About 20 years ago, my wife, Hannah, a master knitter, taught our 5-year-old son Abe the basics of knitting. One day, when I got home from work, Abe excitedly greeted me at the door and insisted that I sit next to him while he taught me his new skill. He attached a pair of blunt wooden dowels with acorn caps glued to the tops, and a ball of lavender thread to one of the needles. Using her own set, she proudly started knitting and pricked the first loop. “Get in the front door, run behind,” she sang as she stitched, “look out the window and Jack will jump.”
“Now it’s your turn, Dad,” she said, after showing each piece of the stitch several times. He carefully followed my initiatives and gave helpful advice. Hannah sat on her other side and whispered additional signs she could offer me. I took additional lessons from them most nights over the following weeks and finally managed to knit a simple scarf.
Over time, I became a slow but highly skilled knitter. I knit crocodile scarves, hats for immigrant children, felted messenger bags and many pairs of socks. It could take me a hundred hours to make a single pair. At my hourly rate as a doctor, a pair of socks could cost me $20 in thread and $6,000 in labor.
After being diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer, knitting has become a way to keep my hands busy and my mind calm. When I recovered from brain surgery and went through six weeks of daily radiation, I knitted dozens of simple cotton dishcloths to thank my friends and family for their support. Each one took only a few hours to make, but each stitch made me feel emotionally connected to those who care.
When I was first diagnosed, I was given a prognosis of just over a year to live. After my post-radiation MRI showed my cancer wasn’t progressing, I felt like I could exhale for the first time in months. When I was in my 50s, I knew cancer would still kill me, but I started to believe that I could at least live a few more months. I wore a cream scarf that took about a week to knit for my mom, followed by a colorful shawl that took a little longer for Hannah.
After staying at home with us during and immediately after the surgery, Abe was back in college when the new term started in the fall. During radiation and subsequent chemotherapy, the highlight of each week was getting updates on her lessons and social life. However, the thought of my son also made me sad. I knew I couldn’t dance at your wedding. I probably wouldn’t even have seen you graduate from college.
I wanted to knit something for her as I did for other people I love. It would take me a full year, still a slow knitter, to complete a sweater big enough for the man Abe had become. I thought it was unlikely that I would have that much time, so I wouldn’t even allow myself to think about a project this big. Instead, I settled on a pair of fingerless gloves with a cord on the back. I was glad they showed up, but they seemed insignificant compared to what I wanted to do for him.
Shortly after completing chemo, Hannah and I attended a yarn swap at a local brewery to celebrate. We spent the afternoon drinking craft beers, chatting with fellow knitters, and admiring the work in progress. Towards the end of the event, while Hannah was ordering the last beers for us, a woman approached our table and started talking to me. Finally she asked what I would do if I had the beautiful, undyed wool she had seen I admired before. I told my son that I was dreaming of knitting a sweater, but I didn’t think I had enough time to complete it.
She went back to her desk and came back with enough wool to knit a large sweater. “For you,” he said. “Just promise you’ll try.” I objected, but he told me that he had traveled a hundred miles with this yarn to find a good home for him, and that he could not think of a better place for it. Tears filled my eyes as Hannah returned as she explained that a large sack of yarn had been handed over to me in front of me.
As soon as I got home, I found a sweater pattern that would work with wool and pulled out the needles I needed. Before I went to bed, I pictured Abe wearing the finished sweater, skewing two skeins of yarn into balls.
However, I couldn’t start the next day. Why should I continue when I know I’m going to leave something sadly missing for Abe? The yarn stayed in the bag all week.
At the next meeting of my cancer support group, I spoke about the unexpected gift of yarn and my fear of not being able to finish it. In response, members of the group shared stories of their own hardships from knowing they were going to die soon. I was not alone in my fear of starting something new. Our conversation helped me realize that starting a sweater would be a personal commitment to not giving up without need. And I was able to keep the promise I made to the woman who gave me the thread: to start – to try.
I cast that night, and every single stitch I spent with Abe—taking knitting lessons from him, listening to him play the violin and guitar, sharing a love of Shakespeare, teaching him to drive, saying goodbye after he moved into his dorm room, and hugging him before he went into surgery.
Often when someone is diagnosed with advanced cancer, friends and family will advise them to stay strong and stay positive, insisting that the person will overcome even the most aggressive form of the disease. These kind of well-meaning comments do not comfort me. Instead, they emphasize our culture’s fear of death and its denial of death.
When I was diagnosed, I knew that no amount of strength, positivity, or even faith could stop my glioblastoma from killing me. The thought of breaking up with the people I love made me sad, but I chose to face my prediction honestly and openly. I pondered what was most meaningful to me so that I could make informed decisions about what to do with the limited time I have. Rather than making a to-do list, I decided to keep working at a job that I found very fulfilling, spending time with friends around the fire pit in our backyard, and enjoying many evenings with Hannah reading aloud to each other while knitting together on the couch. .
I finished most of the sweater before my cancer became active again last summer. I had to let it go when I had a second brain surgery and had another round of radiation. Now I knit again, but at the end of the day I often get tired. My trembling hands make it difficult for me to move the skewers. Still, I’m slowly making progress and the sweater is almost complete. My goal is to finish it off and present it to Abe when he gets home for the holidays. If I don’t finish, I’m sure he can knit the last loops himself. Either way, she will know that my love for her has helped me learn to live fully, even as I die.
David Meyers is a family physician and health policy researcher in the Washington, DC area living with terminal cancer. He writes a joint memoir with his wife, Hannah Joyner.
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