Descent

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By Suzanne Leigh

The MRI was bad, very bad. How long, we asked our neuro-oncologist, as we stifled our sobs. Months, she said. She would prescribe Natasha a low-dose chemo that might slow the progression of the disease, but now that a cure was well and truly off the table, quality of life was the overriding issue.

Natasha had been absent from that conversation. She didn’t want to hear about it or know the status of her latest scan. She wanted to go to the mall. STAT.

A few weeks earlier, Natasha had started ordering buttons from the Internet — mother-of-pearl buttons, glass buttons, embellished buttons, buttons shaped like animals, oversized buttons emblazoned with wild flowers. She had ripped off the buttons on her own clothes and her family’s clothes and replaced them with these new treasures. My summer cardigan had been adorned with wooden buttons painted with vivid flowers, Natasha’s beach shorts had crab buttons sewn at a jaunty angle on the back pockets and her dad’s Hawaiian shirt had a seashell button on the breast pocket.

Now she needed more clothes to act as a canvas for the buttons that continued to arrive in the mail.

First date

It was a Saturday morning and the store was thick with teen girls working the racks for a dress to impress. The music was a mindless thump, thump, thump. The ambiance, suffocating. Watching these young, vital shoppers pick out an outfit for a date or a party, I had to lean against a display stand; so tortuous was the realization that gripped me. I knew that the odds were overwhelmingly against us that my fragile, chronically fatigued daughter would live long enough to have a first date or ever again be strong enough to enjoy a Saturday night party.

“Nothing fits, everything’s too big,” Natasha muttered as she rifled the merchandise. The craniospinal radiation she had endured following her brain tumor recurrence two years ago had stunted her growth. At age 12, she was the same height as she had been as a slightly taller-than-average 10-year-old. “Maybe when I’m a bit taller,” she said quietly.

We tried a children’s store and scored with two colorful tops. Back at home they were promptly accessorized with bold metallic buttons.

The button-sewing continued, replacing a previous hobby of painting and drawing. Strange, we thought, but perhaps the simplicity of sewing was more soothing than the challenge of landscapes and portraits? But then I noticed that her previous standard of fastidiousness seemed to be slipping.

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“Natasha, what happened here? Why did you use black thread on a white button for a white shirt … and why are the stitches so large?”

Natasha blinked and seemed bemused. I knew then that I would never again mention it.

Gradually her needlework became more erratic, with stitches that pleated the fabric and buttons that did not align with buttonholes. Meanwhile she started to develop a pain in one leg and a low-grade fever. The low-dose chemo had caused her neutrophils, a type of white blood cells, to plummet making her vulnerable to infection, which in her case developed into a skin infection called cellulitis. The chemo would be stopped. Natasha needed to be admitted for a course of IV antibiotics.  She packed her buttons together with her hospital uniform of T-shirts and sweatpants.

In her hospital bed, Natasha selected the buttons for a T-shirt that needed garnishing . She arranged the buttons against the fabric, assessed their aesthetic appeal and then re-arranged them repeatedly.

“Want me to help you thread the needle and get you started, Honey?” I asked her.

“No, I think I’ll do it myself,” she said. For five days in the hospital, Natasha lined up different configurations of buttons, seemingly transfixed by their colors and textures. Not a stitch was sewn. Nor would she ever sew again.

‘Keep her calm’

“Where’s Marissa?” she asked of her sister one afternoon while we were still in the hospital.

“Marissa? At school of course! It’s Monday.”

“Oh yes! Of course.”

But the next day the question was repeated. I pressed the attending. “Normal,” I was told. “Just keep her calm.” (The attending hadn’t needed to finish his sentence: Normal for her dire prognosis. We knew.)

In the last weeks of Natasha’s  life, I laid out a piece of fabric and asked her to use her artistic judgment to tell me which button I should select and where I should sew it. I had hoped the project would inspire a lingering flicker of her creative spirit, but I think she co-operated solely to please me. When it was completed, she wrote on a corner of it her name and date —  a date that would precede her passing by two weeks.

Natasha’s clothes remain neatly folded in her dresser. One or two larger items of clothing  that have been accented with buttons fit me and sometimes I wear them in an attempt to feel closer to her. Common sense tells me that I need to re-sew the misaligned buttons with the mismatched thread and irregular stitching. But I can’t, because I remember the quiet dedication she put into sewing those buttons when her own life was hanging by a thread.

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