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What to Make When You’re Dying

When do I leave behind my sewing queue, and what do I do when that time comes? By Christina Bain.

Posted in: Makers & Crafts • August 31, 2020

I am primarily a garment sewist, one of those who would love to make their entire wardrobe, from shirts to pants to undergarments.

The clothes I make are the first ones that I reach for in my closet, the ones that fit me best and make me feel the coolest when I wear them. I am a planner, so I have databases listing all of my fabric and all the patterns I own, which I cross-reference in my sewing queue, my favorite table of all. Currently, it has twenty-five entries, projects planned out with pattern and fabric matched, and notes on everything from the notions needed for the project to whether the pattern needs to be traced or not. I have supplies and plans enough to add dozens of beautiful garments to my wardrobe and keep my machine and me busy for a couple years. Unfortunately, I may not be alive in a couple years, because I have chronic (aka incurable) cancer.

I was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 31, and in August, I reached my five-year cancerversary. I don’t care to list the aspects of my life that have changed since then, but in some ways, my sewing hasn’t, since I have learned to sew clothing during the same half-decade that I have been sick. I have had a couple brief stretches of remission during that time, and they contained plenty of sewing, but most of it has been done during active cancer treatment ranging from radiation to surgery to chemotherapy. There have been enough good days in there to practice and learn and hone my skills and make items I am proud to show off.

This summer, I started on a new chemotherapy—it is the last of the line of approved drugs for my cancer. After this, my only options are clinical trials. So the question that began humming in the background when I learned my disease is chronic has been elbowing its way to the forefront: what do you make when you’re dying?

I believe that my sick body is worth making clothing for. Yet, at a certain point it feels wasteful to create a garment for a body that won’t be around to use it for very long. My doctors can’t tell me how long I will live; the statistics do not suggest I have another half-decade left. So when do I leave behind my sewing queue, and what do I do when that time comes?

I do have one project in mind, and it gets to my sewing roots and the first thing I learned to make—quilts. I want my immediate family to have physical reminders of my love for them, something they can wrap around themselves as proof that I existed and spent my time thinking of them.

I started on my husband’s quilt years ago, cutting all the pieces and making a test block, and then I set it aside for later. Now that I no longer have the luxury of later, my husband’s quilt top is done, and I am preparing for the challenge of free-motion quilting a full-sized quilt on my home machine. It is worth it to tackle that challenge to make every detail the way he wants. That is the point—to show up for him now while I can, to pour my attention and affection into this object that will have to stand in for me over the decades he will have without me.

After his quilt is completed, I will work with my 8-year-old daughter to design hers. I bought some fabric before she was born with the idea of making a quilt for her big-girl room. I imagined how I would surprise her with it and she would appreciate it so much because Mom made it and we would feel so close. That was back before I understood that children have adult-sized opinions in their tiny bodies and that she would hate that kind of surprise and to be left out of the planning. I want this quilt to be a true gift of comfort to her; I don’t want to force her to use the fabric from my pregnant imaginings. I am happy to buy her whatever fabric she likes for the quilt of her dreams, and let that old fabric stay in my stash a little longer.

Stash is another question that lingers about sewing and the end of my life. Will my fabric stash be a burden for my family after I pass? Or will it be a gift for there to be items around for my daughter to use one day and feel connected to me? My personal belief system doesn’t contain an afterlife, so I don’t believe that I will see what she does after I am gone. She can unwind all my thread and use my best fabric scissors on cardboard to punish me for leaving her if that is what she needs at the time, it won’t hurt my feelings. Or she can use the precious yards I was nervous to touch and make herself something so beautiful it makes her father cry, and it won’t swell my heart with pride. I have always dreamed of sewing being a way we bond, but we will have so little time to do it together in person, and I know I have no control over what makes her feel close to me after I die.

What I want to do is pre-sew garments for her for the future. Clothing for years from now—little gifts from Mom to surprise and delight her. It is so risky, though. Will they fit? Will she like them? Will they be little bombs of guilt that she feels she should wear? Will they feel like judgments of who I expected her to be? I just want to be able to be with her throughout her life. And I can’t. And sewing, which can mend so much, cannot fix that.

It is time to make some updates to my sewing queue. I need to add in the quilts for my husband and daughter. And I need to make sure the items I am most excited about are up top, because I may not get to the bottom of the list. I still have time to enjoy the power of sewing and make garments that improve my life. But I also have to accept that its power has limits. It may lessen the pain my family will feel at my death, but it can’t prevent it, extinguish it. It is going to hurt us all. I can merely use it to provide them ways to feel connected to my memory. And that’s going to have to be enough.

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