Before I left medicine, I worked in operating rooms as an anesthesiologist. There’s no discounting the mental preparation involved, but hands practiced and communicated what I knew best. They calmed the concerns of new patients with the weight of human touch. My hands felt for the elastic bounce of vessels beneath the skin’s surface where I placed small catheters delivering saline or, if need be, blood transfusions. My fingertips traced the peaks and valleys of the spine, locating the small depression where an epidural or spinal needle would be placed, feeling for the differing tensions of skin, connective tissue, fascia, ligament, and dura. The gentle return of clear spinal fluid bulging and then dropping from the needle’s hub signified success; through it local anesthetics made for the painless delivery of babies, C-sections, and surgeries of the lower body.
My hands read the anatomy of the neck, pushing aside the carotid artery and exposing the jugular vein into which I placed catheters that could reach the patient’s heart. These monitored volume and pressures and could electrically pace the heart when it could not generate a heartbeat on its own. Resting on the patient throughout surgery, my hands silently gathered information: temperature, skin turgidity, movement, pulse rate and rhythm. Patients recalled the reassurance of my hand on their shoulder when they “went under” and, again, when they awoke. The fragile elderly and the very sick who could tolerate only minimal sedation remained awake during minor surgical procedures while I held their hand. Later, many remarked that this was the most physical contact they had experienced in a long while.
When I retired, it was my hands that were lost for what to do, having been well occupied for so long. Restless hands made for a restless body and a restless mind. I had been accustomed to a rhythm of movement that had defined my days, ferrying patients to and from the operating room, inducing anesthesia and reversing it in a physical dance whose choreography was embedded in muscle memory. My body had led the movements before my mind was even conscious of directing that action, much like one drives all the way home with thoughts seemingly elsewhere. When I quit medicine, it was my hands that fidgeted most, craving the fine movements and small accomplishments that came with years of practice. They did not go gently idle.
I picked up torches, paintbrushes, oars, trowels and spatulas in classes where I welded, painted, outrigger canoed, gardened and explored new interests. Yet, nothing yielded the thrill and pride of accomplishment that the art of anesthesia had given me or the sense that anesthesiology, as one’s story, was enough.
During the clinical surgery rotation in medical school, I had sutured defrosted Foster Farms chickens and learned I was good with a needle and thread. My memories of stitching dated back to a sixth-grade sewing class at Hawthorne Elementary School in Los Angeles. There, I wrestled with a skirt zipper that never worked right no matter how many times the teacher made me rip it out and start over. I hated her, the class and the zipper and I gladly crossed sewing off my list of future careers. Though I wasn’t bad with a suture kit and a chicken, I balked when my friend Mary suggested I give quilting a try. I remembered that old skirt zipper.
I was 50 years old, and said, “I was too young to quilt,” imagining a gaggle of oldies chattering about past lives and buried husbands as they gathered in their quilting bee, parking oxygen tanks and cans of Ensure nearby for what was undoubtedly their social event of the season. Mary rolled her eyes—said she wasn’t asking permission. My lesson would begin next Sunday. I was instructed to bring pieces of fabric that would create a pleasing conversation of colors and patterns when placed next to one another. She explained that quilters used only high-quality cotton of similar weights and thread counts such that when sewn together they would stretch and shrink in unison guaranteeing the quilt would maintain its integrity and shape. “Just any fabric store wouldn’t do,” she said; it had to be a quilting store.
That Saturday I left Santa Monica and headed east for Glendale’s Quilts N’Things where Mary said I would find everything I needed. The store was organized into aisles with bookshelves running from front to back, except that in place of books were rows of colored and printed fabrics rolled into bolts standing upright and snugly wedged next to each other, creating a textile library. The bolts were grouped by colors along one wall and continued up and down the aisles until every color of the spectrum had been displayed. Along another wall was a second copy of these same bolts but arranged by style and theme: ginghams, batiks, polka dots, plaids, calico prints and stripes. With no clear plan in mind, I was overwhelmed by the choices, unsure where to start but entranced by the seduction of colors and prints, all of which I wanted to bring home.
The shopkeeper instructed me to start with one fabric that called to me; I chose an autumn plum calico print and companion pieces in amber and a forest green one bearing faint patterns of leaves and branches. These were collected in “fat quarters,” as the pre-cut, nearly square pieces of quilting fabrics are called. I left the store, my small collection of neatly folded and bagged fat quarters in hand, but those I had left behind kept calling to me.
On Sunday, Mary showed me how to measure, cut, and square off edges, which required meticulous care and a steady hand to wield the cutting disc with precision. The tool had the appearance of a common pizza cutter, but its edges were razor sharp, easily cutting through ten layers of fabric or, if one’s attention wandered, a thumb. By day’s end, I had sewn several patches of squares into long strips, which were then sewn to each other, making the beginnings of a recognizable quilt that I finished over the following weeks. My friend had been right to believe that I would be happy running my fingers through fabric, carefully piecing together perfectly cut edges and making a new creation from what had been scraps only days before.
In the weeks and months to come, I made quilts. Blue quilts, African quilts, and candy-colored quilts printed with gum drops, jelly beans and gingerbread men edging their borders. Eventually my collection of fabrics mushroomed into teetering stacks, and I forgot about the fat quarters that lay buried below more recently purchased pieces.
