9: The Farewell Gift

9: The Farewell Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Farewell Gift

What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.

~Albert Pine

It was only a backache... or so we thought. It would heal with time and rest, or maybe some pills. When it continued getting in the way of my mother-in-law Dee’s favorite pastimes, especially her stitching and quilting projects, we decided more tests should be run. When the results came back, the news seemed impossible. The backache was cancer, and it was advanced.

Dee had always stitched and embroidered. She loved presenting handcrafted gifts to friends and family. Many weddings, births, and birthdays were commemorated with her beautiful pieces. When Kevin and I became engaged, she lovingly embroidered the Prayer of St. Francis on a wall hanging, knowing the prayer was dear to me. Dee’s talents gave joy twice: first to her while she stitched and then to those who received.

Ready to try something new, Dee enrolled in quilting classes. She loved seeing the individual pieces come together into a work of art. She started small, making placemats, table runners, and tote bags. With the news of my pregnancy — Dee’s first grandchild — came the excitement of creating a baby quilt. We didn’t know whether it was a girl or boy, so the quilt would use a combination of blues and yellows, plaids and flowers, and the bumblebee theme we had selected for the nursery. She worked on it covertly, not even allowing us to see the fabrics. And then the back pain had begun, worsened, and finally became the devastating diagnosis of cancer.

As summer turned to fall, Dee’s activity became more limited. Staying in one position too long was excruciating, and she needed to be on oxygen around the clock. Our world was turning upside down. Then one bright September morning, our daughter Elizabeth was born, healthy and happy and filling our lives with hope once again. Dee was too weak to come to the hospital, but heroically visited our home just a few days later. She oohed and aahed, cooed and sang, and welcomed our daughter to the world.

A few days later, she convinced my father-in-law to take her shopping. Prior to becoming sick, Dee loved outlet malls and bargain hunting almost as much as stitching. I picture my father-in-law wheeling her through every aisle of the baby superstore, oxygen tank in tow. She selected any baby outfit she liked, knowing she’d probably never see Elizabeth wear them all, and returned home exhausted but happy. Somehow she found the perfect costume for Halloween — a baby bumblebee outfit — and laughed with delight on Halloween afternoon when her granddaughter came to trick or treat.

Soon afterward, she entered the hospital for the final time. Dee, the one who everyone had set their compass by, left us. Though she had only held her grandchild a handful of times, she enjoyed every moment that she could.

Christmas came quickly on the heels of her funeral. My husband and I were still lost in the fog that new babies and nighttime feedings bring, and adrift in a sea of grief. We planned to host everyone on Christmas day as we always had, but this year felt so drastically different. In one year’s time we had lost a mother and become parents ourselves.

When my father-in-law arrived Christmas morning, he warned us that we might need a few tissue boxes. While taking out Christmas decorations, he discovered gifts Dee had purchased and hidden months earlier. She’d even labeled the boxes with our names. The presents were sweet and funny, just like she was, and we laughed and cried as we pictured her selecting them. Something that in the past might have been “just a gift” now held deeper meaning; these would be our last gifts from her.

The final package under the tree that morning was for Elizabeth. My father-in-law shifted a little in his seat. His normally strong, baritone voice cracked when he threw the tissue box our way and said, “You’re going to need this.” We unwrapped the package and gasped. It was the quilt. The baby quilt Dee had started and I had long forgotten.

“Your mom couldn’t finish it,” he said. “So we asked the lady who was teaching Mom quilting if she wouldn’t mind finishing it for us. I got it in the mail last week.”

It seemed impossible, but there it was. The quilt that had been born out of expectation and excitement, created for the new life entering our family, was there. All of those pieces that had been left loose were now stitched together: blues and yellows, plaids and flowers, hopes and dreams, beginnings and endings — creating a new work of art.

So much more than a gift, it was a farewell hug. We could wrap the quilt around us and still feel her love.

~Katie O’Connell

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