In which I feature someone else who knits, and it leads to a healing connection

A short story about medicine in a small town, or how small communities and their connectedness can be healing. As a side note, when I share any patient stories I will usually change significant details to avoid breaking confidentiality but maintain the essence of the problem. If I feel like a story needs more real details to share, I’ve asked permission of the patient to share first, as in this case.

In the hospital is currently a woman who I’ll call Mary who’s been in a healthcare facility for over three months. She initially came in with near total paralysis from Guillain Barre syndrome, an immune disorder that attacks your nerves, can leave you unable to walk, use your hands, and in rare cases, even breathe. Our hospital here functions as an acute care hospital as well as an inpatient rehab unit, so once the initial part of her hospitalization was over, she transitioned to acute rehab where she’s remained as she gets stronger, with her goal of walking freely again. During her time here, her husband had brought her a knitting loom, which she took to with aplomb and began churning out hats. She’s made hats for other patients, the children’s unit, and hospital staff. Once I walked in on another patient of mine wearing a sprightly red and black hat, and asked if Mary had made it, and of course she had. Over the course of the last week, she’d had a few features written up about her, one in the hospital newsletter, and then one in the local paper, focusing on her rehab and how her love of craft and knitting had helped her to heal.

Over the last week, however, she had been getting quite despondent with what she felt was the slowness of her progress, and wanting things to get back to her normal, which I think anyone in her situation would feel.  An elderly patient in the hospital in a different ward happened to read one of the newspaper articles and remembered that her husband had been afflicted with the same disease many years ago, and told him that he had to find Mary and go talk to her. And he did – coming into the ward, he asked for her room and walked in tentatively calling her name. She answered and he came in and sat at the side of her bed for over an hour, talking about his journey with Guillain Barre, how his recovery took six months, how he had even cried many times at his low moments wondering if he would fully recover, but how he eventually had.

I spoke with her the next day, and she felt entirely validated by the experience. Her tears and worry were not unusual, nor was she recovering too slowly. Someone else had struggled the same way she had, and had lived and thrived afterwards.

It was a healing conversation for Mary, and though it can’t take away all of the worries she has, was wonderful for her to have a connection with someone else. This is an aspect of rural small town medicine that I think is wonderful. The interconnectedness of the community and the openness of it make interactions like this possible, to the benefit of all.


In which I tempt a curse and thus far succeed

In the knitting universe, there is a phenomenon known as “The Sweater Curse,” whereby if you knit a sweater for your significant other, the relationship will end during the knitting of or sometime in the near future. There is some truth to the curse and it’s widely believed by many knitters. Sweaters are long projects to make, especially if you’re knitting one for a moderate to large person.  They are tricky things to fit and there’s accounting for personal taste as well. You may love to knit a large oversized heavily cabled and decorated sweater, and the recipient may feel that this makes him look like a tea cosy, and thus never wear it. You see the sweater as a physical embodiment of love, and yet it sits shapeless on a shelf. The presence of the unworn sweater will be a constant reminder of love rejected, a catalyst for arguments and eventually, the demise of the relationship.


Things I’ve knitted along the way on this trip

Thus, while Eric has long asked for a knitted sweater, I felt that our relationship should be in a stable place before undertaking such a task. It’s taken almost 13 years of marriage, but I thought we could handle it at this point. I hope I’m not proven wrong.

At home I have an entire arsenal of needles at my disposal, as one may need different sizes and lengths for various projects. I brought along with me a roll of mostly bamboo needles as I was worried that if I brought my sets of metal needles they might be taken away by airport authorities. I don’t quite understand why it is that you can’t bring a pair of nail clippers on a flight, but I can bring long wooden sticks on board no problem as long as they’re attached to some yarn. Not that I’m complaining, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had some heroic fantasies of saving the plane from evil doers with a sharp set of circular needles. I’ve never had any issues with the needles on any flights, and if I were to do this again, I’d bring my metal Addi interchangeable set and just check that bag and take on board the one set I was using at the time.

Throughout the trip I’ve picked up yarn at various places, as it’s fun to visit the shops, chat with the owners and then make a souvenir out of them. In New Zealand, this is a possum blend yarn that became a pair of socks. In Budapest, I bought yarn that became a baby blanket for my new nephew and another pair of socks. Japan provided bulky green yarn for a hat and a feathery looking cowl. In Ireland, I’ve picked up yarn at local woolen mills as mentioned in the last post.


Sock yarn from Austria and Budapest on the left, Black yarn from japan tucked behind. White and purple yarn from Studio Donegal in Ireland, Gray/brown from Kerry woolen mills. Green Wollewein from Vienna, and white yarn on the right from Lisbon.

For Eric’s sweater, he really wanted wool from Irish sheep. Personally, I find this wool to have the softness of a kitchen scrubber, but it is sturdy and he’s not sensitive to the roughness. We went to the shop together where he picked out the color, a lovely tweedy green. I knew I’d want to knit a Brooklyn Tweed design for the sweater – they’re all classic, well designed patterns and make modern gorgeous garments, nary a tea cosy in sight.


Note: The next few paragraphs are going to be knitting detail. Feel free to skip.

