the women came the way women often come, filing in in dribs and drabs, once they’d wrapped up the business of their day. obligations out of the way, time now to get down to why we’re really on this planet.
there was among us, one in need. very much so. and we were there, armed with slender wooden sticks and balls of yarn soft as kitten’s fur. and prayer.
oh, yes, skeins of prayer.
these women call themselves “the shawl sisters,” and their task was this: to knit a prayer shawl for a child, a girl of 17, who is off, any day now, to houston where she’ll meet up with a phalanx of oncologists, cancer doctors, who will peer into her liver, and prognosticate the days–and years, God willing–ahead.
she would be wrapped, this girl too young for what had taken hostage her liver, in soft looped stitches. some too tight, some too loose. some missing altogether. but each one noosed and pulled with prayer.
as she lay on hard cold tables, as she leaned against stiff rough hospital sheets, ones washed 10,000 times, she would be cloaked, this child, in the tender labor of tired women who’d do anything to soften the hard blows. insulate the chill. take away the hurt.
the equation was simple, and ancient: women gathered, as they’ve done since there were threads to be pulled through cloth, strands to be woven into squares, crocheted into circles, the geometries of homelife so elemental and everywhere.
cradling sewing baskets and knitting bags, drawn into circles on dusty prairies, or candle-lit cabins–or the well-upholstered dining room in a leafy, tranquil town–women have come to tend the stitches of each other’s lives, to patch together what it is that aims to leave us tattered. or in pieces on the floor.
as the night wore on, as teacups were filled, the cake plate passed, time and tempo were measured in murmured words and click-click-click of wooden needles, slipping through the loops of yarn.
we knit 1, prayed 2. and in between we purled across the rows of our life. the prom dates and all their dramas. the stormy weather just ahead. the recipe for chicken salad.
then at last, late from a meeting, dressed in pointy-toed heels, flush from rushing up the highway, the one among us arrived, the one for whom the knitting started three short months ago.
she came with news: not only need we pray for her second-born, the one who’d soon be wrapped in the shawl, but also her fourth-born, who’d just come home from the hospital himself. a fever, for six nights and six days, that had raised untold fears.
her fourth-born, you see, has leukemia, and a spiking fever is never good.
this mama bears more than any shawl could hold–or so you’d think. until you heard her laugh. until you heard her swear with all her heart that all would be well, dammit.
it had to be.
and then she told us, worst of all, as if all that was preamble, that the need for prayer this night was this: the shocking call that had come at 5 a.m. that morn. a suicide, a cousin, long plagued, had leapt off a bridge, down in tennessee. her beloved aunt, she insisted, was the one who needed prayer.
and so the women dropped their needles, clasped hands and prayed.
it went that way for hours, the seamless intermingling of the prosaic and the prayerful. and so, too, the laughter then the tears.
there is much to pray for, always. but especially so this night, where the women came with petitions, and pieces of a prayer shawl.
it is apt, i realized, that women so often turn to spools of thread, and rolled-up balls of yarn when life seems to be unraveling at the edges. when it seems the strands that hold us together are being tugged at, torn, mercilessly.
“we’re knitting toward the mystery,” said the woman sitting next to me, a beautiful woman, with bare, muscled arms. “the prayerfulness of knitting is a long tradition.”
one by one, stories were told of how knitting had been the occupation of choice at the side of so many death beds.
one woman told how when her husband lay dying he was wrapped first in a jewish prayer shawl, and his tumors went away. and then, months later, she was handed a knitted shawl, knitted by catholic women who’d thought to knit in prayer medallions, and ones of patron saints, and how in desperation she’d flung it ’round her dying husband’s shoulders. she believed, she said, in the power of a prayer shawl. and you knew she meant it.
someone else mentioned that when you are furiously knitting, you need pay some attention, and thus your mind is blocked from thinking all the other things that haunt you in a room where someone’s dying.
but this night, it was all about believing.
why, the yarn was even green, the color of a meadow in the spring, when it’s shaking off the drab of winter, bursting feverishly into life. the earthiest of greens.
and this night, the prayer with every stitch was that the cancer would be nowhere found. vanquished. sent to hell to stay there. the only place where it belonged.
fervently the mama of the shawl child worked those needles. click-click-clicking all the while.
at last, two pieces were complete. no rows, it seemed, were much the same. it was plenty holey here and there. but it was beautiful all right, the handiwork of many hands and hearts.
time to join the ends, the mama declared. her baby’s shawl was nearly ready. all talking lulled while she put her mind to this knitting task–how to make it whole.
and then one knitter in the circle–a doctor, by the way–who’d come with crochet needles, just in case, pulled them from her bag, held them poised. dove in, as if the surgeon.
more clicking followed. breaths were held all around.
and then she held it up, case closed. and the mama flung it round her shoulders. beamed. she’s a believer, this mama.
and she is sure as sure can be that what they’d done, those nights as winter turned to spring and they’d clicked and prayed, and prayed and clicked, what they’d done was knit their way to holy resurrection.
she is counting, as clearly as she counted stitches, on that shawl to keep her child whole and safe from what the cancer aims to do.
may her will be done, Lord, may her will be done.
i was blessed last night, so blessed, to be in this circle. i was entranced by these women so devoted, so devout. i hold up this one most blessed mother, and the women all around who hold up basket loads of heart ache, and don’t much take to stumbling.
have you too marveled at the ways in which women do the holy work of patching whole the world, the world and all the hearts so very often torn and tattered? where would we be without their fervent prayer and the circles that click on late into the night, never giving up where hope might come at the end of the next row?