Who We Are: A Letter to The Shrine

When my friend died of colon cancer, I dutifully volunteered to complete two memorial quilts for her children. Her family had gathered her clothing into paper grocery bags and together we diligently went through the pile, me being careful to honor my friend’s memory by slowly—almost reverently—folding and unfolding each garment in front of her seven- and ten-year old. I had promised them that their quilts, made from their mother’s clothing, would be done by her one-year death anniversary. Every time I was at the elementary school, her son’s expectant face twisted upward and asked, “Is my quilt done yet?”

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I ended up breaking my promise. I failed him and his sister because I had been diagnosed with my own cancer:  breast cancer.

I had an aggressive kind with the highest mortality rate of the five different types of breast cancers. At 45-years old, I was an outlier (breast cancer typically makes its debut in people 55 years and older). I barely had time to think of my friend on the anniversary of her death because I was recovering from a 180 degree turn in my treatment plan. The tumor board had decided there was a suspicious growth on my ovary. Two days later, I was on the surgical table: uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and cervix removed. Thankfully, the growth was benign.

While oncologists get to pack up their patients notes and go home to their families, I’m left with the knowledge that my cancer can return any day. And when it does, it will be stage four and very persistent. Perhaps they will be able to keep my life suspended on a treatment of cocktails, a death by slow-motion. I’d be lucky to get five years. More likely, I’ll get one.

And therefore, I sew. I might as well use up my stash, all those fabrics once deemed too precious. And I might also say, “Fuck it,” and buy more because life is short. This circular logic gets me nowhere. But sewing helps me, still.

Whenever I feel a pain in my body and imagine a black invader weaving its tentacles through marrow and mass, I get lost in my sewing room. Anxiety is a bastard. And there’s a lot of it in the early years for survivors. “Just call if you have pain that lasts longer than two weeks,” my oncologist says. That’s all I get.

But when I can run my fingers over a piece of fabric, analyze the drape and imagine its future, I can dissolve into my latest project. Sewing is my salvation, a baptism of needles and silk. Hobbies seem to unlock this miracle effect. And I owe a lot to mine, my sweet, beautiful sewing room shrine.

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Even when I was in treatment, a quart of poison dripped into my body, the feeling of liquid mercury sloshing around my gut, I still managed to sew. I couldn’t construct a garment because I couldn’t think. I couldn’t bear to listen to music or podcasts or watch movies. The vibrations inside my body were so loud that the world became an assault. But I could listen to the hum of my sewing machine.

A couple of days after my second infusion with a chemo cocktail so strong it’s nicknamed “The Red Devil”, I did the math: I still had four and a half months of chemo to go and I didn’t know how I could possibly survive it.

Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this. And fuck you, cancer.

I made a choice. I would get through it with the help of my hobby.

The following afternoon when I could barely stand upright, my husband found me laying on the floor of my sewing room. I had separated bags of scrap fabric into piles of confetti—scraps from all the garments I had made. Garments that would no longer fit after the bi-lateral mastectomy.

I had a plan.

During the throes of the most hideous days after my infusions—what I coined “The Chemo Tunnel”— I would shuffle into my sewing room, a roll of toilet paper by my side for my chronic runny nose. Sometimes my vision was blurry. Other times I walked in zig zags. Mostly, I was hunched over, my face parallel to the floor (and at the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, I once crawled into the sewing room on my hands and knees). These were the days when I couldn’t even have a conversation with others. Like animals who find a peaceful corner in which to die, I would retreat into my quiet space.

The only thing I could do was stitch those scraps together. I had been reduced to a passionless, mechanical routine: grab two scraps, insert under presser foot, stitch, repeat. The hum of the sewing machine silenced the vibrations in my body; the focus on stitching settled my nausea. I would get lost for hours. It was my lullaby.

But chemo revealed another devious side effect:  my sewing room eventually turned sour. On the days I felt good, I would enter the room and instantly become nauseous. On the days I felt bad, I would enter and feel even worse. I knew if I could make it to the machine and begin my pathetic escape—grab two scraps, insert under presser foot, stitch, repeat—my world would fall away and I could disappear into the lullaby. But some weeks, that was impossible.

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It was on one of those days when I avoided my sewing room that the quilts resurfaced from the fog in my memory. Months before my cancer diagnosis, classmates of my friend’s two children had come over to my house to help make the quilt tops.

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A classroom of seven-year olds had been tasked with the girl’s quilt. A small group of 10-year olds had been selected by the boy to complete his. Every single child who entered my sewing room had filled those quilts with support, friendship and love. And now, I was about to fill both of them with cancer.

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While I lamented this irony to one of my friends, she interrupted me and said, “You’ll be filling them with your survival.”

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It was the permission I needed. I had seen my dying friend slowly decline into a frail shell of yellow skin and sharp angles. Even though I didn’t know what my outcome would be, I focused on completing her children’s quilts. Cancer was absent. These quilts were being filled with survival and life. I was also determined to push through the nausea in my sewing room. It usually took me an hour of painstaking grab-two-scraps-insert-under-presser-foot-stitch-repeat before the sweet lullaby embraced me. But my hobby never failed me.

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It was near the end of my five-month treatment when I presented those overdue quilts to my friend’s children. I had them close their eyes before I wrapped their personal quilt around their individual bodies in a gigantic bear hug. It was the closest equivalent to their mothers hug even though I knew the quilts were a cheap salve for their yearning. But I had extra to share.

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“Some of your mom’s hair is inside,” I told them.

Perhaps in her husband’s grief, my friend’s clothing had been given to me unwashed. Some areas were stained with food, capturing moments when she actively lived and enjoyed to eat. When cutting into her garments, I had instinctively flicked the first few strands of her hair away. But then I began to collect and drape them on top of the batting.

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“Also, if you breathe in deeply, you can smell her.”

Whenever I pressed the quilt seams with steam from my iron, my friend’s unique scent filled the room. Under normal circumstances, I might have gagged dramatically and laundered away the B.O. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t erase her. Instead, her children inherited her body’s perfume, perhaps getting drunk off it or maybe deciding it was too unbearable.

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I completed my own quilt top a month after my chemo treatment had ended. All those hours of stitching scraps together had blossomed into a work of art entitled “The Tunnel.” But what makes this one special is that I added pieces of my friend’s garments in there too. After all, we are in this together: one with a concrete ending, dead and buried, the other alive in a free-fall of an unknown future. Both of us forcibly yoked to cancer.

I feel like we are still friends. And that is reassuring. And while I find her smell comforting, I’m ready to launder my quilt, wash away old, tired feelings that weigh heavily in the present. Peace is elusive but I know one place where it hides. When the free-fall is too much to handle, you’ll know where to find me.

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Denise Archer has been sewing since she was 15 years old when she discovered the magic of her mother’s Singer treadle. Denise is the founder of @thepeoplessewingarmy where she launches missions for sewists around the world to bomb organizations and people with good sewing deeds out of scrap fabric. Her personal garments and projects can be found @pimp_slapped. If you ever need to give Denise a gift, a vintage Issey Miyake pattern will do.