Keith loved plaid shirts. He had plaid of every colour. I counted the long sleeve ones in the closet and stopped when I reached 20 – and that didn’t include the short sleeve plaid shirts he had! My parents once gave him a solid blue shirt for his birthday with a card that said “No more plaid!” (I still have that card stored away safely).One of my many challenges was to figure out what to do with his clothing. Some of it was easy. I was able to give some to my family for them to use (hiking boots and coats, etc), some I knew I had to keep and some I could donate. It only took me 8 months to dwindle down his 6 identical plain white, 100% cotton t-shirts to 3 and another few to get it to 1! (I am amazed at the time and will power and courage and strength and determination it took me to take 6 identical shirts and get it down to 1 – but I had to do it in my time and in my way – no one was going to tell me different)
Our bedroom closet had no doors. Every night when I went to bed, I couldn’t help but stare into the closet, and see his clothes and remember. There was comfort in this. One night, I thought – OK, I am ready to clean out his side of the closet……so I got up and shoved all his shirts to the far side where I couldn’t see them anymore and then crawled back into bed. Now when I looked into the closet all I saw was a gaping hole… it was too much for me…. I immediately got up and moved his clothes back into place. Clearly, I wasn’t ready to cope with this – the time wasn’t right for me.
At some point during those first months, my mother suggested to me making a quilt for the kids out of all Keith’s shirts. It would be something tangible for them – something they could hold onto. Something we could cuddle together with and talk about their Dad. I loved the idea and it somehow made it easier to pack up the shirts.
Over time, I was able to wash the shirts and fold them neatly into a box. There was healing in caring for his well-worn clothing. There was healing in touching, smelling, folding and remembering stories for each shirt.
My mind got thinking about the quilt – what pattern would I create, who would I get to help me (I had never quilted before!) I talked with my sister-in-law (a gifted seamstress) who had me thinking of intricate designs of cell phones and butterflies. I must have been crazy to think I could even pull off such a quilt!
I moved the box of shirts from Alberta to Ontario. I took the time to unpack and wash the shirts, once again lovingly caring for each one. Once again remembering the good times associated with each item….I even packed the boxers he wore under his kilt when we got married! I loving folded each one back up and stored them in the box for another few years.
Eventually, I got to a point where I HAD to do something with all his shirts. It felt wrong that they were being stored in the box. I even became worried that moths had eaten them or that they were getting moldy from being stored so long. The fear almost prevented me from opening the box – I don’t think I could have coped with the loss of his shirts had they been damaged.
I began to talk more and more about making the quilt. I reached out to friends and family and had many suggestions of people who could make the quilt for me. But I knew it was important for me to be a part of the process. I had to be the one to cut the shirts into pieces and then sew them back together. It was important to my grief journey. It was important that the final project was just as much a part of me as it was a part of Keith. It was important to me that my children knew I had made it.
Amazingly, I discovered that my neighbour was an incredible quilter. I ask her if she would help guide me through the process…and also keep me on task so that another 10 yrs wouldn’t pass! Thankfully, she did just that. We created a pattern…a very simple one – one that I could actually do. She taught me how to cut the shirts to maximize the fabric, how to begin to sew them together, seam allowances and the importance of being accurate. And she would ask me at least once a week how my progress was. I felt like a kid getting in trouble for not having my homework completed……but it was exactly what I needed!
Slowly, slowly (over a year) the quilt took shape. I cut each shirt into 8” squares. The few solid shirts he had I cut into strips. I laid out the pattern. Oh, did I mention I had to make 2 quilts – one for each child (give me strength!!!). I ironed each piece, pinned them together and began sewing. With each seam I felt a sense of accomplishment. With each seam I had to rip out, I felt the same sense. I was doing. I was creating. I was completing something that had been rattling around in my head for years. It felt wonderful.
Now, I have to tell you, that I did get someone to attach the back, create the binding and quilt it together – that definitely would have taken me years!! When I picked up the completed quilts, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I had to just sit in my car in the parking lot and be with my emotions. I cried….tears of grief, tears of anger, tears of joy, proud tears. Here I was looking and holding my finished quilts and I wondered how could something that started from a tragedy be turned into something so beautiful that could provide comfort and warmth? I couldn’t wait to see my children’s eyes when I gave it to them.
I believe in timing…..trying to create this quilt 10 or even 5 years ago would never have worked. I wouldn’t have had the patience, the support or the accuracy to construct the quilts. I probably still would have been figuring out how to create that cell phone pattern. It would have been frustrating. I wouldn’t have been something for me to enjoy. For me, it needed to take 10 years to complete. But the sense of pride and fulfillment and satisfaction I feel every time I see my daughter cuddle with it, fills me joy. It made every moment of those 10 years worth it.
My quilt isn’t perfect. The corners didn’t align and it isn’t square, but it is beautiful. It is awesome. It was created by me and my hands. It is made with love – both mine and Keith’s. Each square tells a story and together it holds so many beautiful memories. It is a treasure.
Now, I just need to find the courage to throw out all the remnants of his shirts…