Tag: memoir


The Ghost in My Quilt

March 15th, 2011 — 3:50pm
mother's quilt, Vermont

My Mother's Quilt, Vermont, March 2011

After a whirlwind 24-hours in New York City to promote my book and attend an award ceremony, I arrived at my sister Sarah’s farmhouse in Northern Vermont ready to relax and enjoy the deep piles of New England snow.

Straight out of a Vermont Life calendar, Sarah’s house is a gorgeous 1850’s era farmhouse with a large pond and spectacular three-story red barn, and my first evening was spent enjoying a meal with some close friends who live nearby. But as we put away the leftovers and prepared to turn in, my good mood was abruptly punctured when my sister said: “I hope you don’t mind that I have Momma’s quilt on the bed where you’re sleeping. I’ve never brought it out before but I realized that the blue was a perfect match for the trim so I stuck it in your room.”

My mind instantly flashed on the blue-and-white quilt that had covered my mother’s bed during the final months of her life. “My God, I think she even died under it,” I thought uneasily, although not wanting to be overly dramatic, I kept the thought to myself. But I could feel my body recoil. Because I did mind. A lot.

“I’m not so sure I do want it on my bed,” I finally replied, not sure how to explain why I felt such an intense aversion to the idea. I’m not superstitious and I could have viewed this remnant of my mother’s life as a comfort, an opportunity to feel her presence in a loving and peaceful way. But I didn’t. Instead, I felt a painful stab of memory as scenes from the days leading up to her suicide flipped through my mind. In distressing detail, I saw her lying in her bed, lonely and unhappy, plotting how to kill herself — and all the time covered by that damn quilt!

“Really?” My sister looked over at me with surprise and perhaps a slight trace of impatience. “Well, maybe you should get over that,” she suggested. “Think of it as a nice thing.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, still not wanting it on my bed but reluctant to insist she give me a different quilt.

Gathering up my suitcase and preparing to go upstairs, I realized that my mother’s old patchwork quilt — an item I’d described in my memoir, Imperfect Endings — was an emblem to me of her entrapment. Entrapment in her room; in her bed; and in her illness. To her, death was the means to free herself from that entrapment, something I came to understand and even sympathize with. But knowing that she’d chosen death because she no longer felt life worth living was still painful for me to confront, even after all these years.

And I couldn’t help feeling that if I slid under that same quilt, I would find myself similarly – scarily – yoked by it. I don’t believe in ghosts but I wondered: Wouldn’t this most intimate of her possessions, the very cloth she’d touched and lain under day after day, night after night, contain some energetic memory of her? Some psychic imprint of her spirit, her personhood? And not just of her, but of her pain, her desperate desire to escape.

Uneasily, I headed up the stairs and entered the room. There was the quilt. A lighter blue than I remember. Pretty. Simple. Just a quilt, I told myself. A quilt that matches the trim.

But the uneasiness stirred again as I climbed in underneath it and I had to resist the urge to unfold the extra wool blanket at the foot of the bed and cover it up. Drifting off to sleep, I wondered if I would dream of her and who she would be in those dreams. Would she be the mother I’d had as a child? The tall, beautiful woman with thick dark hair and broad shoulders who’d made me cocoa and tucked me in at night? Or the depleted, stiff woman who’d lain under this quilt at the end of her life, longing to escape the confines of her body, of the earthly realm itself?

It turned out that none of these ghosts would appear, imaginary or otherwise. Instead, as the snow fell outside my window, adding to the already impressive drifts piled up against the house, I slept as heavily as a child. And a funny thing happened. By the second night, the quilt no longer seemed to hold its aura of entrapment or pain. It was… just a quilt – simple, pretty. A good match for the trim. An object that happened to have belonged to my mother.

And as I pulled it up around me on my last night, ran my fingers along its soft edges, I felt myself held lightly in its embrace.

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Readers Write Back

March 23rd, 2010 — 9:55pm

Imperfect Endings has been on the stands for exactly three weeks today and it’s been a whirlwind of media coverage — a feature in The Washington Post, an hour on WBUR, interviews and reviews — but the most gratifying response has come from the many people who have contacted me through my website to tell me their stories of losing parents, many of them from Parkinson’s disease.

In addition to the eloquence of these emails, what has amazed me is that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM wrote to say that they supported my mother’s choice! Not one person questioned her decision to die on her own terms — or mine to support her.

I feel so grateful for this positive response. I have to say that in the months leading up to publication, I worried I was going to get attacked for supporting my mother’s decision to end her life (although I did, for a time, argue against it) and for speaking out in favor of legalized assisted suicide. It’s actually been the opposite. So many people, especially those who have lost parents to Parkinson’s, have expressed gratitude for my writing frankly about her choice, and have told me that — in their experience — my mother spared herself a very tough ending. (Obviously, Parkinson’s varies greatly from person to person and I don’t want to frighten anyone. My mother’s Parkinson’s was actually quite slow to progress and highly manageable for many years; it was only the last year or so that it got difficult for her.)

Of course, a few critics did pop up in the blogosphere. I’ve shown up on a few Catholic blogs (understandable — as, for them, suicide in all its forms is a sin). But how to explain the conservative blogger who blamed my mother’s death on the Democrats and the new healthcare reform bill? (Do I hear the sound of a knee jerking?) This was especially ludicrous as my mother died almost nine years ago!

But today is not about the critics. It’s a day to celebrate  this amazing opportunity to engage in conversation about end of life issues with a wider audience, and to express my gratitude to those of you who took the time out of your busy lives to write to me. Your willingness to share your stories was both illuminating and moving. These first three weeks are dedicated to you!

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