It’s been over a year since we lost my mother-in-law. Not that literally we couldn’t find her, but over the course of the last two years, she was slipping away from us… gradually… but the slipping was there.
I had a pretty positive relationship with Margaret, considering she was my mother-in-law. She was a shy introvert who often exhibited signs of social anxiety. Margaret never wanted or sought the limelight. However, despite that quiet reserve, there was a strength of mind and character. Occasionally, she would make us all a little crazy. She was like a dog with a bone when an idea came into her head. Her tenacity would make our eyes roll at one another. Most often her “suggestions” came from the place of a woman who had raised 5 children (one daughter and four sons). These suggestions were maternal and defiantly feminist.
“Try these carrots, they taste just like candy,” she’d say, or “Have you used the bathroom today?” or “I hope you have your own bank account, every woman should, you know?” and “If you’d just lose a little weight, those crooked toes of yours will straighten right out.” Such statements tumbled out of her like Tootsie Rolls on a conveyor belt. Eventually, I learned to hear them as a testament of her deep love and concern for her family. But like I said… eventually.
The first time that I met Margaret was over 35 years ago. I arrived at her home on a cool fall day wearing a newly purchased orange, short-sleeved sweater. It was fuzzy and itchy, but I wanted to make a good impression, despite the compulsion to scratch my skin off. I smiled at her warmly upon being introduced. The first words she uttered however were, “It’s too cold for short sleeves. Let me get one of my sweaters for you.” I swear I could hear a balloon popping at that moment.
Grandchildren brightened Margaret’s life. She would quietly hold a newborn infant, gently stroking his/her tiny fingers. Often the babe in arms would grasp her finger, and a warm glow emanating from Margaret filled the room. It was during this time that I realized that Margaret could knit. She created tiny sweaters, most often white, for the beloved infant. Sometimes a small blanket or a little hat would appear. A worn bag, similar to a carpet bag, housed all of her knitting accessories. An assortment of thick and thin needles poked out. I also noticed small, thin pattern books probably purchased in 1895. Did I mention that Margaret was a frugal woman?
Time ticked on and all of us got older, including Margaret. When I learned to knit, I would proudly show her my latest project. “That’s lovely, Lori,” she would say. “But you choose such thin wool. How much would something like that cost?” I usually avoided an answer to that question by asking her when she had last used the bathroom.
Five years prior to the global pandemic affecting human lives worldwide, doctors diagnosed Margaret with a terminal lung condition. “You probably have about 3 years,” said the specialist as my mother-in-law nodded stoically. She was not one for tears or public displays of emotion. She stood up, thanked the doctor for his time, and clutched her purse as we exited the office.
Oxygen therapy eventually restricted Margaret’s movements, limiting her ability to drive, shop, visit, or dine out. She moved out of her own home and into a retirement residence where she could receive daily support. Margaret looked forward to visits from her family, which occurred frequently. Babies, preschoolers, toys, books, medication, baked goods, liquor for a Manhattan, and of course balls of wool streamed in and out of her door. All of us were her link to the outside world, and although her breathing had weakened, her mind had not.
It was during these last two years of her life, that a simple ball of yarn bound us together. She wanted to knit for babies so I would take her order and carefully choose the softest balls of yarn, in both colour and texture. I would arrive with the precious cargo and her ancient needles would appear. She now housed them in a decorative cylinder for wine bottles, the worn carpet bag not making the cut with the move.
Margaret produced a vast supply of baby hats and small blankets for infants in these last years. She worried that no one needed them, but I reassured her that the maternity ward at the hospital would eagerly accept the hats for newborns. This encouraged Margaret to keep knitting for those tiny beings who, however young, could clasp a finger.
Midway through 2019 Margaret’s breathing became more laboured and her anxiety pitched. “This is no way to live,” she gasped. “I’m suffering. I won’t miss you. I’ve got wonderful memories and all of you are okay now. I want to die.” At first, we tried to talk her out of it. “Don’t go too soon,” we cried. “It isn’t time yet.” But our position on Margaret’s right to die with dignity was soon embraced as she gasped for breath with the most minimal of movement. So, on November 4, 2019, at 5:30 p.m. we all gathered around Margaret as she lay on her single bed. Each of us had a hand on her as she fell asleep and took her last breath, following a series of injections into her thin arm. The doctors left the small suite, allowing us to remain with Margaret, as our grief and our relief for the end of her suffering played out in our hearts and minds.
I retreated to Margaret’s chair, as if trying to soak up the life that had always sat there. I was pale and shaky, already missing the one who said we wouldn’t miss her too much. I wiped the stream of tears from my eyes and realized how quiet her room was without the steady thumping of the condenser, the machine that had provided life-giving oxygen to her. I looked down at the cylinder beside her chair. The ancient needles poked out, patiently waiting for the hands they knew so well to knit a tiny hat. I stared at the needles, my sadness flooding out of me, and then inexplicitly one of them moved. I kept staring, but it moved – just once. I turned my head and gazed at Margaret as she lay on her bed. Her ankles remained crossed and her warm slippers were on her feet. I rose and approached her bed, while unfolding a knitted woolen shawl she made for herself almost 20 years ago. I placed it gently over her chest and pulled it up to the top of her neck. Large droplets of my tears soaked into the worn woolen shawl that had pilled a long time ago. As I stood next to Margaret, a budding feeling, like one of those that reminds us that things have come full circle, took hold. I realized that the act of carefully placing a beloved shawl over her was a return of the warmth always offered to me, from a most anxious mother-in-law who showed the greatest courage at the end of her life.
Margaret’s cylinder of needles, knitting accessories, and an unfinished blue baby blanket are in my home now. For an entire year, I could not look at, or even complete Margaret’s last project. I know I will finish that soft blue infant blanket someday, but as long as it remains as she left it, I feel bound to her by the love we shared for knitting, wool, babies and children, life, and each other.
About the Author: Lori McIntyre
Lori McIntyre is a retired primary school teacher who lives in Canada. She has a passion for writing and knitting, both of which occur daily, but not at the same time.
Since becoming a knitter, Lori has developed an obsession for hoarding all types of wool, purchasing numerous sets of needles that she already has, and ripping out more projects and beginning again, than she cares to count.
Lori has stashes of wool hidden throughout the house, and only buys wool with cash in order to protect her husband from future cardiac issues.
Visit her website at lorimcintyre.org