I had to write a piece for a program about grief recently. I thought I might share it with you, there are so many of us for whom grief is a gut wrenching experience. Sometimes unexpected events bring us through it.
Grief is an overwhelming shadow of despair.
The grief I suffered at my daughter’s death has taken me on an amazing journey of discovery.
It has led me to become an award winning quilter, an Author, I now travel the world , living life to the full and sharing my thoughts on life, love and quilting to all who listen.
However, I need to begin at the beginning.
We have a multi racial family of 15. Ten of our children were born of other parents overseas, three of our children are biological and then there was Bo our special girl with downs syndrome who lived with us for 3 years until her parents decided they wanted her back, and Phat who hid under the bow of a ship to escape from Vietnam at 15…. And we could never forget Lien who came from Taiwan and had severe emotional problems, abandoned by her adoptive family after several years…. She sure made our lives very interesting.!!!
Over 20 years there was a progression of about 150 children who were having a crisis in their lives, – or most often it was their parents inability to cope.
I guess that about explains what our family was like in the 80’s and 90’s. Every minute busy, fun, hilarious and very rewarding with a smattering of angst, surprise and frustration.
The world revolved around football, school, music, ballet and just plain family life.
Meal times were wonderful, and even now we get together and it as uproarious as it was when they were young, now we add partners and children.!!
How does grief come into the equation?
Our Sammy died at five. A little boy from Sri-Lanka born of incest to a 13 year old. He didn’t stand a chance really and lived with us for a few years before he succumbed to the illness he inherited from his conception.
In 1994 our daughter Liseby (of African descent from Mauritius) contracted cancer. Melanoma in fact. Our lives turned full circle. How could this happen to our family? We were plunged into a foreign way of life. Fear, uncertainty, pain and anger.
Liseby 13, came to live with us with sister Lori aged 12 both girls suffered a life of abuse in Mauritius. Liseby was quiet and reserved.
After a short time, they settled into the family and seemed to revel in the secure family environment. They got on well with their siblings, loved school and it felt just right. However, they had a secret past that we could never enter or understand. Both girls had been victims of Voo doo in Mauritius and many attempts had been made on their lives. Lori was almost killed by poisoning in
Voo Doo was so foreign to us. However, we allayed their fears and felt that we had made headway until Liseby fell victim to cancer and despite our re-assurance, she believed that she was victim to the curse.
Liseby died, aged 24 after six months of pain and suffering.
We lived through the experience in a daze of unbelief. I personally couldn’t grieve in the way I needed to, how can you when the hearts of your children are breaking. I held my sorrow behind the mask and tried to be as positive as I could for their sakes. I had taken up quilting and worked like a maniac on the quilt I called “Liseby’s hope” during Liseby’s illness, it calmed me and worked it’s magic with every stitch.
6 months after Liseby died, Son Matthew was to be married in Thailand. Our entire family was going overseas for the wedding.
There was a conflict, I needed to get on with my life and be happy and supportive to Matt, but I was inwardly grieving for Liseby. It was made worse by the fact that Lori, Liseby’s biological sister decided that in some way we were responsible for Liseby’s death. I lost two daughters, Lori walked out of our lives. Each day was an emotional struggle. Grief was heavy upon my shoulders. My Husband Keith saw things differently and spent longer at work and became more involved in sport with the boys and I felt increasingly isolated.
I received a letter from Rimi our Japanese host daughter. She now lived in London with her family and she expressed her concern for my welfare. “Mum come and spend time with me in London before the wedding”
It was tempting, but I had never left the children for an extended time.
I made a decision to live the life that Liseby and Sam had been denied and soon found myself winging across the world by myself to London, leaving the family in the capable hands of their Dad.
I was 45 years old and I had never slept in a room on my own. Suddenly this was a new experience and I liked it !!!!!
I booked a bus tour, 10 days through Britain…. Goodness, I didn’t know any better. 60 American tourists and one Australian. I must say I felt awkward without my husband by my side. Surprisingly I didn’t think much about the children, but I didn’t want the married couples thinking I was looking for a husband… so several times at dinner I am ashamed that I actually said “My husband and 13 children are all at home”……Quite loudly. I got strange stares, I think I blew it.
I met Joan Dougherty on the bus, As I walked past her seat on the second day of the tour I noticed she had a quilt magazine on her lap, that gave us license to be instant friends. We played hooky seeking out anything to do with fabric at each stop and were always the last on the bus.
After the tour we met for a tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum and we blundered through a trip on the notorious underground to a warehouse that was supposed to be a quilt museum. Annoyed, at our discovery after a long day, I feigned a karate kick to the door, it flew open and I fell in, right into the lap of the proprietor…!!! She stated she had some quilts upstairs and we could view them, but her business wasn’t a museum, but a publishing house and they had published did a book on Quilts…. For goodness sake, why was her business called “Museum Quilts”
I purchased her book on quilts as a token of good manners after my bad behaviour in the doorway.
