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Voices of Hope & Healing
for Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant

Why I Sew
by Victoria Bartling

I don't ever remember a time that I did not sew; my earliest memories are of my mother laying out patterns on our dining room table, of clothes I made for my dolls, of mastering the basic skills of sewing: threading a needle, tying off a knot, sewing a 5/8" seam, basting and pinning pieces together. The sounds of sewing with the bursts of steam from the iron, dropping the presser foot, and the hum of stitching in motion are etched in my earliest memories. A magnetic force drew me to the fabric and notions department where I pored over heavy, large pattern books for hours on end from McCalls, Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue, bookmarking the prospects for a pattern to make a new item of clothing. Until I learned how to make my own clothes, I wore "hand-me-downs" from my cousin. But by the time I was twelve, I was creating my own ensembles that were unique to me; in fact, I did not have any "store bought" clothes until I succumbed to current fashion by buying a surfer shirt at Montgomery Ward.

At first I sewed to make clothing for creative and utilitarian purposes, fascinated by the ability to choose the design, the colors, type of fabric and embellishment to make something that made sense. Then, I began making things for my four younger sisters: bags to hold their dolls and the intricate fur-trimmed coats and dresses my mother made for the slim, tiny waisted Barbies. The Christmas of 1966, all of my sisters wore identical white corduroy dresses trimmed with red lace. That same year my mother and I made the Christmas stockings for the girls out of red and white felt and sequins, making critical decisions such as how to shorten Anastasia's name to fit— should it be Stacy? or Stacey? Stephanie or Stephie?

There isn't one aspect of sewing that I don't love. It has been my lifelong passion. Sewing is a process that has a rhythm of its own, from laying out the pattern with respect for the grain, pinning right sides together, negotiating with the bobbin, pressing carefully, snipping threads. Most of the time minor errors can be ripped out and forgiven, but not always. I learned through sewing that it's best not to take short cuts, to do each step with care— marking, basting, matching, pressing.

At the time that I was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia there were few options for treatment and none of them were encouraging: either interferon or BMT. From the available information at the time, I could not deny the real possibility of death before I would reach the age of 50. When faced with this reality, both life and death became immediate and intensified; all of my expectations were altered. I envied old age, cried at the sight of my pre-teen children, mourned for the experiences I might not have, things I would not see, hear or touch. I clung to life and became friends with death as I reframed my life as to be fully prepared to live and fully prepared to die.

Pre-transplant was such an intense time: protecting my children, pursuing treatment options, getting my affairs in order, connecting with friends and family, and for me, sewing. I had always sewed on a machine and that became impossible because it seemed that I was away much of the time. Not sewing was not an option for me because fabric and thread had always been a part of my life and my means of expression. So I changed my approach, created a quilt top at home by machine and finished it by hand on the road. Anytime I had to travel or wait—and cancer patients wait a lot—I had my old friend in my hands, and I continued to stitch, stitching by hand, beading, embellishing and pouring my hopes and anxieties into cloth.

I was like Rapunzel, generating piece after piece, and by the time I went in for transplant, I had made a series of narrative art quilts that were hung on the walls of my hospital room. In my own hand I had stitched the story of how life changes in an instant, that this is a journey with a perfect ending whichever way it goes, and that in the end, "all will be well". Aside from the art quilts, I made quilts for my children, Joanna and Jordan, wanting them to have the comfort and presence of their mother though I would be away for awhile.

The narrative quilts were recognized by the BMT community and profiled on nbmtLINK, BMTinfonet, Novartis Pharmaceuticals calendar, and Creative Center for Arts in Healthcare. This took me by surprise and continues to be a great honor. I have no formal art training (My profession is in pediatric audiology), and never sought recognition for my creative efforts through sewing. Clearly something happened here.

In retrospect, I think that when faced with the real possibility of death and fighting fiercely for life, everything came into sharp focus and took me to places I wouldn't have gone otherwise; through it all emerged a richly transformative process that made me more than I was prior to transplant.

Post Script
Now, eight years post transplant, I have the luxury of survivorship and value time, telling myself, "Look! Listen! Pay attention! There is beauty all around, and you may never pass this way again." My life with sewing continues, but it does not have the life/death intensity it once did, and thankfully so. Now I can sew for the sheer joy and celebration of it, like making the quilt featured on the beautiful cover of this booklet as a gift to my niece, entitled "Lucia's Quilt."

Quilt Image

 

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