Quilting and parenting: Life lessons from a chemo quilt

This May, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. She’s only 60, and she’s never smoked. Needless to say, our family was shocked.

Mom’s always taken good care of herself and followed doctor’s orders — and made sure we did the same. Her lifestyle is active. Her dad is in his 90s, and her mom lived into her 90s, so longevity and good health are in her genes.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Cancer, however, had other plans.

For my mom, this summer was all about chemo, which wore her down. It was hard to watch this woman, so active with her friends and family, dogs and job, feeling miserable and tired.

I live about two hours from my parents, and I visited as much as I could during these hard months. But I still felt like I could do more.

That’s when I decided that if I couldn’t be with my mom, I would make her a chemo quilt. Along with keeping her warm during treatments, the quilt would reminder her that I was thinking of her.

I had made only one quilt before the chemo quilt — a crib quilt for my youngest son. I love the craft of quilting, and this spring, I played around with flying geese quilt blocks. This was the right time — and reason — to grow my quilting practice.

Sewing a chemo quilt and being a parent

The chemo quilt sits folded in child's wagon.
I thought a lot about my mom as I made the chemo quilt. And the deeper I went into the project, the more similarities I discovered between quilting and parenting, especially being a stay-at-home parent, which my mom was for many years.

In quilting, there’s a lot of starting and stopping: small cuts here, short stitches here, readjusting fabric under the needle. And there’s a lot of starting and stopping with little children: chores started and abandoned, toys picked up and dropped in favor of something else.

Quilting is repetitive. You often make the same block over and over and over and over.

Parenting is repetitive. Nursing a baby. Running through bedtime rituals. Making the same meals, again and again, for picky eaters.

You do it over and over and over and over. Because it’s worth it.

They’re growing. You’re growing. Your understanding of each other deepens.

And again. Again. Again. Deep breath. Go in again. They need you. You need them. You need each other. You were made for and from each other.
The chemo quilt hangs off my porch railing.
Parenting delivers — just like quilting — something beautiful when you stick through the hard stuff. All of it is worth it, but you can’t see it while you’re in it.

And that’s how I felt while I was working on my mom’s chemo quilt. Each element of construction at times was maddening, boring, and satisfying — all at once. I stuck with it, and the sum of the parts — the completed quilt — made all the challenges worth it. And the process led me to a full heart.

Sending the quilt to my mom

The chemo quilt features flying geese blocks.
I turned the quilt over to FedEx to send it to my mom. When FedEx asked the value of package, I didn’t know what to say.

I thought of the hours it took, and I thought of its sentimental value. I asked for ideas about how to judge the value of my package. “We max out at $100,” they said.

One hundred dollars it is, although my heart and head new the true value of the quilt was far north of that.

It felt weird in my sewing room without the chemo quilt. I kept expecting to see it in some state of completion, draped over the futon.

But it wasn’t there. This must be what it’s like when your kid finally moves out, I thought.

A celebration quilt

The flying geese quilt blocks are four shades of blue.
I had a deadline for the quilt — July 20, my mom’s last chemo infusion. I wanted the quilt to go to the appointment. Because I wouldn’t be there, it would be the hug I wanted to give her, the hand I wanted to offer her during the unpleasant procedure.

She texted me and my siblings July 20 with news that her doctor said she could skip the final infusion. She already was taking chemo meds by pill. She had been dreading the last infusion, anticipating it would be harder than the one before it. Hearing it was cancelled was really, really, really good news.

She said she brought the quilt to the cancelled chemo appointment. Now it’s a celebration quilt, Mom said. I said maybe it’s good luck. If you can sew intentions into a quilt, each stitch in that handcrafted quilt is filled with good, healing vibrations.

A cancer — and quilting — journey

In September, mom’s oncologist revealed that her treatments this summer made a dramatic improvement — 70 percent to 75 percent! Prayers and science, friends. Believe in them.

She’s feeling a lot better this fall; she’s even started working out again. She’s not in remission, but her doctors are happy, and her quality of life is so, so much improved from this spring.
The chemo quilt is my most personal sewing project to date.
I wish my mom didn’t have cancer. But I am so grateful for my experience making her chemo quilt, both as a sewist and as a parent. I wear those lessons about patience and perseverance, grace and love, like a warm, soft quilt around my shoulders.

Over to you: What deep thoughts have sneaked into your brain as you’ve sewn? Have you ever made a sewing project for someone who was sick? What feelings did you have about it? Please share your stories in comments.

P.S. If you like this deep thoughts post, you might like these posts, too:

Creative inspiration: 7 times Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ spoke to sewists
Little Miss Perfect and her sewing machine
How to survive a long-term sewing project (which I actually wrote while I was working on the chemo quilt!)