Postcards of Grief

Mourning is a process.

Comments on breast cancer by proxy, written by a woman coping with the loss of her mother.

Monday, March 29, 2004

For the feet of the brave and true

Back in October, in my fit of rage over Mom’s huge tumor marker jump, I knit her a hat. Wow! you say. Working your anger out through a hat! How hippy health freak pacifist of you! But the fact of the matter is that I drank a lot too. Despite drinking, not eating, and not sleeping, the hat turned out quite nicely.

Earlier in the month, I had purchased eight skeins of thick 90/10 alpaca/wool yarn. Having received a gift certificate for the snobby knitting store that was due to expire and knowing that I would never spend that much per skein again in my life, I went for it and chose eight different and deep colors. Different fibers hold color differently, and the character of the color changes between yarns, even with the same dyes. Wool does well with bright primary colors, but it can also hide the essence of a color so deep within its strands that the garment gives way to some kind of meaning or purpose. With wool, the partially knitted item is distinct from the yarn. That’s when the sweater practically knits itself. Alpaca doesn’t hold bright colors, and it doesn’t hide the color and separate the yarn from the piece. It grasps the color and pulls it in until you’re knitting color instead of fiber. Its colors are dynamic, and every time I changed rooms, the hues migrated with me. The yarn is light and soft, and it never pulls too tightly.

So when I began knitting a hat for my mother, knowing it needed to be thick and soft against her bald head, knowing I needed rich, deep colors, knowing I had an assortment of luxury yarn in my knitting basket, I went for the alpaca. I chose four colors: dark purple, olive green, gray-green, and red. Around the middle of the hat, in huge, red, block letters: CANCER SUCKS. I knitted and knitted and changed colors and knitted. I marked the pattern for the letters on graph paper and followed it back and forth. No missed stitches, no poor counting. Just right. It was perfect. The whole thing took a weekend.

She wore it all the time. I intentionally made it wide enough to fit around her head with very little tension so that it wouldn’t be itchy at all. The bottom was wide enough to fold up and cover CANCER SUCKS in case she was concerned about someone being offended. She wasn’t, though, and she wore it everywhere—that big, bright, blatantly grouchy hat succinctly divulging her innermost thoughts.

When I realized just how close she was to dying, I brought my leftover red and purple (two of Mom’s favorite colors) to their house. I wanted her to have something I knitted, but I didn’t want to lose that hat. My good old fashioned Midwestern guilt had kicked in, and I felt so selfish at not wanting to lose the hat. So I made her two socks, and after I told Dad and Brooke my thought process, they both agreed that the hat wouldn’t do Mom any good, and I really, truly needed it for myself. The socks are red and purple around the ankles with the heels and toes purple and the foot red. The red that had danced around the color wheel from brick to magenta was as red as red could be against that purple. The purple had seemed almost black on the hat, but its royal aubergine gleam was clear with coupled with the red.

I knitted like a fiend her last few days. Every so often, I pulled a partially-knit sock over her foot and asked how it felt. When I finished the first, I put it on her and left it there several hours. The second, however, wasn’t finished until the day she died, completed some time between describing Mom’s volunteer work to the “life story professional” and choosing one of the many caskets displayed via PowerPoint. We had chosen Mom’s outfit before we left for that meeting: red cashmere turtleneck and pale beige linen slacks. After weaving the ends in and clipping the excess yarn with Brooke’s Swiss army knife, I placed them on the pile of clothes, and we left.

Some time near the end of the first visitation, the socks came into the conversation. I was sitting around with several friends, and I wondered aloud if they had actually put the socks on her. One jokingly offered his flashlight so I could look, but it turns out he didn’t actually have a flashlight in his car. A friend on the other side of me cleared his throat and said he had one in his coat. I demanded immediate possession of it, and told the crowd to cover me, that I was going in to check on the socks. They did, I did, and they had.

The next thing I knew, several people wanted to see the socks, so I called them all up to look as a crowd. Mom, always curious and mischievous, nodded her approval from the great beyond. Brooke pulled her mother aside to tell her that I had made the socks and was now showing them to people, and her mom wanted a peek before they left. I demanded the flashlight again and snuck back over to the casket to lift the white drape and illuminate Mom’s feet.

And she started to cry. I still don’t know why exactly. I don’t know if it has anything to do with her having taught me to knit. I don’t know if it comes from her sadness at the impending loss of her last older relative who happened to die later that night. I don’t know if it’s because of the openly expressed tenderness of preparing a body for burial. Maybe it was all of those things. Maybe it was something else altogether.

I think about those socks and wish I had a picture of them, but enough of my friends and family saw them to verify their existence. I still have the hat, and I have pictures of it on Brooke’s head and on Mom’s. The purpose of the socks is to keep her warm, and the hat’s is to keep her in my mind. I don’t know if the socks are doing their job, but the hat is.


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