Knitting Circles Around Cancer

 In Current Blog

January 15, 2015
By: Vanessa Laven

My fingers flew as I rushed to finish knitting a hat. The winter white yarn, smooth with a hint of sparkle was just the perfect shade to create a warm, cozy gift, and I smiled knowing how much Miss Shirley would love it. I was racing against the clock, because any minute now, she would be discharged from the hospital – I still had a few days left of my stay. We were both patients being treated for cancer on 5 West, though most days it felt like a prison sentence.

I remember when I first got my diagnosis. That night, I woke up from anesthesia and joked to my husband, “It’s not a toomah.” He started to sob and said, “No Vanessa, you have tumors covering your heart. It’s cancer.” I remember blinking a few times, patting his hand and saying “Don’t cry. I’ll be OK,” before passing out. I had spent a whole summer going from kung-fu strong to gasping for air after crossing our tiny studio apartment. I was 25 and should have been in my prime. Instead, I felt a thousand years old.

My chemotherapy lasts between four and six days in the hospital, every three weeks for six months. I do my best to structure my days. My timetable mostly revolves around knitting and not paying attention to the television. I take hourly walks around the nurse’s station. I’ve perfected the art of knitting and wheeling my IV pole around. My arm is wrapped around it and knitting, the ball of yarn safely hanging in a bag from my wrist, shoulder nudging the pole ahead of me. Knit two, step one is my pattern. So my day continues on. Knitting and walking and watching TV and knitting some more. My good days are the ones when I knit endlessly. My bad days are marked by rows rather than inches.

My knitting is the only reliable way I have to mark the time. My beige hospital room is where time goes to die. It’s where seconds feel like minutes and minutes feel like hours. Day in and day out time drags on until my release. My parole is brief, there are three weeks before another round of chemo. Then it’s a few days until I develop a fever and I’m back in the hospital. My bag always has several works in progress to keep me entertained. My knitting is the only thing I haven’t lost a taste for.

I finished off Miss Shirley’s hat with plenty of time to spare. She accepted it with tears in her eyes. She’s discharged the next day; three days later her daughter calls me with bad news. Miss Shirley had passed away wearing my hat and a smile on her face. I sink into the stiff hospital recliner and numbly reach for my knitting again. Stabbing my knitting needles through the yarn becomes my rosary and my way through grief – the rhythmic click is both soothing and my fight song. I knit to examine my feelings and to gain distance from them. I quickly find it impossible to knit and cry simultaneously; instead, I choose to knit. My world had suddenly become much uglier and angrier, but now I had a way to bring some color and beauty into it.

Knitting helped to remind me that I had a modicum of control in the world and that I could grow something pleasurable. Every day that I made a stitch was a day that I brought beauty into my world even if my fingertips were numb. A hospital roommate once asked me, “How can you keep on doing that? Aren’t your fingertips numb? I can barely hold a pencil.” I shrugged my shoulders. “If I don’t knit,” I said to her, “I would be a bigger mess than I already am.”

That was three years ago and now I am in remission. Today I am a more patient person, thanks to cancer and my knitting. Knitted sweaters and medicine took time to work their way onto and into my body. The drive to create and produce also became a beacon of hope. It was a reason to keep going through chemo. It’s a reason to get through my days now. I had many more yards to knit. And I still do. There’s still more beauty for me to knit; if cancer didn’t stop that, nothing else will. I am a knitter, I can do anything.

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