This story is dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, who kept me warm at night.
A cold front came through the week after Labor Day.
Ephraim liked to sleep with the windows open, liked to hear the river. He and Sarah had built this house along the river in their city, partly because the land butted up against the preserved green space along the river – unusual for a major metropolitan area – and partly because hearing the river reminded Ephraim of the creek that ran behind the house he grew up in in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
He laid in bed, cold, listening to the river and then got up to close the window. Being warm was more important than hearing the river, at least that night.
He went back to bed and hoped for sleep, but he was still cold. After about twenty more minutes of shivering, he got up to take the quilt off the top shelf of the closet. He spread it out over the bed and tucked himself under the covers. Finally warm enough, he fell asleep.
Ephraim woke sometime before dawn, warm in his bed but aware of the cold that awaited him. Usually he got up, made the bed, dressed, made breakfast. Today, he wasn’t sure.
This wasn’t the first time in the three years since Sarah died that he was unsure. All of life had become unsure, shaky, cold, bewildering. His understanding of time was included in this: time went too slowly; people spoke and moved too quickly. Retirement and age factored in, but he was retired before Sarah died and hadn’t felt this way.
He decided to keep his regular routine, bracing against the cold. The only thing he put off was making the bed until after breakfast.
When the sun was up and he was warmed, he went back in the bedroom to make the bed, turning the pillows, pulling up sheets and blankets, folding and tucking, and finishing by spreading the now-needed quilt over the bed.
He ran his hand over the quilt. How could one object say so much, conjure waves of emotions, tell stories, and even ask questions?
He remembered how it was, like a low cloud moving over their lives. He had noticed a shift in Sarah. Her usually sunny, California nature seemed less so. She was slim, but he thought she was thinner than usual. He didn’t say anything, just watched, like was his habit in life and also his habit with her, a form of respect.
Then one sunny morning in the kitchen, she looked up at him, and he saw that the whites of her eyes were yellowish.
“Sarah, I’ve been concerned about you lately.”
She was quiet. Then she took his hand.
“I think it’s happening, Ephraim,” she said, looking up with her yellowed eyes full of tears.
He knew what it was. There was a high incidence of pancreatic cancer in her family.
After the initial doctor’s visit, Sarah submitted to a few, relatively easy tests.
“My uncle and father died of this,” she said quietly and firmly to the doctor, “I’ve seen the beginnings and watched the progression. I think I’m sick, and I don’t want to make this any more uncomfortable for myself or for Ephraim than it needs to be.”
The tests bore out the truth of her suspicions. The doctor gave her a year to live, at most. Sarah wanted only palliative care in their home, and it never occurred to Ephraim to ask her for anything else. Their love was built on a foundation of admiration and respect, and these were the qualities that would frame their last chapter.
Was it a grace or a torment to be presented with the end? Shouldn’t we always be facing each day as it was the end? Of course, he thought. That’s the math of this game called life, and math doesn’t change to suit our convenience.
Yes, he decided, it was a grace, and the cost of bearing this grace was steep. The hard truth that came with this is that this gap between knowing Sarah would die sooner than later and her death did nothing to prepare him for the impact her eventual death would have on him. This, too, was something of a grace, harsh, yes, but a grace: the human organism can only bear so much pain at one time. This includes the mind and heart.
Their lives jumped tracks. The road trips and flights across the ocean to explore different lands were over. The long walks along the river and days working with volunteers in the nature preserve were also over. Their diet changed to accommodate Sarah’s increasing symptoms, and Ephraim had to acclimate himself to being cook of the house. Gone, too, were the days of lively conversations, trips to the farmer’s market, and deeply satisfying love making.
Neither of them breathed a word of complaint. Every moment counted. They both knew it, though they never said so explicitly.
A coziness descended on their household. The bland, soft, well-cooked food became a metaphor. They went to bed very early, napped often. Ephraim read to Sarah when she was awake but too fatigued to do anything. They dispensed with their usual frugality about heating the house. Overhead lights were no longer used. A low watt lamp on a table seemed more suited for this time.
Nurses came once a week to check on Sarah, reminding each of them that more help was available when needed. Knowing this was comforting. Fending off the invasion of privacy until absolutely necessary was a priority.
One day he went into the bedroom to tell Sarah that he had prepared lunch. When he got to the bedroom, she had the closet door open, and clothes spread out over their bed.
