Illustration: Rachel Wada
He was no clothes horse, but my husband’s story is in what he wore.
I’m writing this after 18 months of living without the man I had known for more than 50 years and it still feels surreal. Rob died of cancer in 2018. Our lives together created many memories—rich experiences, gladly shared—and I know they are what will help sustain me. Still, when our two sons and their wives presented me with a surprise memento of their father, I was quite literally speechless.
After his death, we went through closets and drawers—that is what we do when we don’t know what to do. One of his passions was mountain biking. He was highly skilled, winning races up to the provincial level. There were lots of colourful cycling jerseys. On the other hand, many of his everyday shirts were common checks and plaids, and almost all were relics. Our sons each took several items; probably not to wear, but something familiar of their dad’s to keep. Those tasks kept us busy—and close—in the first days of our new reality.
Some weeks passed. A little girl became my first grandchild, and two sweet grandsons arrived a few months later. Those new families grappled bravely with all the highs and lows of first-time parenthood while nursing a wound that could never fully heal. During this time a concept evolved through the collaboration of my children and a talented family member: to artfully arrange pieces of Rob’s clothing into a four-by-five-foot quilt, although that hardly seems an adequate term for what was created.
On one side, the colour and vibrancy of travel and cycling experiences are combined in stunning patterns, blending memorable events and locations. The cycling jerseys predominate but there is more. In recent years, Rob rekindled a love of sailboarding. A shirt from the Outer Banks recalls one sailboarding trip to North Carolina. Elsewhere in the quilt, the logo of the Lunenburg Foundry reminds me of cycling from our home in Kingston, Ont., to Nova Scotia for a family reunion in 2015. The Poison Spider Bicycles square comes from a shirt bought in a well-known cycling shop in Moab, Utah, a mountain biker’s dream destination. Rob and our sons made that trip together less than a month before he received his devastating diagnosis.
The other side evokes a life lived through swatches of those everyday shirts (plus his bathing suit) that all who knew and loved Rob would recognize at 10 paces. The workmanship is exquisite.
An ordinary and extraordinary man
When we retired to Kingston six years ago, we renovated one of the remaining buildings of the old Portsmouth Brewery. We worked with a local contractor and it took a lot of vision, collaboration, risk-taking and hard work. It is an unusual home. In our entry area, a canoe that Rob built hangs over the front door, and the bikes that we rode together are suspended from the wall—sculpturally appealing but mostly for easy access. On another wall once hung Rob’s sailboarding equipment; that has now gone, and the quilt has taken up the void. It hangs right by the staircase I walk up and down every day. I often stop and reflect on the ordinary and extraordinary man who was my husband.
The quilt has helped me absorb the fullness of his time on Earth; seeing that, for most of us, the lives we live are a complex mix of accomplishments—some stellar, some simple—and the daily relationships, habits and actions that form us. Hardly profound, but comforting.
At a recent family gathering we placed the three babies on Rob’s quilt and began to tell them about their grandfather and the things he liked to do. This will become one of our new traditions. Rob missed meeting his grandchildren by only a few months, but he will become a person they know through the stories—both ordinary and extraordinary—that we will tell them.
Memories we carry in our hearts are most precious but, for me, having something close at hand to touch and recall, and to share with others, has already proven to be a salve for an aching heart. The warm response of family and friends to this work of love has moved me. The quilt is a gift that continues to give each day and for that I am grateful. Creativity and beauty do not always come from a happy place. In bewilderment and sorrow and loss, some will see patterns that can begin to bring order to the emotional chaos that is a natural part of grieving.
© 2019, Mary Jane Philp. “A Quilt Keeps My Husband’s Memory Alive,” from The Globe and Mail (December 2, 2019), theglobeandmail.com.