About two-and-a-half years ago, I got back into knitting. I'd known how to knit since middle school, when my mom first taught me. I dabbled in it ever since, learning more working my summers in college at Old Sturbridge Village, a living-history museum where I was part of a staff who demonstrated daily life in a rural New England village during the 1830s. This included demonstrating handcrafts, such as knitting, which weren't handcrafts then. They were essentials for life. If you didn't knit, you didn't have warm socks, hats, mittens or scarves to keep you warm during the cold New England winters.
In college, I had this urge to learn to crochet. My late grandmother, who'd always showed up at our house for visits with something crocheted for each of us, must’ve been watching over me, because what kind of college student is overcome by a desire to learn to crochet? I know she was watching over me when my adopted grandmother gave me all of her old crochet books and needles, because somehow I was able to read the directions and, with a little help from my mom, figure it out without much trouble. Crocheting came easily to me and fast, the hook working over the yarn in a blur that sometimes amazed even me.
But about two-and-a-half years ago, when knitting became ultra popular and all these fun yarns and patterns came bursting on the market and into people's wardrobes, I got the itch. It started with a desire to learn to knit socks. And then mittens and hats. In six months, I was a knitting fiend, spending at least an hour a day on a project—more on weekends. Faire Isle knitting projects, what most non-knitters would recognize as alpine sweaters with all the different colors patterns, were particularly addictive. With the completion of each row, I wanted to do just one more row, to see how the pattern was developing. That's the fun of Faire Isle knitting.
I was working on a pair of Faire Isle mittens when our black lab became gravely ill. It was completely unexpected. One day she was a happy, healthy dog, and the next day something was terribly wrong. After two days in one of the best veterinary hospitals in the state, we knew that she had one of two kinds of acute leukemia all throughout her bones. There was so much of it that to put her through chemotherapy would almost kill her. And if she survived the chemotherapy, she would get either six more weeks or six more months, depending on which of the two kinds of leukemia it was, which the veterinarians could not determine. We could not put her through it.
We brought our dog home—our dog, who was pure love—and gave her four days of twenty-four hour love and attention before we let her go. We fed her all the best foods—steak, chicken, ham and cheese. Popcorn, which was one of her favorites. Anything she wanted, she had. We sat with her and laid down with her when she slept. We shed countless tears that week over our beloved ZuZu.
I did not knit. I could not even look at my knitting needles, that's how guilty I felt about having spent so much time knitting in the weeks leading up to ZuZu's illness, instead of spending that time on my dogs. Even though we had always loved our dogs ZuZu and Sissy to pieces their entire lives, when death comes, it seems one natural response is to start looking for where you went wrong, how you could have done more for them, spent more time with them, loved them more, as if they would somehow lessen the pain. The truth is, it won’t lessen the pain, and those regrets accomplish nothing.
After those four days, we took ZuZu to our own vet and held her as she went off into her final sleep. We let her go before she became any more ill than she already was, before she had to suffer any more. She was only seven, still young for a Labrador retriever, which made it all the more heartbreaking. And that's what it felt like, as if someone had taken a knife and cut out part of my heart right there at the vet's office and left me there to bleed to death.
The depression that followed was deep and dark and frightening, and the only thing that helped was knitting, obsessively, at every spare moment, especially when I was at home, where I was most painfully aware of ZuZu's absence.
Normally, writing is my coping mechanism for handling life's difficulties. I used to think that writing helped me process the events and stresses and triumphs in my life because it gave me distance, allowed me to separate myself from them. If I looked at my life experience as potential material for my fiction, then it becomes not so much about me anymore, but about something outside of myself. And that is a comfort.
While I still believe this to be true, the experience of letting my dog go and grieving her death taught me that writing turns my life experiences into material for my work not by creating distance between me and my life experience, but by integrating those experiences into my being. Let me explain. I was working on a manuscript at the time of my dog's illness. I stopped working on it for about a month during her illness and after her death, partly because the story had to do with dogs and death, which was too much for me to handle emotionally. I couldn't write in my journal either, which was different as well. Usually, I can at least write in my journal.
When my mother had a stroke, I brought my journal with me down to Florida where my parents had been traveling when she woke up one morning and couldn't find her left hand. The second night there, I started writing about it. I can see why now—I needed to start processing the event and my emotions about it right away. There were things to do—my parents' boat to pack up, doctors to question, physical therapy to begin, travel arrangements to be made. There was no time for grieving or sadness. That would have to wait. My mother needed me—all of us—right then.
With ZuZu, there was nothing to do but cry and grieve. When my parents came to see her one last time, I told my mom, "Sorry, mom, but this is worse than your stroke." With ZuZu, it was just one long good-bye, and nothing to do but wait for time to do its work.
The writing was inevitable, though. I can't live without it, and I had a manuscript to finish. When it came time to get back to work, I knew that the first thing I had to do was write about the events of ZuZu's death. I knew that if I did not commit that truth to paper, it would stop me from writing any other truths—and I cannot write unless I am writing the truth. Before resuming work on my manuscript, I took out my journal, and through tears blurred my vision, I wrote the story of ZuZu's death. In writing it down, I was integrating the experience of her illness and death into my being, not separating myself from it. That's why I had been avoiding it for so long. And only then could I continue on and complete my manuscript about a young man who learns to grieve for the death of his little brother.
It was knitting, though, that saved me during the dark days after ZuZu's death. Every night after work, I'd stand at the edge of an ever-deepening abyss and look down into the darkness. I could have jumped in and fallen deeper into a very bad place. Instead, with a heavy heart, I'd turn to my knitting bag and pull out a pair of mittens or a scarf or whatever project I had and start to work. I don't remember what I made that fall—some mittens and scarves and felted bags, I think—and I gave everything away. It's as if those projects do not want to be remembered, as if my grief was woven into the stitches to be given away. And while I'm thankful every day to be a writer—to have the art of writing to help me cope with this world—I am also grateful I picked up knitting again two-and-a-half years ago so I could grab a mitten to pull me from the edge of the abyss when I needed it.