“Keep all special thoughts and memories for lifetimes to come. Share these keepsakes with others to inspire hope and build from the past, which can bridge to the future.” ~Mattie Stepanek
I stood over a pile of my son’s t-shirts, scissors in hand, my breath ragged. I reached for a plain, dark blue one that I didn’t remember Brendan ever wearing. My fingers trembled. The first cut would be the hardest.
I’d packed away his shirts eight years ago, within weeks after he’d died. He was only fifteen—an unbearable loss. I’d spent days washing and drying and folding his shirts into tiny perfect squares. My daughter Lizzie watched me put them inside my grandmother’s wooden hope chest.
“When you go to college, I’ll make you a quilt out of Brendan’s shirts,” I said. “And one for Zack too.”
I didn’t know how to make a quilt. I’d never sewn more than a straight line before. But I had time. Zack was thirteen, Lizzie ten. But the years passed. I walked by the chest every day and yet couldn’t seem to open it. I was afraid of opening the lid and unleashing the pain hidden inside, like a Pandora’s box. I wasn’t sure if I could ever open it. When it was time for Zack to go to college, neither one of us mentioned it.
But now, Lizzie was leaving for college in a week. I’d already bought her towels and dorm decorations and twinkling lights to chase away the shadows in her room. But she wanted the one thing I couldn’t buy. She wanted to take something of Brendan with her, something more than a collection of photos. There wasn’t time to make her a real quilt, but I could piece together blocks of his shirts for a blanket. That would be enough for her.
I opened the chest and stared down at the shirts. So many blue ones. I couldn’t remember if that was my favorite color or his.
He never cared about fashion, only comfort. I picked through the shirts and carried an armful down the stairs. A pajama top fell to the floor. It was gray and red fleece with a penguin applique near the bottom. At fifteen, he’d long outgrown animals on his clothes, but he still wore this one because it was so soft. I watched him once, falling asleep on the couch. As a toddler, he’d rub his fingers through his hair, but now his fingers rubbed across the penguin’s belly.
I stared down at his shirts, seeing beyond the colors and patterns. I saw the stories of my son.
I picked up his buttoned-down shirt with splotches of red on it. I only smelled the woodsy scent of the cedar-lined chest, but I closed my eyes and went back to the day when there was red sauce bubbling on the stove as I fried chicken cutlets in garlicky oil. Brendan snatched a piece of chicken and dipped it into the sauce, dancing away when I shooed at him with the wooden spoon. He never noticed the drops of red falling onto his shirt. I bent over the shirt now and took a deep breath, as if oregano and basil were still in the air.
I unfolded a turquoise shirt, the one he wore on our last beach vacation. I could hear the ocean waves crashing against the sand and see the wind ruffling his hair as he held a giant crab dusted with Old Bay seasoning. He’s wearing it in one of our last pictures of him, the one we used for the funeral. I love that he’s holding this crab, with a smile of anticipation as he waited, savoring the moment.
My hand shook as I cut through the penguin top, but the scissor moved through the fabric easily. I reached for another and then another as I cut the shirts apart until I had twelve squares. I saved every scrap, even the skinny ones that curled. I cupped them in my hands, and they spilled over like ribbons of memory.
My daughter walked into the room, and I shrugged through my tears. “I’m not sure if I can do this.”
She nodded. “It’s okay.”
But it wasn’t. I desperately wanted to give her this gift. I imagined her sitting in her dorm room, wrapped in memories while making new ones.
His stories lured me back to the table the next day. I arranged the squares on the kitchen counter, moving the blues and grays around. I was still overcome with emotion, but something shifted.
Seeing the blocks of fabric shaped into something new filled me with hope. I played with the pieces, moving the penguin around, first next to the flag shirt and then next to the blue-striped one he wore for special occasions. I kept moving them around, playing with possibilities until I found the perfect combination.
I sewed the pieces together, feeling a wave of excitement as the blanket grew. When I finished it, I smiled and held it up. This blanket was so much more than just a block of memories. I’d taken pieces of the past and transformed them into something new.
I smiled, seeing Lizzie in her dorm room, snuggling beneath the quilt. I saw her moving into her first apartment, spreading it out on her couch. I pictured her years from now as she rocked her baby girl, the quilt wrapped around the two of them, their fingers tracing the outline of the penguin.
I love looking through old pictures, but something special happens when we play with the memories of our lost loved ones. It doesn’t have to be a quilt. Perhaps a collage of photos arranged in different ways. Or a playlist of songs that spark a memory. Maybe a collection of recipes filled with their favorite foods. Or a tablecloth where everyone writes down a story of a loved one that makes them smile. When we create something new, we build a bridge of love that forever connects us to a loved one.
Zack wants his own quilt now. He wants something different than Lizzie’s, one that has both his and Brendan’s shirts joined together. A quilt for brothers. I’m excited to start it. I’ll make one for me and my husband as well.
Tomorrow, I will open the chest filled with memories. I will cut the t-shirts into pieces and pin them together.
I will stitch my son into the present, so we can carry him into the future.