“I had an idea. I miss my art, and I want to make something special for you. So, I’m going to make a quilt out of my clothes. When each season is done, I’ll take clothes from that season, cut them up, and add to the quilt.”
Ephraim didn’t say anything.
“I know what you’re thinking, Ephraim: you’re doing your usual math. Well, I just won’t die until the quilt is finished.”
He knew that Sarah’s will might be able to accomplish this. Sarah went back to her sorting.
“I had come in here to tell you I had prepared lunch and was going to offer to bring it in. But I have another question first.”
“What sort of quilt design are you going to make out of such diverse fabrics?”
“A Crazy Quilt. And not just because this is a crazy idea.”
“It is because I always want you to remember how crazy I am about you.”
If there was a design to pick for making a quilt by hand while a person is dying of pancreatic cancer, a crazy quilt was the right design. No measuring, no precise cutting, no precise sewing. Sarah just sat propped up on the bed each day, cutting up clothes, stitching pieces together.
The one thing she did know about measurement was how big it was going to be: it needed to drape amply over their bed, and she asked Ephraim to buy batting and fabric for the back to fit these dimensions.
When Ephraim asked her why she needed this right away, she said, “Because I need to know when to stop and because I am going to have to stop.”
The decision was made, and her work began. Whenever she had the energy, she was sitting up in bed, cutting and sewing. They set up a table next to the bed and had baskets filled with fabric and tray that went across the bed, so Sarah could work while in bed and rest whenever she needed.
Ephraim would spend a good part of the day sitting next to the bed, reading to himself or out loud. Sometimes, they listened to recordings of their favorite music.
Their life had shifted; they had acclimated. The new routine worked well. It gave Sarah what she needed. It gave them much needed time together. It was so comfortable that they often forgot why their life was the way it was.
One day, while sorting through the mail, Ephraim saw the quarterly newsletter from the conservation organization that took care of the green space along the river. It was their Year in Review, and he began to look through it. The middle two pages were devoted to pictures of volunteers working with staff. Ephraim and Sarah were pictured, arms around each other, in boots and work gloves, glowing. He glanced at Sarah sitting on the bed, sewing pieces of her clothes together, because she’d never wear them again, because she was too tired to do anything else, because this was it: the end, the last chapter. Sarah looked thin and wan compared to the beaming woman in the picture.
He went into the bedroom and kissed her, tears coming down his cheeks.
Nine months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Sarah died in their bed. She had finished sewing the pieces of the quilt together but had not put in the batting, put on the back, nor had she finished the “tufting”.
Sarah died in her bed. Sarah. His wife had died. Wife died. Like saying your car died. His wife didn’t die. Sarah died. A universe had become a black hole. A star stopped shining its light.
His life had died in that bed.
Everything was cold and loud and didn’t make sense. Food was ash in his mouth. What was this world if a life like Sarah’s was snuffed out by mutated cells inside her own body?
He was more alone than when he had left the mountains, because, at least then, there was hope. But at this age?
No children. No family. He was far too estranged from his. She had been an only child. Anyone who knew her were already dead. As introverts madly in love with each other, their social life was, essentially, non-existent.
The basics of daily life took so little time on his own. How long does it take to eat a bowl of oatmeal or a sandwich, to bath, dress, keep the house clean?
He had read and studied most of his life, but every book raised his ire. “And death?” he wanted to shout, “And how does DEATH fit into this? And if you can’t fit in death, I’m not interested.”
And he was cold in bed. Very cold. He tried sleeping in his day clothes, adding scarf and hat. He was cold.
He got up in the middle of the night, knowing it would make the already vacuous next day even worse, but he was too cold and agitated in the bed.
He could hear Sarah saying, with her gorgeous smile, “Ephraim, how about the quilt?”
He turned on some lights and went to the closet where, in the shelves, were Sarah’s various sewing baskets, including the large one that held the unfinished quilt.
He took each out and set them on the kitchen table, feeling for a moment as if he were trespassing. But, as he ran his hands over the baskets and opened each up, looking at the contents, the feeling of trespassing changed into a feeling of intimacy. He was touching what Sarah’s hands had touched. In doing so, he was touching her hands again.
For the first time in weeks, he had a clear idea of what to do next. He would finish the quilt. With this decision, he had enough peace to return to bed and sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, the scholar in him stepped forward.
He took out Sarah’s sewing baskets, including the basket with the quilt, at laid everything out on the bed, examining it, trying to remember the names of things Sarah had so often talked about.
