Knitting a Perfect Birthday
Catherine J. Hall
September and October, 2006
Did I ever tell you the one about the girl who waited until she grew up to make friends? It’s a true story. As a matter of fact, it is the only story that I know, with any certainty, IS true….because it’s my story.
For as long as I can remember, I have been surrounded by people. My family is large (that in itself is a slight understatement) and my town was small. That meant that I knew everyone, and everyone knew me – or at least knew one of my siblings, parents, or cousins. Now, when I say “knew me”, I of course mean that they recognized me. The Hall girls do look alike, in that strange genetic way in which paternity overrides personality. I was a clever child, and people liked to be around me. I frowned a lot, probably all of the time. If you look at the first photo of me, taken in the hospital, you can see that I came with frown lines already deeply ingrained. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but now I realize that my expression was probably a simple mixture of untreated pain and intense concentration, and it was completely natural to me, a part of who I was. But it is a common human desire to alleviate any kind of suffering, and I was often the victim of “cheering up” by the aforementioned siblings, by well-meaning teachers, and even by schoolmates and their parents.
It is hard to know for sure, but I feel like that grouchy expression actually drew people to me. I found that they were willing to tell me anything, everything, often all at once. Within minutes of meeting someone, he or she was likely to tell me their secrets, dreams, and ambitions. They even shared shame-ridden, guilty confessions. Most of the time I didn’t say much, and since nature abhors a vacuum and humans hate a silence, my new acquaintance was likely to tell me things that their mothers would never know, things that they couldn’t imagine ever telling to a priest or a therapist.
Reading over this, I realize that it sounds a bit like boasting, as in, “Everyone liked me. I was popular”. Not true. Not true at all. When conversations are one-sided, relationships dry up and blow away before they get a good start. Add to that the idea that I knew so much about them, and I became a hateful reminder of what they had said, armed with their deep secrets. This can be infinitely worse than being a stranger, even worse than a real enemy.
As I got older, I was happy enough to be mostly on my own. There have been a couple of exceptions to my isolation, and I consider myself most excellently blessed to have a handful of long-term friends. I have often said, and I really believe, that these people remain close to me not because of who I am, but despite what I do. They have been true companions of my heart – with me through the good and, perhaps more importantly, through the horrible times. Long term illness is considered to be death to most relationships, whether romantic or platonic. Add my already prickly personality to those years of being bedridden, and it is truly a wonder that anyone is left in my life at all.
Of course, this story cannot be complete without at least mentioning Stephen, love of my life, balm of my soul. But his heart and very breath is so intricately bound with mine that he seems almost outside of this tale of other people, simply because he is so much inside of everything that is life to me. From a very young age, he has been the one, the only, person that I can relate to – maybe because he didn’t run away after showing me his deep, dark inner world. He waited instead. And waited. And he held my hand and let me finally tell my story. Stephen showed me life, and what joy was. He also brought with him relief. He gave me that safe place we all crave. He also fought for years to help find an answer to the very real, ultimately overwhelming physical pain that had stunted me in too many ways. Stephen allowed me to be human, to experience profound truth and awe at the beauty in the world. Before that, everything that I was, all that I did, was a reaction to a constant state of pain that I mistook (how could I not?) for normality. He worked, I would even say that he crusaded, for years to assure the right combination of environment, lifestyle, and healthcare to give me and our little family a real life. He still fights for it, and is my best advocate, my partner in a way that is beyond my earthly understanding.
So, like I said, he doesn’t count when I number my friends, because he is THE friend of my life. And this story is about making friends, about what most people learn to do at early religious services or at pre-school. Until I was able to lead a life that allowed me to look outside of myself, I did not understand that the aim of friendship, the underlying structure and purpose, is that what you give is what you receive. Simple, no? Well, I am still learning, and have a lot of catching up to do. When most of my contemporaries were sharing contraband gum and jokes on the playground, I was sitting with my back to everyone and working on the things that interested me and kept my mind occupied. That continued through college, and as exhilarating as art and poetry are, they are, at their very core, quite solitary undertakings.
Then, during those early years of childrearing, my passions for such things may have been a bit stifled (sleeplessness can do that to a person), but I still made a go of it – trying to find a niche for myself as a writer and as an artist. It was fun, and Stephen and I surrounded ourselves with many “fun” people doing the same thing.
Time passed, and I thought I was getting the hang of being an adult, or what I thought being an adult meant. When I became so ill that I could no longer function, I stopped all of that. No more fiber art. No more poetry. No huge, elaborate dinner parties or opening-night events. For three years, I did what I could to be a mother to my girls, and I let go of everything else.
