“Keep all your special thoughts and memories for the rest of your life. Share these souvenirs with others to inspire hope and build from the past. This will allow you to build the future. Can be a bridge to. “~ Mattie Stepanek
I stood on a pile of my son’s T-shirts, picked up scissors, and was out of breath. I reached for a plain dark blue one that Brendan didn’t remember wearing before. My fingers trembled. The first cut will be the most difficult.
I was cleaning up his shirt eight years ago, within a few weeks of his death. He was only 15 years old and had an intolerable loss. I spent days washing and drying his shirt and folding it into a small perfect square. My daughter Lizzie saw me put them in my grandmother’s wooden chest of drawers.
“When you go to college, I make you a kilt from a Brendan shirt,” I said. “And one for Zack.”
I didn’t know how to make a quilt. I have never sewed more than a straight line. But I had time. Zack was 13 and Lizzie was 10. But years have passed. I walked by my chest every day, but it seems I still couldn’t open my chest. Like Pandora’s box, I was afraid to open the lid and release the pain hidden inside. I didn’t know if I could open it. Neither of us mentioned it when it was time for Zack to go to college.
But now, Lizzie was leaving for college in a week. I had already purchased her towels and dorm decor and shimmering lights to drive away the shadows of her room. But she wanted one that I couldn’t buy. She wanted to take something in Brendan with more than a collection of photos. I didn’t have time to make her a real quilt, but I was able to stitch together blocks of his shirt into a blanket. That should be enough for her.
I opened my chest and looked down at the shirt. So many blue things. I couldn’t remember if it was my favorite color or his color.
He didn’t care about fashion, only comfort. I picked up my shirt and went down the stairs to carry my arm. The top of my pajamas fell to the floor. It was a gray and red fleece with a penguin applique near the bottom. At the age of fifteen, he was dressed for a long time to raise animals, but he was still so soft that he wore it. I saw him once. I fell asleep on the sofa. As a toddler, he rubbed his hair with his fingers, but now he rubs his penguins’ belly with his fingers.
I stared at his shirt and looked beyond the colors and patterns. I saw my son’s story.
I picked up his buttoned shirt with red spots. It only had a woody scent of cedar tansu, but I closed my eyes and returned to the day when the red sauce was bubbling on the stove, frying chicken katsuretsu in garlic oil. Brendan snatched the chicken, soaked it in sauce, and danced away when he shot him with a wooden spoon. He didn’t notice the red drops on his shirt. I now bent over my shirt and took a deep breath, as if oregano and basil were still in the air.
I unfolded the turquoise shirt he wore on our last beach vacation. I heard the waves of the sea crashing into the sand, and as I was holding a giant crab sprinkled with old bay seasonings, I saw the wind stroking my hair. He wears it in one of our last photos, the one we used for the funeral. I love him having this crab. While he was waiting, he enjoyed the moment with an expected smile.
When I cut the top of the penguins, my hands trembled, but the scissors easily passed through the dough. I broke my shirt apart until it was 12 squares, so I reached out one after another. I saved all the scrap, including the curled thin ones. I hugged them in my hands, and they spilled like a ribbon of memory.
My daughter came into the room and shrugged with tears. “I don’t know if this can be done.”
She nodded. “That’s okay.”
But it wasn’t. I desperately wanted to give her this gift. I imagined she was sitting in a dorm room, making new things and being wrapped in memories.
His story brought me back to the table the next day. I placed a square on the kitchen counter while moving blue and gray. I still overcame my emotions, but something changed.
I was hopeful to see the blocks of cloth shaped into something new. As I moved the penguins, I messed with the piece, first next to the flag shirt and then next to the blue striped shirt he wore on a special occasion. I kept moving them, experimenting with the possibilities, until I found the perfect combination.
I sewed the pieces together, feeling the waves of excitement as the blanket grew larger. When it was over, I smiled and lifted it. This blanket was more than just a lump of memories. I took fragments of the past and replaced them with new ones.
I smiled when I saw Lizzie snuggling up under the quilt in the dorm room. I saw her move to her first apartment and spread it out on the couch. I took a picture of her a few years later as she rocked her baby girl, a quilt wrapped around them, and their fingers traced the contours of a penguins.
I love looking at old photos, but when I mess with the memories of my deceased loved one, something special happens. You don’t have to be a quilt. Probably a collage of photos arranged in different ways. Or a playlist of memorable songs. Maybe a collection of recipes full of their favorite foods. Or a tablecloth to write down the story of a loved one that makes everyone smile. When we make something new, we build a love bridge that connects us forever with our loved ones.
Zack now wants his own kilt. He wants something different from Lizzie’s shirt. It’s a combination of both Lizzie and Brendan shirts. Quilt for brothers. I’m excited to get started. I also make it for me and my husband.
Tomorrow I will open my heart full of memories. Cut the T-shirt into small pieces and pin them.
I will sew my son into the present so that he can take him to the future.