I Still Don’t Know Why It Worked, But It Worked.

White wedding.
White wedding.

What can I say about this time last year?

The physical suffering for several months was greater than anything I had felt in four years of the fallout from my ulcerative colitis and multiple (botched) surgeries. The pain began to have a shape, a personality. Its tyranny was beyond belief, so bad I would giggle, sometimes, in the midst of an attack. One night I actually turned on the voice memo recorder on my phone when I was spluttering and screaming to have proof later that it was as bad as I thought it was; the most incredible thing about pain that bad is that you don’t remember how bad it was when you’re out of it, usually. This is a blessing, because you might start looking for the nearest set of train tracks if you thought it would happen again.

All that and ensuing hospital trips, lonesomeness. I have loved ones and friends aplenty, but I was stuck in a weird silence, longing for a different sort of hug in so many dark nights of cold snow.

And then an acute, Stage IV existential crisis slammed itself into my chest, which sounds sorta funny except that those aren’t, really. What is the purpose of life? Why does it have to be so beautiful and then end? How come I’m getting older? What happens when someone in my family dies? Why does my body have to hurt like this? What is the meaning of this? I’ve heard people joke about having an existential crisis, but I actually caught one last year and trust: they are no laughing matter. I would cast about each day, numb, going through the motions of work (glorious life-raft) and at night would try to sew, try to take a walk and let the cold sting my cheeks into roses. I felt the blues, the mean reds, and yellow bile in my throat, pretty much all the time. Primary colors.

But then something happened and I turned the corner.

I was walking down State St. one evening, wide-eyed and gaunt. I hadn’t been able to eat for awhile because it hurt to eat and it hurt to digest and it hurt to poop. I was a shell. There was still snow on the ground from the last storm. I went into a designer discount place that contains buried treasure if you’re willing to look. I was not interested in shopping that night; I was interested in not shuffling down State St. as the Ghost of Christmas Future. So I went in.

Up the escalator to the second floor. I floated around for awhile and got sadder. It was so depressing, all those lifeless corpses of clothes, all those clearance tags. And then, snapping through the hangers on the rack in the very back, I saw something remarkable. It was a dress. A white dress by Celine, my favoritest designer ever. It looked like paper. It was like a paper doll dress. It had a Peter Pan collar; it looked like a candy-striper’s dress without the stripes. And it was filthy. It had been marked down from $2,200 to $1,500 to $1,200 to $800 to $425 to $225 to $80 ($80!) and it showed every month of mark downs, every try-on, every grubby hand of every shopper in the store. That poor, poor, beautiful dress. I seized it and looked at the tag. A French 40. My size.

I raced down the stairs with it. I paid. The clerk shoved it in the bag and I hurried home as fast as I could. I felt strange and knew what I had to do. I had rescued the dress from the floor of the store and its fate: certain destruction. It was bound for the mill of damaged-out apparel, destined to become true paper, which is what they do with useless clothes, turn them into paper. I had rescued it and now I had to restore it, nurse the nurse dress back to health. My own vulnerability seemed tied to the dress; my health in the balance, too.

A garment so fine, even made from cotton like it was, cannot be put into the wash. In fact, the beat up tag even advised to take it to not just any dry cleaner but to give it “the highest quality of professional garment treatment.” I came into the house and took off my boots. I  took the gentlest detergent I own from the laundry shelf. I ran cold water in the bathtub.  I swished and swished and made a gentle, cool, soapy bath. I lay the dress in the water. It floated on the top and then slowly sunk down. I knelt at the tub. And I cleaned it. Like I was washing a baby bird, I tenderly rubbed the dress on itself, took a never-used soft toothbrush and flicked the dirt off. I rinsed that thing nine times, probably. I got it spotless. It was white as the newly fallen snow. I opened the window and hung the dress on a wide hanger on a jerry-rigged stand so it would touch nothing. It dried through the night, retaining its paper doll shape.

Then I made a small rack of lamb chops rubbed with rosemary and devoured each chop like I had been starving for a week. Not too far off. I got into bed and sank into sleep and that night, I didn’t wake up in a panic.

In the morning, I felt better. A lot better. I put the dress on. I pulled thick tights and boots on and wrapped myself up in a sweater; the dress is a summer dress and for it to work in winter, I needed accoutrements. I was warm. I braided my hair and went out into the world and I swear, the sun was shining.

I have felt better ever since.

16 Responses

  1. Jody Edwards
    | Reply

    Have you ever seen the video called “The Touch of the Master’s Hand”? This post reminded me of that video. A gorgeous violin, hand-carved and created with love. A violin, which over the years was used and misused by grubby and careless hands. Seemingly ruined, for all intents and purposes. And up for auction. No one will purchase the old violin. People were not interested in the violin. And then a man came forward. He wiped off the dust. Tightened the strings. And played a song, pure and sweet, sweeter than angels sing. And then when the song was over, the auctioneer resumed. Suddenly the people started to bid thousands. And the people wondered, what made the change? They didn’t understand. Why was the violin suddenly worth so much, when before no one would look at it twice? It was the touch of the Master’s hand.