Disease scares people. Friends and family stopped visiting, worried about being a bother, or saying the wrong thing. No one seemed to understand what was happening to me, and I let Stephen shield me from most of it. I became tired of explaining that I wouldn’t ever be magically “better”, ever be able to join the people that we knew for drinks or road trips, never again be the life of the party or travel as I did before things got so bad. Most of the people that I had been hanging around with were friendly enough, but busy with their own lives, which is very, very understandable. But some were just not able to imagine me in my new, chronically ill, wheelchair-bound capacity. It was easier to let those people go.
The disease has changed so much, and not all of it is bad. Stephen has helped me to let go and pare down our life, which is a good thing for just about anyone. We stopped focusing on what was gone and looked at what remained, what was right in front of us, and at what was still to come. We had a few very dear friends – the ones who could still crack a joke about all of the puking, the ones who just sat in a room with me for hours or days at a time and didn’t need to be entertained. They didn’t need their egos stroked or their problems solved. They didn’t try to heal me or change me. They just showed up, and you know what? That was enough. These friends saw us through the worst of it, and remain a huge part of our life. Thanks to them, and to Stephen and our girls, I no longer obsess over how many “bad” (read – “stuck in bed”) days I have. Instead we go over and over the good ones and make VERY flexible plans for the next one.
I am so grateful to my tiny family. They gave up everything; a good job, our house, our savings, grandparents, instant babysitters within driving distance, a terrific school….our very life in Indianapolis. They did it to move across the country with only two weeks notice. How lucky for me! The desert climate alone made enough of a difference that I was out of the chair, and even off of the walker, within a month of the move. We have slowly built a new life in Arizona. My health has improved in many ways, and has stopped its sharp decline in others, and with the help of Mayo Clinic I finally have all of the support I need from the healthcare world. My loved ones supply the rest.
Those dearest to me have been there, day after day. The other constant through everything has been knitting. Like my other great loves, it is a solitary activity, at least on the surface. But as my body acclimates to what it is now, my heart and mind expand each day, thanks to the little repetitive motions of my hands. I had an inkling of knitting’s power when we were still in Indiana. Our Friday night meetings of the International Knit Circle were so different than our dinner parties had been, and I started to actually open up to people.
I have heard it said that knitters are comfortable speaking about anything to other knitters because there is a silence of mind, a clarity of thought, brought on by the very act of knitting. That, and the fact that no eye contact is needed, or expected, with your companions makes it easier to communicate in a relaxed way. As a group, people engaged in knitting listen more intently and longer, so when someone does decide to speak up about anything, he or she is taken seriously and rarely interrupted. Even after knitters are very comfortable together and get loud and rowdy (hey, it happens), they still exhibit respect and understanding not often seen in other gatherings.
I think that what I want to say, please take me seriously, is that knitting has brought the best things to my life. At first, it saved my life, which is a very strong statement, but I know that it is true. When I tried to give up, Stephen put the needles in my hands. When I couldn’t read or sew or draw or even speak or lift my head, I could knit a few stitches while curled up in bed. On my very worst days, I could at least touch what I had made, or dream about projects.
When I finally showed improvement, my first forays from the house were to our Local Yarn Shops, and I began to wonder what it would be like to knit with other people. I sent out informal word, and people started dropping by our place after school or work on Fridays. Sometimes I had to stay in bed, but no one minded. As long as there was a place for them to sit and knit, no one minded. The house was alive again, and I loved it.
Knitting taught me to be friends, real friends, with women. At least with women who knit, but one step at a time…. The International Knit Circle, our Friday night group, was the hardest thing for me to leave when we moved west. And when we got here, knitters were the first people that I sought.
I have not been disappointed.
Slowly, I am learning those lessons of friendship. I know that I am slow, and I am so glad that the big pauses in conversation happen when people are knitting. That allows me to keep up, to learn, to actually contribute. Knitters are a patient bunch, and they don’t hold it against me too much when I am rude, pushy, or otherwise difficult to deal with, or when I cancel plans at the last minute. I wish that I could say that it is all related to the disease, but I am finding that I may just be a naturally grouchy person. I am working on that, and my friends are helping me – mostly because they lead by example.
Last month, I had the best birthday ever. It was something I couldn’t have imagined in my old life, you know, those years B.K. (Before Knitting). We hit four yarn stores in one day, and I was overwhelmed with gifts of knitting books and other favorite reading material, miles of gorgeous yarn, hand-made gifts of fiber and clay, and two (count ‘em, TWO) real parties, complete with cake. It was beautiful. I was exhausted. We laughed and knit until late into the night. Maybe that’s the reason, or maybe it was all the sugar, but the most amazing thing happened, and I am still reeling. As I looked around those tables, I realized that every single person I saw was someone that I love. I didn’t know that I had it in me. I really didn’t. But those people were all shining like mirrors, and I finally saw what they were putting out there. I looked up from my knitting and saw what I had really made with all of that time and yarn. I had made friends.
all words © Catherine J. Hall