I drove through the rolling green hills of the Driftless region of southwest Wisconsin today. The farm fields have sprouted; some are already knee-high with corn or soy beans. The hills are dotted with clusters of trees, grand old solitary oaks and pastures full of grazing cows or horses. The sky was bright blue with a few floaty white clouds. It was a nearly perfect early summer day.
I used to live in that area. I didn’t think I ever took the beauty for granted, but after not seeing it daily for the last five years or so — I was definitely soaking it in today.
I had a hand-drawn map on a piece of paper to guide me. The address didn’t show up on my GPS. In this now-city-girl’s opinion, it was out in the middle of nowhere. Absolutely gorgeous nowhere, though. I had never been to this farm before. The friend who lived there was the friend-of-a-friend with whom I’d have a few coffee chats over the years.
I had also had this woman’s daughter in my children’s choir at one time about 8 years ago or so.
The two friends were waiting for me on a lovely screened in back porch as I drove slowly up the long gravel driveway. I got out of the car, flung my arms wide and declared, “I’m never leaving! This is absolutely beautiful.” (This photo is the view from the screened in back porch).
The woman who lives on this gorgeous farm was diagnosed with an aggressive very rare form of cancer last October. She went from mammogram, to biopsy, to starting chemo in FOUR days. It was urgent. Her prognosis was never good. The doctors thought she wouldn’t make it through October. I saw her today, looking great and full of joy and love — about 9 months after that thought. She is fiercely determined, surrounded by prayer and LOVE.
We had peppermint tea and some delicious veggies, cheese (it IS Wisconsin, after all!), gluten-free crispy crackers, and dark chocolate covered cherries. A lovely tea party for three.
We chatted about family, about our children, about our lives. We talked about her treatment until she declared she’d had enough. We went on to talk about the book she had finished (during chemo!) and about her upcoming book signing. I bought a few for family and friends, and she happily signed them for me.
We talked about balcony people and about basement people. She said, “If you are on the stage performing at the very top of your ability and the balcony is full of people who love you unconditionally, who believe in you, who are your most loyal supporters — who is in the balcony?” I got teary and reached out my hand to Anne, “Anne Donovan.” She grasped my hand. I talked about how Anne has buoyed me through the years and not only me, but my children. Without fail, without reservation, without shyness. She is on our side. Always. No question. Ever. I’m incredibly blessed to have a balcony packed full of wonderful friends and family and colleagues.
Then she asked, “Who is in the basement? Who second guesses you? Questions your words, your motives, your actions?” Well, I could name a few people. But thankfully very few.
This woman inspired me. She gave me comfort and support today; she declared my life had already touched many lives for the better and predicted I would be continuing on that path. She hugged me tightly and she knew I was thinking I might not ever see her again. She saw my tears. She prophesied that I will be open to more joy and love than I can imagine. All three of us hugged and at least two of us were tearing up.
I recently found out one of my quilt friends is dying.
She has been fighting breast cancer for well over a year now.
She tried alternative medicines (including a trip to Ecuador for frankincense treatment) and traditional treatments (surgery and chemo, etc.) but the battle for her body is being won by the cancer this week.
I have known Barb for years. We belonged to the same quilt guild for over a decade. I’m guessing 16 years? I got to know her not only through the guild meetings and guild quilt shows, but also through her volunteer position in the guild as co-tech ed organizer. Her partner in crime for tech-ed was her buddy Annette. They were so hilarious together. Barb, tall thin and dark haired, and Annette, short round and grey haired, reminded me of a great comedy team along the lines of Stan and Ollie (but neither being stupid or mean!)
Barb and I also got to know each other at the guild quilt retreats* (see explanation below), held annually in Feb (or March) and October (or September) depending on when we can get reservations at the retreat space. Barb and I often ended up sitting near each other as we were quilting and often chatted as we worked. Eating meals together is one of my favorite parts of quilt retreats, and I would often find myself sitting near Barb and getting involved in a lively conversation.
One of the first conversations I remember having with Barb was when we discovered several mutual interests: Jane Austen, Colin Firth and more specifically those two together in the A&E production of Pride and Prejudice. Oh my! I thought I was a big fan, but she left me in the dust.
She had seen nearly every movie Colin Firth had ever made (and he has made a LOT of movies).
She regaled me with the story of seeing Colin in leather pants in the movie “What a Girl Wants.” Barb claimed she stood up, fist in the air and yelled “YES!” (Annette confirmed this was true. So funny!)
She told me the story of finagling DVDs of all the PBS Jane Austen movies from either her cable company (or satellite, idk?) because she had reception issues when the movies were aired. She got them ALL! She was very persuasive.
We both loved eating at Athenian Grill in Dubuque. She would always tell me when the place was closed (it went through much drama and changes of ownership). We would always commiserate whenever that happened (and it happened often!).
She told us stories from work. She taught computer classes at a community college. I am sure she was a fabulous teacher and that she was much loved and appreciated by her students. As a fellow teacher (though I teach music), I pick up on passion and dedication when good teachers talk about students and classes. Good ones care. A lot. And you can tell just by listening to their stories. Barb was a good one.
Barb certainly had her quirks, too. She and another friend created an elaborate reward system to try to keep themselves motivated and on track in their quilting projects. There were monetary rewards for certain amounts of time spent, for completing projects and for I don’t remember what all. The part that fascinated me was that the money was IMAGINARY and that the amounts were quite small. Once I asked, if the money wasn’t real anyway, why they didn’t reward themselves with higher pay? Like maybe more like $100 an hour instead of whatever less than minimum wage they were paying themselves?
