what stays

When my mother was first diagnosed with colon cancer, I stopped dancing.  I couldn’t bear the way my dances disappeared as soon as they were over.  As an improviser my work is so ethereal anyway, hardly even there even while it’s happening.  Even choreographed or set material only really exists while a live body is moving it.  I couldn’t make sense of any of this, so for a while, I stopped making dances and threw myself into making quilts.

The Neighborhood | KF 2000

For months I pieced together these little houses (inspired by Gwen Marston’s liberated quilting techniques) and watched the neighborhood grow on my design wall.  When the quilt had reached queen size, and I finished the top, I smoothed it flat, layered it with a backing and soft batting and secured the layers with rows of safety pins to prepare it for quilting.   I decided to quilt it by hand, an enormous undertaking even for an accomplished sewer, which I was not.   Even in my confusion and grief, I knew what I was doing. I was trying to make something that would stay, something that would not die or disappear… thinking as long as I could keep stitching I could keep my mother alive somehow, keep her from leaving…

The summer before she died, we had planned to rent a beach house in Nagshead, North Carolina for a week.  It was one of her favorite places in the world, and she was determined to have a real family vacation there before she died.  As it turned out we spent most of that summer in the hospital, and when the time came, she was too weak to go.  She was so broken-hearted, so miserable in that hospital, and so angry at the doctors for insisting she stay there.  She knew she needed to get to the water.

So I made her this quilt, with many pieces of blues, greens and greys, with some fabrics from Japan, patterned with waves, and fabrics from Bali with batik images of seaweeds, and curved pieces, like swells or crests…and the quilting stitched in spirals and watery shapes.  I worked on this quilt for three days straight, barely taking a break to eat or sleep.  I turned my mind off and just let my hands be busy, trying to lose myself in making something that would last, something that would stay…

Ocean Quilt, KF 2001

Watching my mother slowly leave this world taught me something I’m still trying to find the right words for.  I started to understand that everything is on its way to becoming something else.  Everything always in some kind of transition.  Nothing stays, and nothing stays the same.  Or maybe the essence remains, but the form changes.  This understanding, found in the tender, raw heart of grief, unfolded slowly, like a sunrise, and gradually showed me the doorway back into dancing again.  Oh, I see…I remember now… these are forms, and they change, nothing is permanent. Not these dances, and not these quilts, not these hands, or these houses.  Everything and everyone…each of us simultaneously here for now and on our way to becoming something else.  Deep lessons in loving what is, for as long as it is, and letting it go when it disappears…

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4 Responses to “what stays”


  1. 1 Darren King May 26, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    What stays, what remains…beautifully written Katherine…thanks for sharing…

  2. 2 Ellen May 26, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Oh Katherine, I mourn with you for what was lost but rejoice for what was learned. What a wonderful way to create a trail of memory…

  3. 3 Michelle Scott May 26, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    I really, really enjoyed your post! I’m a quilter, too, but I have never made anything without a pattern. Your quilts are definitely works of art. Thanks for sharing your story : )

  4. 4 Kelly Farkas May 26, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    My mother just left to return home after a 2 week visit here where we spent a week of it in Ocracoke. I had a very heavy heart on her departure. Annie and I just planned to be in Nags Head for the 4h of July. It’s my favorite place too…I can’t imagine any less. Thank you for sharing all of that.


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