Eric gave me a favorite sweater of his to copy for sizing, and while the width was around the medium size,the length was longer than the largest size listed. Additionally I was using a DK and the pattern called for worsted. I also decided to add shaping so it wouldn’t be such a large rectangle and would be more flattering, as it’s knit with a fair amount of positive ease as is. I knitted a gauge swatch and got 19 stitches/4 inches, so did quite a bit of math and cast on 190 for the ribbing, planning on increasing by 4 stitches every 3″ up to the armpit for a total of 209, which would bring me back to the pattern and I would then follow.


Planning notes, and math, lots of math. I totally messed up the stitch counts the first time and had to rip out four inches and redo it.  Ouch.

I was nervous about the sleeve lengths in particular – the largest size the pattern calls for is 17″, but Eric measures a 18.5″ sleeve – so I cast on with a provisional cast on and knitted them up in stockinette then knit down in ribbing which made the addition of thumb holes very easy and would also make it easy to add or subtract length. For the thumb holes, I simply knit back and forth for several rows before joining the sleeve back up, then when weaving in the ends I looped around the edges of the hole to strengthen it.


Several times during the knitting, Eric would look at my progress and say “That looks a little narrow, doesn’t it?” Instead of stabbing him with one of the sharp pointy ends, I’d spread the stitches out on several circulars and have him try it on. The pattern does call for short rows in the back, and this is the only thing I wish I’d done a little differently – the sweater does bulge out a bit where the shoulders meet the arms, and I don’t think it needs all the short rows the pattern calls for. The other change was that instead of twisting the yarn for the button loops, which I thought looked janky, I crocheted a single chain and attached that to the sweater instead.


It’s pretty near perfect as far as I can tell and looks gorgeous, if I do say so myself. He says he’s going to wear it every day. He’d better.



In which we have a typical day  of school and city wandering

The weather here has been a bit funny, or so the locals tell us. Instead of typically warm, 70 degree October days we arrived to relative gloom and chill. One of those where it was okay if the sun was shining but the minute it disappeared, an icy chill wind would blow through and freeze you. We only left with summer clothing and so have, out of necessity, had to acquire more fall and winter appropriate clothes. I had hoped to find funky, 80’s era clothing here which we would feel okay ditching at the end of the year, but alas, it wasn’t to be. The shirts and jackets were all of the truly ugly 80s variety, think bright yellow with small pink and green isoceles triangles. Moreover, I had the opposite problem I had in Japan – everything here is about four sizes too big. I did find this cool leather jacket for $10, but everything else has come from H&M. The kids have new weather appropriate shoes, the thin Chuck Taylors having worn out with so much wear and growing too small for them anyway at the rate their feet expand. I’ve started knitting for need as well as pleasure, making hats, fingerless gloves, and scarves to shield us from the cold. 

Made with a deliciously springy merino picked up in Vienna

It’s been sunnier lately, and the other day was a crisp sunny fall morning. I think often of the Ray Bradbury short story about the Mars colony, where the sun only comes out once every seven years, focusing on a classroom of kids who lock a girl into a closet and forget about her, dooming her to miss the sun for another seven. Not to lock my kids in the closet, though I have often dreamed of it for other reasons, but to make sure that we enjoy these days among the gloom. Our days here are relaxed in general. We wake up around 8, and the kids snuggle in the living room under duvets and read whatever they’ve lately downloaded from the library for fun. 
At some point, we have breakfast (eggs & toast for the boys, Toast & yogurt for the girl, granola & yogurt for me). Eric and I have coffee, drinking instant nescafe. I’ve always quite liked nescafe, it reminds me of being in Mali, where breakfast was hot sugary milky nescafe and fresh baguettes under a canvas tarp outdoors, waving away flies who wanted a taste too. After we’ve all settled ourselves, we have the kids read their assigned reading – thus far we’ve read “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Mae Brown, “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, and are currently reading “The Shakespeare Stealer” by Gary Blackwood. We’ve downloaded lesson plans and have the kids write out answers to them. Sometimes they have to rewrite the answers, and then there may be tears and wailing. I do my best to ignore those, but sometimes fantasize about the aforementioned closet locking. 
They then switch to math, we’re using an online program called Dreambox which both kids like, though the boy will sometimes change to Khan academy instead. This needs occasional supervision but for the most part they’re on their own. We also do Geography, using online maps and quizzes, and while my kids now can identify all the countries in Europe and South America, this is the one place where I struggle in that there’s a lot of screen time involved with this type of learning. 
At some point during the day, we’ll sit down and have a discussion about the book, usually in the morning after math time. Eric is much, much better at the literature teaching than I am, given that he actually knows how to guide them to think and write and I just stare at them goggle eyed and say helpful things like “I know you can do this, why aren’t you?” Still, it’s where we try to mix in history of the times and places of the books – so far Civil Rights and Black Panthers in the 60s, World War II, and now Elizabethan England. Next up we want to read “the Wall,” a graphic novel about growing up in the Communist Era. The girl protests, saying “I’m SO SICK of learning about Communism! It’s always just communism in Vietnam and communism in Cambodia and bad things happening to people!” We will persevere. 

Afterwards we took advantage of the lovely day, playing in the fall leaves at Kids Park, picking up ice cream, wandering through the open squares and painted alleys, and finally finding our way to Viniloteca for a taste of a delicious IPA homebrew and some good conversation.