She replied, “Well, we don’t want to go crazy with it.” (I am shaking my head and laughing out loud as I write this and remember this conversation. SO FUNNY.)
The other amusing thing is this imaginary money reward system actually WORKED for them!
Another “Barb” thing I enjoy is the way she talks herself through a project. She is a perfectionist. She will tear things out that I would never dream of fixing. She usually has a running commentary going about the fabric, her machine, the pattern, the project in general, the intended recipient, or the reason she is making the thing. She struggles to follow directions at times, and also likes to have confirmation from anyone who can hear her that she is doing everything correctly. Barb manages to do this without being annoying.
Barb often would be working on projects for her nieces and nephews (whom she dearly loves). She worked on one Buggy Barn (a quilt pattern company) star pattern for her sister for several retreats! The stars had lots of pieces and each piece had little borders around them. The whole project was in pale colors so all the work didn’t really show up that much. This is not the exact pattern, but it was very similar to it.
Several of us encouraged Barb to just quit working on it because it seemed to be frustrating her so much. But she kept working steadily on it and I am pretty sure she did finish that project eventually. (For many quilters finishing a project is not mandatory. A lot of us are excellent at picking out, designing and beginning projects. Finishing them? Not so much.)
Last fall, as we sat in the sewing room at our retreat I kept hearing an inner voice tell me to ask Barb’s permission to pray with her about her cancer. She had been through several months of alternative treatments by this time as well as some traditional medicine. She was wearing a cute brown pageboy wig, so her hair was gone from having chemo.
I looked for times to talk to her quietly but in a room with 20 creative, happily sewing quilters, there is not much down time and not much quiet time. I argued with myself about the prayer idea for at least the first day. Why me? Someone else could do it. The inner voice was not giving in. Yes, you. Yes, now. Do it.
So I went over to Barb’s table. I asked if she would be comfortable with the idea me gathering everyone who wanted to into a circle of friendship to give her support for her upcoming treatments. She said YES instantly. So I turned around and asked people to gather. I did not want to assume prayer would be the word everyone there would use for what we would do — but whatever I said — everyone came over. We held hands. We stood in a circle. Everyone looked at me. I asked if anyone wanted to say a few words or lead a prayer or anything — someone said “You do it.” So I did.
I don’t remember what I said, but I poured my heart out. We need Barb healed. We need her with us. This cancer needs to get out of her body. We wrap her in our friendship, love, comfort, encouragement and support.
I’m usually a crier. (See any number of my previous blog posts!) I’m not much of a public prayer either. But this was on my heart and I did what my heart (I believe it was the Holy Spirit) was telling me to do. This is one of those times that I believe the power of prayer was not only a mental but also a physical experience. Is there an energy that generates when people hold hands and stand in a circle and all focus their thoughts and minds on one person? — I don’t know. I felt something, though. Love, Faith, Friendship, Compassion. Words don’t mean anything much at a time like that, though.
I didn’t cry (much). At least I was able to continue talking and to form relatively coherent thoughts for which I am truly thankful to this day!
At the end of my words– everyone, EVERYONE, hugged Barb and whispered encouragement to her. Tears were flowing. Barb thanked us and shed a few tears of her own. It was a wonderful moment of personal connection between all of us in that circle.
As the weekend went on, many of the other quilters came over to my table to say how much they appreciated the circle. I think many of us had the thought that something should said or done to show Barb our love and support, and we were thankful to have found a way to express that to her.
This year, we knew that Barb was near the end of her life. We had some roses both in the work room and on our table in the dining room in her honor. We gathered again in another friendship circle to pray for her and for ourselves as we were missing her presence with us.
As I visited with the quilters there, I found at least one of them working on a “Barb” project. One that she had worked on, but had not finished. She was hoping to get it finished for Barb before she died.
I just got word a short while ago that Barb died in the early hours this morning (October 1). My heart is sorrowful, but my spirit is comforted to know that she free of the cancer and is now pain-free. I miss you already, dear friend.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes,
and there will be no more death
All these things are gone
forever. NLT Rev. 21:4
*Quilt Guild Retreats: A Brief Explanation
(Modern quilt retreats are NOT like the photo above!) Imagine 20 creative women (mostly strong-willed and not afraid to express their opinions about anything and everything) sitting around a long large conference room. Each person has their own work table and chair. On each table is a sewing machine, light, and quilting tools/gadgets. Most people have fabric nearby, some cut into pieces large and small and stacked ready to sew. The stacks are neat or messy depending on the creative style of the person. (I’m in the messy category — is anyone surprised?) In the center of the room are several “cutting tables.” These tables are protected by a special type of mat that is used with rotary cutters, wheel-shaped razor-sharp cutting tools that can slice fingers as easily as several layers of fabric. (I will explain how I know this in another post, another day!)
Everyone works on their own projects at their own pace. If you need advice or opinions, just ask. Someone (usually SEVERAL someones) will gather ’round to opine. You can stop to take a nap or a walk (either outside in the verdant gardens or in one of the meditational labyrinths) or just take a break to sit and chat.
It seems that we eat every 15 minutes, but in reality we eat three times a day down in the spacious dining area with extremely large windows overlooking beautiful pastoral farmland. The Mound (short for Sinsinawa Mound) has a fabulous bakery, so we often have their home-made dinner rolls, breads, pies, cinnamon rolls, etc. Some people finish several small projects, some bring one large quilt to assemble, some bring hand work only. The point it to spend uninterrupted time together doing something we love — quilting — with people we enjoy.
Yes, we sit and sew and talk and eat for three day (or more if we can manage the time away!).