart in Florida. I saw the one she was wearing when we sat together on a bench eating lunch as we looked out over the intercoastal waterway watching the dolphins. That shirt was a “must-have” in the quilt because of how beautiful that day was.
Looking at the pile of clothes and remembering those days, I realized that, as sad as I felt, everything would eventually be okay. I wasn’t sure, I felt a little better, but I still really missed mom.
“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 explain why but the thought of some of mom’s bright colors going into making a quilt for another person — another family, seemed like a perfect idea. I thought of it as a nice way to pay her kind gesture forward — by contributing to the quilts she made for others.
Aristotle once said “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” I felt that 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 two large duffle bags with the clothes for the quilts and dropped them off. A few days later, when they were ready, I took them to FedEx and sent them to my new favorite Quilter in Virginia.
There were only two additional emails from our Quilter which followed my initial call. When she asked about an idea for a pattern, I sent her a photo I had of a quilt that mom’s grandmother had made for her. When we discussed size, I told her that a 60-inch by 60-inch quilt would be perfect and asked if she could make two of them, one for my brother and one for myself. I also told her to take her time as I wasn’t in a rush and knew that our loss’s most difficult memories were in good hands.
Six months later, I received an email informing me that our quilts were ready and on their way to my home in New Hampshire.
“I hope you like them,” she wrote.
Since sending her the two duffle bags of clothes, I had consistently thought the day I received them would be like Christmas morning. I knew I would receive a beautiful gift but had no idea how they would look.
They would be sent by a woman I’ve never met, who had agreed to preserve the legacy of someone she has never met whom I loved very much. Sometimes the world is impressive.
The quilts arrived in October. It was precisely like Christmas morning, and I couldn’t help but stare at them because of how beautiful they were (and are). I took pictures and sent them to friends as I was so impressed with the result. The hand stitching was lovely, as was the juxtaposition of color and texture in the materials used.
I told one of my friends, “it feels like I’m looking at mom’s legacy in color and texture.” I remembered that poem, “The Dash,” about the quality of your life from when you are born until the time you die but in the form of the colors, textures, and fabric we wear.
When I think of all of the decisions I’ve made since mom died, having our two quilts made was by far, one of the best. I challenge you to consider where your thoughts go the next time someone mentions the importance of “living your dash.” If you’re like me, maybe the subsequent thoughts you have will be more related to colors, texture, 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.
Ever feel like you’re struggling to keep up with the demands of your career or feeling stressed and burnt out? You’re not alone. More professionals are in high-stress careers that are affecting their health and well-being. Let’s fix this. S.A. Leys is a Consultant and High-Performance Coach for professionals. Need help? Visit http://susanleys.com
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