Little did I know that the book was about to change my life.
I was drawn to a picture of a quilt, made in 1776 by Sorbian Soldiers from the uniforms of their deceased comrades. (Sorbia was a Slavic country on the border of Poland, Checeslovakia and Germany)
The quilt made from wool depicted the battle but also the life that surrounded the soldiers, music, dance, hunting, and games. I looked at the picture daily and after some time I decided to recreate the quilt. It is 10 ft X 9 ft and has some 600 appliqué images.
The task of making the quilt was an overwhelming passion. Often I worked on through the night. At other times, it was put aside until I could emotionally cope with it.
I was able to redraw the square blocks, but I needed more detail for the appliqué images. I began to despair that I could never finish it or do justice to it. I needed to find the original.
After some investigation I found that the original quilt was actually hanging in a museum in Bautzen Germany.
Keith, my Husband and Jinda, our youngest son journeyed to Germany from Australia to view it.
Bautzen is a 1000 year old walled city ribboned by the river Spree. We spent the first day just walking through the city and exploring the surroundings. Despite the fact that the residents were nervous at out visit I commented many times that I felt at home there.
Viewing the original quilt was an emotional experience for me and I felt an ownership I had never felt before. I had studied every detail in the quilt and each image was as familiar as my own work.
I was able to return home and complete the quilt. It took 9586 hours to complete.
Of course our busy life continued during the making of the quilt.
A year after the England trip Joan invited me to a quilt show in the USA and asked me to take some quilts for exhibition. I had never shown my quilts before, and was very naive about the process of entering a show. I sent off the entry sheets and booked my fare, only to receive the acceptance a day before I left…. I didn’t even know you had to be juried into the show.!!!
It was a huge step for me to take off again
I nervously flew out to the USA, as I the plane got closer to Minneapolis, my anxiety grew. “What if I don’t remember what Joan looks like, what if we don’t get on”?
There was Joan at the airport to meet me, her trusty buick packed with diet coke and t
reats and we visited 3 quilt shops on the way to Long Prairie…. And I was in heaven. I knew I had made the right decision.
To my surprise my quilts won in the show in Duluth. The American quilters were very interested in my methods of quilting and I was invited to share my ideas in some informal classes……
That was the beginning of my friendship with Joan and the quilters of the USA.
Life continued at home. The family gave us joy and surprises and grew into young adults. I continued quilting and my teaching career surprised me. I love teaching. With a career as a fashion designer and photographer I never imagined I would become a teacher.
In 1998, our son Darrin suffered a terrible car accident and was in a coma for some 4 months, as he began to recover we watched our beautiful son struggle to keep alive. I travelled and taught less. Darrin was totally dependent and he was able to spend 2 days a week with us. The sadness of seeing him in such a vegetative condition was eased by working long hours on the 1776 quilt in the studio. Darrin died 2 years after his accident and my resolve to live life to the max was encouraged.
I finished the 1776 quilt in 2003, 8 years after viewing the first photo.
So much had changed in our family, but the making of the quilt was a constant leveller.
One day I received a phone call from my Mother. She was anxious and I could hear the nervousness in her voice. She said. “I have just found out some amazing information, your Great grandfather migrated from Bautzen Germany in 1864” I was stunned. Is this the reason I felt compelled to make the quilt. Had some of my relatives worked on the quilt? It certainly explained why I felt so at home when I visited Bautzen in 2000.
The 1776 quilt was entered in the Quilt show in Minnesota, a bit like returning to my roots. I wasn’t confident it would ever win anything and didn’t even attend the presentations. I was really humbled to hear it had won Best of Show. Others felt the same as I about the quilt.
That year it also won Best of Show in Pennsylvania and it was entered in the top Quilt Show in the world, Houston where it won best of show and my life changed forever.
2 days before I was to fly to Houston to receive the award my son Matthew and his partner Karen were the victims of a senseless accident. Our precious Karen was killed, Matty terribly injured. My family insisted I go and it was the longest and saddest trip of my life.
Winning in Houston was little compensation for Karen’s life.
Working through my grief changed my life in many ways. I now travel the world teaching and exhibiting my quilts.
Last year I traveled around the world 5 times. I spent just 2 weeks at home. My book on the story of the quilt was released and I count myself the luckiest person in the world.
I believe this was Liseby’s gift to me and I have dedicated my book to our children Sam, Darren, Liseby and Karen who never got the opportunity to share the rest of their life with us.
Joan Dougherty, my friend from the bus in Scotland is my mentor, my inspiration and companion on many trips.