With notebook in hand, he made a list of what was there, with room for definitions and instructions.
Next he looked at the quilt. The patches for the top were all stitched. There was batting. There was enough fabric for the back and edging. He wrote down what he remembered about the steps of making a quilt, with room for extra steps if had forgotten or never fully understood the process.
He turned on the computer and began the 21st century process of internet searching. He remembered when such research was carried out by opening card catalogues at the library and retrieving books held by so many hands, waiting to help the next person.
The day after was dedicated to consolidating his notes, typing up a clear list of tasks. He printed this out and studied over his super.
The next day, he took all the baskets out again, but this time he arranged the contents he needed on the kitchen table. He had stopped eating at the table after Sarah died. It was too painful to sit there without her and had decided that eating standing at the counter would be his new habit.
He had to attach the batting and the back and the border. After that he had to “tuft” the quilt, so that the batting stayed in place.
He had never threaded a needle, and his eyesight wasn’t cooperating. He had a head lamp that he had used when guiding people on nighttime walks along the river. Strapping this to his head, he had enough light, and, with his characteristic patience, he threaded his first needle.
Consulting his notes, checking the computer for tutorials, Ephraim began sewing for the first time in his life. His hands felt awkward and heavy. He remembered the flourishes that characterized Sarah’s work with a needle and thread. “I get to dance with fabric!” she used to exclaim.
“I’m hardly dancing,” he muttered and felt her warm smile assuring him that this wasn’t necessary to finish the quilt.
He worked on the quilt every day after breakfast, lunch and dinner until his hands became sore, listening to Sarah’s Baroque recordings.
Then he’d set it all aside to walk along the river or do chores around the house. The books that used to fill his days sat unopened on their shelves. He still couldn’t muster interest and was unsure what to do – rouse himself to read or avoid the insult that academic writing brought to his broken heart and burdened mind.
The days grew shorter and shorter, colder and colder. A man who had never sewed on a button was attempting to finish the border and back and tufting of a queen-sized quilt by hand.
“This would make a boring movie,” he thought, a thought that brought both tears and gratitude: he finally had something meaningful to fill his days. He was finishing Sarah’s work.
Each day, after he had sewed as much as he could, he would gently spread the unfinished quilt over his bed. When it was time to sleep, he would enter the bed carefully, as not to damage the unfinished quilt while, at the same time, benefitting from its warmth.
He purposely did not keep track of how long it was taking him. Time had become an intolerable tundra of aloneness. It was best just to sew and listen to music, take some walks, take care of the house.
The day came when the quilt was finished. The completion frightened him badly. His heart fluttered in his chest, and he thought he might faint. He sat down on a chair at the kitchen table, hugging the quilt to his chest, sobbing. He had nothing to do and no one who would see him hugging a quilt and crying. There was no need to hide his tears or how lost he felt. He sobbed so loudly that he didn’t hear the clock ticking.
Eventually, his eyes ran out of tears to cry. He got up and put away the sewing baskets, making what was, for him, a shrine to Sarah.
He spread the quilt over the bed.
It was supper time, but, if he was hungry, the hollowness of his life overwhelmed whatever gnawing there might be in his stomach.
He strapped the head lamp that he had used sewing to his head and went out to a path along the river.
The days were short and cold. There was already ice accumulating on the sides of the river, changing its sound. The fallen leaves, frozen, cracked beneath his feet.
Eventually the walking and the clear, cold air worked their magic, and Ephraim felt hungry.
He went home and opened a can of baked beans and heated them up in a pan. Standing at the counter, he ate them while looking out the kitchen window at the bright moon.
After cleaning up the pan, he walked to his bookshelves and then walked away. He wasn’t sure anymore where he was going to find intellectual or spiritual nourishment.
He stood at the window, looking out at the moon again and felt tired, exhausted, so exhausted that even bathing seemed like too much effort.
He managed to change into his pajamas, leaving his long underwear on for warmth and got under the covers.
The quilt was heavy. All the bits of fabric from Sarah’s cloths carried a tinge of her scent.
Death, he thought: no answer to this math equation. He was alive. She was dead. He was alone and old.
He wanted to pray. He had relied on his native intelligence and innate willpower to navigate his whole life, but those weren’t enough anymore.
“Show me how to live. Please don’t take Sarah too far away,” he prayed.
The quilt made the bed very warm, and he slept.