So often, I question my choices. Some of them are impossible to recant. It’s a matter of gathering all the information I can at the moment, measuring the options, and then making a leap of faith.
And some of those choices are fraught with emotion, which is what I faced as I stood in the closet, looking at Larry’s shirts, hanging exactly where he left them.
Let me take you back to a cruise ship in the Caribbean, some ten years ago. Larry and I had booked back-to-back cruises, and had sailed the first ten days with friends from Canada. They’d returned home, and other friends had joined us for the second cruise. But the first one had taken about all the energy Larry could muster. We were both alarmed at how quickly his breathing became labored. And having been told at an early age that his condition was terminal, we were both concerned that this was the end. We spent the trip saying our goodbyes over tears and coffee for breakfast each day. And then we pressed on and savored each moment of the day. Larry was pretty sure he wasn’t ever going to return home. He had resigned himself to dying on the ship. That was Our Little Secret from our friends. And while Larry held up the pretense and made sure to put on his best face for our friends, it was a bit more than I could shoulder.
Of course I confided in the folks traveling with us. Very much on the QT, but they were tremendously supportive. And Larry and I continued to make sure nothing was left unsaid between us, those tender moments in the early hours. We took a lot of comfort in the absolute certainty that we were in love and had no regrets. Ten years later, I have to say, those days were powerful lessons for us, and the impact of those tearful mornings enriched our marriage like nothing else could have.
After coffee, it would take Larry a while to get his day started. He would begin the morning mostly in slow motion, and then there were medications and breathing treatments before he would shower and dress and emerge from the cabin to greet the day. I took that time to abscond to the upper deck where I could sit with another cup of coffee and my journal, where I could pour out my angst without upsetting him.
I met a young woman on the deck. She had a willing ear and I had a need to share my story and unloaded the whole thing on this girl, as yet unmarried and childless and with little to prepare her for this middle-aged woman’s trauma. But she listened with care, offered what comfort and kindness she could. And she let me talk. And we decided to keep in touch.
Fast forward a million years or ten, and I was standing in the closet trying to force myself to take Larry’s shirts off the hangers, fold them up, and donate them to charity. I couldn’t do it. I walked out. And when I sat down with my ipad and signed into facebook, there was my young friend – now ten years older and wiser and married and a busy mother of two. I’ve been following her for a very long time, and periodically comment on her posts, which are usually filled with self-deprecation and wry humor and a healthy dose of dismay at the workaday life of a mom. But this day, she was posting about making quilts, about, “…a quilt made from a sweet mama’s dress. She was taken from her babies too soon.” And I knew exactly what I wanted to do with those shirts.
There was a lot of back and forth discussion, about how these are not artful quilts, but rag quilts. And about how I thought the backing should feel like a teddy bear, and whether the pockets should be there, and about stars. The stars are just especially meaningful to me. I never doubted that I was doing the right thing. The decision had the sense of peace about it that you only get when you know you’re heading in the exact right direction. It didn’t matter that she only makes rag quilts. To me, that meant that I was supposed to get a rag quilt. Because it is imbued with history – not only the history of Larry wearing those shirts, of buying them and washing them and packing them into suitcases as we went off to see the world together, but also including the history made on that cruise ship of tears with coffee and a sweet understanding young woman. We are all in this quilt.
Today, it arrived. I admit, I was nervous about opening the box. I opened all the rest of the mail first. I even read the advertisements. Finally, I carefully cut the tape at the end of the box and oh so gently opened it. Inside, naturally there was a sweet note (tied with a shell and a piece of coral – this is Florida) tied with ribbon around the tissue paper wrapping. I eased out the quilt and my heart skipped a beat.
There. Familiar patterns in a jumble of fabric. Memories rushing in of the time I fell asleep against this shirt or that, a flash of a day at the beach, or a chili party, or the times I nagged him to button his pocket so it would look tidy.
I pulled it to my face and cried hard. The backing is plush and heavy and thick and beautiful and feels just exactly precisely and perfectly like a teddy bear. The way a rag quilt is constructed means it’s just as warmly welcoming on the front, too. It’s magnificent. More than I could ever have expected. Stars are fashioned from the cloth of one shirt onto another. It’s all there, all the different patterns and colors and the memories of every shirt are seared into my skin as I’ve held my husband in my arms so many, many times, in each one.
Through a veil of tears, I saw an unbuttoned pocket on the quilt. A smile for Kelly. I had told her I would sleep with this quilt next to my pillow, and she had expressed concern about buttons stuck on my face in the morning. I gently buttoned the pocket and moved to button another. But wait. There’s a bit of plastic sticking out. What’s this? Oh. Oh, my. It’s a bag with a wadded tissue in it. Well damn. I guess I hadn’t laundered that shirt. Because Larry was always jamming a wadded fresh tissue in his pocket, heading out the door. She had put the pocket into the quilt. And put the tissue, carefully wrapped, back into the pocket. There is a heart there that goes beyond my understanding. This woman is an angel. Thank God I recognized her when I met her the first time. I asked God for an angel to look after me now and then when Larry died. Today, it was Kelly Gaudette. I tucked the bag, with its precious cargo, back into the pocket, and oh so carefully buttoned it closed.