Saturday, April 23, 2016

November, 2013: Prayer Shawls

While I sat in the hospital in November, 2011, watching plasma and
saline and toxic chemicals drip into my mother, I needed something to keep my fingers busy.  I needed the quiet rhythm of wooden needles marking time against each other while I learned to sit quietly, in the moment, with my family.  I wanted to make her something comforting; although hats were an obvious choice, I was cold in the hospital, and I thought about how it would feel in a hospital gown, in a cold, sterile bed that overlooked the construction of the new hospital wing.  I picked the softest yarn I could find in my stash and held it up to my cheek; I imagined it wrapped around her shoulders.  I picked a pattern that would require little thought and cast on a simple shawl.  It began with just three stitches and grew reassuringly by two stitches at the beginning and end of each row so that it didn't only grow longer but also wider as I worried it, stitch by stitch, into being.  Afterward, I found it in a box of things that had come home with her from the hospital that December.  I don't think she ever wore it, but I wear it now, and it brings me great comfort.  

Two years later, the air was cold and dry as I curled in the chair in the hallway, wrapped in my father's worn sweatshirt.  However I tried, I could not warm myself.  My knitting needles clicked as I knit row after row of soft blue alpaca, stopping periodically to hold it against my cheek and test how well it would comfort me afterward.  Weeks before I had chosen the blues and grays because they resembled the ocean, where she had wanted to go for her birthday in November, 2011, the birthday she spent in the cold hospital room.  When I packed hastily for my trip to the hospital, I needed something to knit, but I couldn't take any of the projects I had already cast on.  They were to be Christmas gifts, and I couldn't knit all that sadness into gifts for other people.  Instead, hour after hour I knit my mother's comfort into a shawl I could wrap around myself in the months to come when the cold and the loss and emptiness would be impenetrable.  Although it makes my heart clench when I hold it against my cheek, that basic shawl, slightly too large because I was reluctant to let it end, helps me to remember that my mother would want me to live my life.  She would want me to start my life over if I wanted to, to go to the beach, to take a nap, or read a good book.  And so I have done these things; I take more risks, I step out of my comfort zone, I tell my son how much I love him.  I wrap that shawl around me and revel in its comfort; I know she is with me.

Prayer shawls have long been part of many religious affiliations.  The Tallit in Judaism, the Mantilla in the Roman Catholic tradition, and Pentecostal prayer cloths are just a few examples of special clothing people have worn during prayer.  Among fiber artists, the prayer shawl embodies the creator's thoughts and prayers for the receiver.  Prayer ministries have formed for the sole purpose of knitting and crocheting prayers into comforting shawls for those in need physical or spiritual comfort. Shawls are begun, crafted, and given in prayer.  In prayer ministries, the shawl may be passed around a prayer circle so that each person can add their own prayers, or stitches, to each shawl.  

Although I didn't realize it at the time, and it certainly wouldn't be traditional to knit one's own, I see now that these shawls, knit at the beginning and end of my mother's illness, were prayer shawls.  With each stitch, I connected with my family, shared thoughts of my mother, imagined how we would rearrange the stitches of our life without her  I wear them now for comfort; always cold, I have been even colder as I have reknit the void left behind by her passing.  I receive a lot of compliments on these simple shawls; for now, I tell the sad story of how they came to be, but I hope that in the near future I will share stories about how my mother taught me to knit, about her aunt Rose who always made the most beautiful baby clothes, about the times that my mother and I shopped for yarn, or about her faith in my ability to knit socks.  I think of my son, teaching himself to knit by watching YouTube, trying out double pointed needles, and becoming entranced by weaving.  We are tied together, stitch by stitch, row by row, threads spun and plied from the past to the present, our future an infinity of combinations of colors and textures made from two simple stitches.  Knit. Purl.  
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