    And there are people who, like this violin, are ignored and not-valued, all because of a bit of dust. Scars and loose strings, if you will. Until the Master’s hand comes in to play a melody.

    And what’s more. We are His hands.

    I’m sorry for your painful experience. You inspire me, being able to write about these things. I see so much to admire in you, and am grateful to be a reader of this blog.

  2. sarah schraw
    | Reply

    What a fabulous story, Mary. I loved it.

  3. Laura @ Prairie Sewn Studios
    | Reply

    I’m so sorry to read about how much pain you were in, but I also love that you shared this experience with us. Everyone needs a white dress experience like this sometime in their life, I’m sure.

  4. Evie
    | Reply


  5. Thomas
    | Reply

    I am currently feeling much the same way about the two pairs of Docs (white and oxblood) I just bought. After six months of horrible HKPP relapse, they just seems to signify a changing of the times, and my body, and my life each time I wear them. Thank you for so tidily encapsulating the way objects are far more than material things…

  6. linda
    | Reply

    I am glad I discovered your blog. You are a wonderful writer and really touch my heart. I think often we do not know the trials of others and think that life is smooth sailing and uneventful. You help me to keep an open mind and know that kindness should always be offered.

  7. Catherine
    | Reply

    Mary, I wish you good health and many happy days ahead. You are such a genuine person and I love reading your blog.

  8. Cheryl
    | Reply

    Joy comes in the strangest of places. I can picture you over the tub and everything. Beauty.

  9. Susan Morgan
    | Reply

    Amazing the healing power of fine fabric.

  10. Michael Holmes
    | Reply

    I don’t know Mary, I know quilting is in your blood. But your story telling is pretty extraordinary! It’s keeps me coming back! 🙂

    Glad your feeling well again!


  11. Gay B.
    | Reply

    I felt like I knew you through the quilting shows, magazines, etc. You always seem so upbeat and happy. And even in your pain and heartache, there you were–breathing life into something that others had discarded.

    God bless you.

  12. Lucy Beth Hedrick
    | Reply

    Just as you felt the beauty of nursing that dress back to life, I have often felt the pain of death after cutting my hair. I’m very indecisive when it comes to my hair and unfortunately I’m also very impatient. Needless to say, I’ve taken a pair of shears to my head more than once. Every time I feel as though I’ve butchered my hair. It’s an awful feeling, but nothing that a cute outfit and a flat iron can’t fix 🙂

  13. Karen Flick
    | Reply

    I am so glad I found your entry about being sick. I have watched your Moms’ Quilting show for years, tape it all the time, Quilt all the time….obsessed really! Longarm all the time!!….retired from nursing (my poor hub still is going to the ER and supervisor work,, love that man of 44 years now plus High School, wink)…ANYWAYS! I would see you on the show and think ” she does NOT feel well”….and I am guilty of wondering is you were pregnant (SO SORRY!)….not that having a baby is bad, I was a OB nurse for awhile….but ANYWAYS!….I know now some of your issues…not I am going to be nosey….have you tried gluten free….It has changed my life….and being nurse I had to share that…..I just purchased the book Grain Free….sounds helpful!…..seriously, I can not imagine the pain you have gone through, just having one attack on a trip and ending up in a SLOW to get to me and my pain issues! experience….you love that person who just lets you lay your head on their shoulders between waves of pain beyond childbirth c-section pain!! mine being my faithful and strong hub……but you don’t want that pain again so you start searching for answers….and I have found what fits me….my gutt…..so I hope you do too…..Gluten is in about everything we eat now if you buy off the shelf, which becomes impossible if you are really cleaning up your diet… I am rambling now….a none illness at age 64…..you are so sweet with your Mom….it makes me miss my gal and then my sisters….so you guys are so dear to us….keep it up, don’t quit…..be yourself and Quilt On!!…..it keeps you calm.
    Love the story of your dress….I KNOW EXACTLY how you feel…… my hub is so funny….I tried wearing leggins and sock and a skirt the other day and he was raving!!….he loved it!!….said it took him back for our HS days…..blush!!…… but layer is on girlfriend….Chicago can be a chill!!..
    Our son is waiting on a kidney transplant….38 yrs old…had a donor and almost done and they found a tumor on her right kidney….we rejoice that it was found for her!!….but Kev must now wait on his 2nd in line live donor (he is blessed with a waiting list of matches !!)…but he will loose his port for hemodialsis and has to have surgery this week to put in another peritoneal catheter in his abdomen….the first one in November was contaminated somehow and he got peritonitis….so he is a bit bummed…..he is in his Masters in Informatics at IU but that is on hold….has his sweet wife Mindy and two so precious 2 gals Cora and Millie……2 of our 8 grandgals and I have to mention our 1 grandson who WALKS ON WATER!!…. Life does go on and yes, each new day, each time we can breathe and our heart is beating is a day to rejoice in…….I will pray for you and for to find what you need…….
    Sorry so long but I feel like I know you!!…….
    Transplanted Buckeye living in NW Indiana…….the icebox close to your bigger icebox!! Hugs!! Karen

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