All Your Joys & Sorrows

“Pa threw mattresses into the wagon. Ma carefully spread their patchwork quilts over them. ‘We can’t leave these behind,’ she said. ‘All our joys and sorrows are sewn up into the patches.'”

Eleanor Coerr // The Josefina Story Quilt

The quilt my mother made for my daughter tells a story she didn’t intend.

The front, meticulously pieced together in 2015 when she found out I was pregnant with a girl, features strips of brightly colored fabric cut on the bias, perfectly straight, edges crisp—the work of a lifelong quilter.

The colors were chosen with intention: pink, of course, but well balanced with sunny yellow, sprightly green and a rich purplish-blue. You’d find these colors just before dawn on a spring morning, when the dusky sky gives way to the sun’s rays spilling onto new shoots of grass. 

Evie was born on such a morning in late April 2016, just before dawn. By the time the light and those colors crept in through our window, we barely noticed; she had already illuminated everything.

The back of the quilt bears Evie’s full name, birth date and statistics, machine-embroidered by another woman onto a patch that my mom then sewed on by hand. The stitches are clumsy, like the ones I made when my mom taught me how to make my own little quilts when I was eight years old. I can’t remember exactly when she sewed this patch—2018, 2019 maybe—but I remember it took a long time for her to do it and to return the quilt to me.

Somewhere in those years, between the front and the back, when I was busy feeding, wiping, shushing, bouncing, not sleeping and falling deeply in love—learning to be a mom—my own mom began to slip away.

There’s a feeling that accompanies the deepest hurts, in the very back of the throat: an involuntary clenching that can’t be relieved by methodic breathing or swallowing hard. When I get that feeling, I know the best course is to surrender to the tears, let myself make the ugly, contorted faces, scream if I need to. 

That feeling means something different to everyone. For me, it’s the feeling of missing my mom. Not the one who’s here now, but the one who was lost between the front and the back. The one whose wry observations and easy laughter grew quieter until they disappeared. The one who danced around the room when she found out she was going to be a grandma, then hesitated to play with her granddaughter for fear she would do or say the wrong thing. The one who booked flights and ordered catering for years as an executive assistant, then struggled to make sense of a digital clock.

Sixty-one is not an age at which one should be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, yet there she was. Sixty-two is not an age at which one should be moved into memory care, yet there she is.

There are so many losses to grieve. And the trouble is the losses continue to mount as my mom’s cognition declines. There are days I wonder if things will be better when she’s further along and not so acutely aware of what’s happening to her. I almost want for her to slip into some blissfully ignorant state, like floating on her back in calm, cool water on a stiflingly hot day. Then I panic that she’ll disappear beneath the surface for good, and I hold onto her tighter.

She recently said to me, “I’m afraid one day I won’t know who you are.” I’m afraid of that, too. I took a deep breath and said, “I know. That might happen. But that’s OK. I won’t hold it against you.” Another deep breath. “I think even if your mind doesn’t recognize me, your heart will still know who I am.”

I think of the hundreds of hours I’ve spent with my daughter pressed to my chest, my skin alive with the warmth and sweetness of hers. I think of the searching eyes that have stared into mine since the very first time they opened. Could I ever be in a room with her and not feel, somewhere in my bones, the pull of those invisible threads that bind us?

The mind may fail, but the heart still knows. 

I will meet you wherever you are today, and tomorrow I’ll meet you there, too. 

I will walk with you to the very end, holding your hand, holding nothing against you. 

And when I have to let you go, I’ll gather the quilts your hands made, sewn up with all your joys and sorrows, and crawl beneath them, awash in the warmth of your love.

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