Months later, I passed a store that smelled of sweet incense. It was crowded with furniture, purple resin Buddhas, votive candles, and a strange set of hinged screens made of widely spaced dowels, more see-through than one should expect a screen to be, which was seemingly of no use to anyone. The screens became the perfect rack on which I hung all 297 fat quarters arranged in a pageant of color. My collection brought me pride and pleasure, akin to a treasure chest of jewels, each chosen for reasons known only to me. Quilters call such a trove their “stash.”
At first, the quilts I sewed were simple combinations of two or three fabrics in checks or fine prints pieced in simple Irish chain patterns, an easy task for the beginning quilter. But in time, I tackled more challenging and complex designs culminating in a basket-weave-patterned quilt made from hundreds of small triangles of fabric. The pieces formed color ensembles made up of strategically placed lighter and darker values which created an under/over basket-weave pattern best visualized at a distance. This required pinning potential combinations to a corkboard and darting to the back of the room to see if the pattern rang true. Inch by inch, the quilt grew over time and circumstance; the inclusion of each fabric reflected the moods, thoughts, and events that consumed me during the quilt’s making.
A tiny green triangle of Snoopy fabric was incorporated in honor of Ruby, our beagle who had recently died. That dog made us crazy with her antics as she stole our hearts along with our chickens, sausages and steaks. She spent the better part of the kids’ teenage years with us, then died, too soon. She is forever remembered in a tiny green corner of the quilt.
There are fragments, too, of India prints dotted with gold paint placed here and there throughout the quilt. They pay homage to Susheela, a friend who was playful and adventurous and joined my crazy, big Argentine family on road trips each summer. A cardiac anesthesiologist, this reserved Bombay-born friend failed to show up for work one morning. Knowing it was unlike her to ever be late for the operating room and not answering her cellphone, a colleague drove the few short blocks to her house. Through the living room window, she saw Susheela, sitting upright on her couch, feet propped up on the coffee table, relaxed. But, she was dead. How long had she been there like that? Why had she died? There was so much we hadn’t known about her.
Although I knew the rules well, at some point my attention wandered and I purchased a thin, white Swiss-dotted fabric whose light value provided just the right contrast to make juxtaposed pieces stand out. It became a central repeating piece that composed a noticeable fraction of the quilt. I loved the way it looked. By the time I realized it was more fragile, making up what might become the weak link among the patches of cloth, the quilt was too far along to fix. Eventually, these pieces were supported by the stronger, more dependable fabrics surrounding them. In ways, they made the quilt more real and organic, like the lives it represented, with faults and weaknesses of its own.
The quilt took years to finish—so much went on that interrupted the work. During that time, my father, with whom I had been close, died. It hadn’t been a good year for him at the age of 92. He had to wear an orthopedic boot that made him unstable when he moved about, and so he needed a walker as well. He was determined to make it to the bathroom at work without the aid of that aluminum walker with its stupid fluorescent green tennis ball feet. It was a bad gamble. His trip to the bathroom was his last trip, literally. He fell, was in the emergency room within the hour, and died within a week.
The year that followed was a blur of crazy, with all the details to which death demands we attend. It took three years for my family to find our footing or believe we could navigate the world without this man who had steered our course for so long. During that time, the quilt remained in a corner of the sewing room, untouched.
My father had introduced me to exquisite fabrics. When I was ten years old, Dad took me along to the tailor and let me choose from the ash or brown silk cloths interwoven with subtle threads of lavender, blue or pink that would become his next suit, and the thin silks that would become his shirts. Now, sitting in his closet, I knew there was no way I would be dismantling these works of art, that neither shirt nor suit would find its way into the quilt. I bundled them up and dropped them off at the Veteran’s Administration job center, hoping that they would be worn by someone seeking to start a new life, apply for a job or ask a girl out.
I knew the quilt needed to be finished, but ending a quilt that I had begun when my father was alive had a finality that I wasn’t ready to accept, as if to finish the quilt was to say goodbye forever. I wasn’t ready to let go of Dad. Still, I made a list of the things I needed to do. First on the list was to finish the damn quilt. Finishing required sewing its cover to a backing fabric and sandwiching a layer of fluffy batting between them. I bound the edges with a black-and-white gingham print dotted with cherries, which reminded me of food, summer family picnics and café curtains in the kitchens of the homes I remembered from childhood. I finished the quilt and with it a phase of my life.
More than a decade has passed since I left the practice of medicine. I’ve kept my hands busy and spent the time well, learning, trying, doing and attending to curiosity about every manner of things. I collected experiences in the same way I collected so many beautiful pieces of fabric over the years, never quite knowing to which end they would lead or if they might someday add up to something greater. Outrigger paddler, baker, mother, daughter, doctor, student, painter, walker, redwood lover, friend, quilter, writer, these are the fat quarters of my life. Like the multitude of quirky and unique fabric fragments from which that basket-weave quilt was made, I know, now, that those experiences, patched together, tell a story that is mine.
About the Author
Lisa A. Feintech writes about growing up in Los Angeles where she lives with her two rescue mutts. She received her MFA from Antioch University, and her M.D. from University of California, Los Angeles. Her writing seeks to capture memories and give them a home on the page. This is her first published writing.