Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Sweater for Rachel

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my niece, Rachel Grace's, death. She was born many weeks early and lived for about 48 hours. Just doing my thing -knitting, writing, trying to make meaning from the circumstances- I seem to have come up with the draft of a book. This is a DRAFT of the introduction, but in honor of Rachel it seemed appropriate to post it today.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that the birth of any baby can be a gift to the world. It does not matter to me if the child has physical and/or cognitive challenges. It doesn’t matter if the child will only live a few days. The child is perfect. Nonetheless, the circumstances around his or her birth can be staggeringly imperfect. Of course, we want easy lives rather than hard ones for the babies in our lives, and so we prepare. We give up coffee (!). We take more naps. We listen to Mozart. In that same spirit, we acknowledge that full-term pregnancies are better for babies than shorter-term ones. In the case of a premature infant, something is very wrong, even if just for a short time.

It may seem silly to knit for such a non-standard situation. How many babies can this affect, after all? The answer is “a lot,” but that is not the point. We knit for many reasons. We soothe ourselves with knitting. We knit to show love when words fail us. We knit when we don’t know what else to do. There’s a vague sense of disquiet, that “something’s wrong” feeling, when a knitter finds herself without her knitting. We knit because it’s our art, quibbling about the distinction between art and craft aside. In short, we knit because doing so is part of who we are.

Moreover, it must be said that knitters flourish in bad times; it’s where we are at our best. Whatever the problem, we try to cushion its impact with soft, warm yarn, knitted up with all the love we can muster. I know for a certain, lived truth that the stories of premature babies do not always end happily. Rachel Grace, my niece, lived among us for about 48 hours. She was our perfect Rachel, just as the world and our family needed her to be; nothing about her life was a mistake or a failure. And yet, she died. Knitting has a role here, too. I knew that she would probably be born premature, and I knit anyway. She never wore the things I made for her, and that matters not at all. Knitting those things was no sillier, for sure, than the fact that I was knitting receiving blankets for a baby born at the end of June in Alabama. That was probably way stupider, actually.

I will argue that knitting for premature babies is no more futile than any other knitting. If you only judge its immediate utility, knitting is always futile. Babies outgrow garments as quickly as we can knit them, sometimes after only one wearing. I have been known to misjudge entirely, and a knitted garment NEVER fit its intended recipient. Knitted garments cost more to make than their mass-produced counterparts. Certainly, my time could be more productively spent in other ways. (Dusting comes immediately to mind.) And yet, I will argue to my last gasp that knitting still has merit.

Knitted baby garments warm and protect. They organize rituals, as we see with, say, knitted baptismal gowns. Knitted toys are fun and harmless when thrown. Knitted blankets welcome babies into families, as in “Auntie Andrea always makes the receiving blankets. Here’s yours.” And they even mark life transitions. Auntie Andrea also makes (has great intentions of making, anyway) the afghan that accompanies a college freshman off to his new adult life. Premature babies need many of these same life markers; we just have to provide them faster.

Sometimes, though, even knitting is not enough. In the case of the howling grief that accompanies the death of a child, it was not. My next line of defense is to write. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. And when even that fails, I teach. Healing from Rachel’s death required all three. This book is the result.

I have designed patterns specifically for preemies and micro-preemies. You will find the standard baby wardrobe of hats, booties, and blankets made tiny. But more than that, you will find garments that accommodate the machinery and wizardry that attempt to mimic the simple elegance of a mother’s body. You will also find patterns that allow for the interesting social bonding that occurs between a tiny preemie and his or her parents. And finally, we have to acknowledge that on some level reducing the number of pre-term babies requires not better technology but better care of their mothers. In that spirit, I have included a pattern for mom. It’s not exactly a public health intervention, but it’s a symbol that at least part of our focus needs to be on her.

Alongside each pattern, you will find an essay based on my reflections as I designed and knit each item. I claim no great wisdom. I don’t even claim small wisdom, come to that. But I have walked this road, and if my experience helps anyone then so much the better. And finally, on the off chance that the sale of the book results in any actual money, it will be donated entirely to the March of Dimes in Rachel’s name, to help ease the lives of all babies.


jill said...

Beautiful. I love it.

MoDLin said...

Thank you for all that you are doing. It's such a lovely tribute to little Rachel and all the babies who are born too soon.

Renee said...

Beautiful. I will buy a copy in honor of my niece Ava, who will hopefully be joining us in a few weeks for whatever brief amount of time she graces the earth.