A Grief Unraveled
“You find a place for loss, a way to hold it and live with it.” —Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
the sweater. commando style, crew neck, ribbed fabric for a close fit. Since acquiring the sweater in 1993, I have lugged its bulk from home to home, state to state. Across Texas, and from Austin to Seattle, I have carried with me the two pounds of knitted fabric that I haven’t worn since adolescence. Even then, the heavy cotton of the borrowed sweater sagged against my body, sloping off my rounded shoulders and hanging over my small chest while stretching over my wide, bony hips.
Everything began in 1983 on a spring afternoon in his living room. My mother was dating a man named Gary, whom she would marry that summer while on vacation in California. I sat on Gary’s floor, my back leaning against the brick fireplace, silent except when Gary asked me questions about school and hobbies. A few minutes after we arrived, he turned and called, “Jeff?”
I heard: “Coming, Dad,” from the hall. In the doorway appeared a boy with freckled skin and bushy hair cut squarely an inch above his forehead. He was ten, two years older than me. He wore a t-shirt tucked into elastic-band shorts and white tube socks.
He looked at me for a moment and then started running. He dropped and slid the last four feet across the carpet, landing in front of me as if he was sliding into home plate. He stared at me, the cleft in his chin starting to pucker, what I came to know as the start of his smile. And as it dawned across his face, my eyes widened. I began to laugh, my shoulders dropping as I exhaled the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
“I’m Jeff,” he said. Then he jumped up and asked, “Wanna play shuffleboard?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just set up the game, sure that I would follow.
Jeff taught me to play ping pong and darts. He showed me how to cook SpaghettiOs and fill water balloons. To climb onto the roof when our parents weren’t home. He placed a football in my uncertain hand, training me to curl my fingers around the curve of the ball and feel my fingertips along the laces, to pull back my arm and launch the ball with my shoulder. How, with the right hold and release, I could trace an arc through the sky as the ball spun around its own axis. “A perfect spiral,” he called as he watched the ball fly towards him, catching and holding it against his chest.
I learned to knit in 2003, and I haven’t stopped, stringing along from one sweater to the next. As a child, I tried many crafts—crochet, embroidery, beadwork. I loved to purchase the materials, willing the car to go faster on the way home so I could begin working with the yarn or beads. But the resulting object was never as beautiful or satisfying as the vague image I had in my mind. With knitting, once I learned the mechanics, I began to create scarves, socks, and sweaters that looked just like the sample photograph, finding symmetry between the making and the made. In trusting the outcome, I could enjoy the work.
I lived in the room that had belonged to Jeff’s older sister. Just months after our parents married, she packed her things and moved into her mother’s condominium. Jeff told me that she made him walk five steps behind her in public and that he was rarely allowed in her room, to which the door had always been closed.
Jeff often appeared in my open doorway while I worked on my craft projects. “Hey, whatcha doing?” he would ask. Ignoring my answer, he’d say, “Let’s go do something fun.” Sometimes I stayed in my room, withstanding his pressure. But most days, I put down my work and followed his lead.
On days that Jeff didn’t get detention, we walked home from school together. One afternoon when he was in sixth grade and I was in fourth, we entered the alley that led to our neighborhood and a group of boys from Jeff’s class followed. They twisted their soft faces into menacing leers as they pushed towards us and barked his name. My stomach balled into knots.
“Go home, Kelly,” Jeff said, his voice tight in his throat as he eyed the pack. “Go!”
I ran to our house. I don’t remember what happened, if he came home with bruises, if he told his dad. I only recall his body, still and tight, as the boys advanced. His lack of control.
When Jeff started junior high the next year, he visited my room less often. Instead, he closed his door, through which I could hear him murmuring into the phone, or talking to one of the friends he often had with him. One day, he went home with a girl from school. Our house was quiet, empty. I finished my homework. I chose what to watch on television. But I felt a little lonely and was relieved when Gary asked me to ride along to pick up Jeff.
When Jeff climbed into the car, he barely glanced at me in the backseat. Gary asked if he had fun. Jeff grinned and mentioned the hot tub; “We just talked,” he said. I pictured them sitting across from each other. Jeff talking, the girl wrapping her shoulders forward. Now, when I imagine that afternoon, I see Jeff grin, his shoulders relax as he gains a sense of his manhood in that suburban backyard.
Another thing happened that year: Jeff became friends with one of the boys who had cornered us in the alley. Although Jeff talked about him with ease, I stayed in my room when he visited our house. I didn’t have to be friends with this boy. But I felt that Jeff was crossing sides, leaving me behind.
As his shoulders and his social stature widened, Jeff built a new wardrobe to amplify the effect. Tees and button-down shirts in autumn tones like rust, forest green, and mustard yellow helped him stand out from his peers. The commando sweater was also bold, not the drab olive of its military ancestor. Knit from a variegated yarn—the colors changing in short succession—the sweater was a mix of colors: teal and tomato red popping next to yellow and cobalt. He owned socks to match each shirt, including a pair made from the same yarn as the sweater.
I always thought the bright sweater was a bold choice for a suburban male teenager. Looking closely at the fabric now, I notice the fifth color, a charcoal gray that moderates the vibrant tones. Like cigarette smoke.
We overlapped one year of junior high, when he was in ninth grade and I was in seventh. When we passed in the halls, I usually spied him first, particularly if he was wearing the sweater, which hung from his shoulders, narrowing to his slender waist and hips. He strutted down the hall like a rooster, the colors speckled across his chest. Even if he had his arm draped around a girlfriend, his body was slightly restless, his eyes always searching for the next girl.
One night the following school year, I knocked on his closed door. “Yeah?” he asked. When I opened the door, I saw him splayed across his bed, the phone cord twirling up to his ear. “Alright, see you tomorrow,” he said before placing the phone in its cradle.
“You didn’t have to get off the phone,” I said.
“Nah, it’s cool. We were done talking.” He didn’t say to whom, but he would have if I had asked. On his way to sixteen, Jeff had started sharing with me again, telling me about high school. Maybe he was humbled by being an underclassman.
“Can I wear your sweater tomorrow?” I asked.
I’m not sure why I always wanted to borrow it. I liked the matching socks, how they completed the outfit, and I often wore oversized tops to hide my little-girl body. Maybe the sweater was the shy girl’s shot at audacity. But the outfit wasn’t flattering. The V-shape the sweater made on Jeff inverted to emphasize my sudden hips, the only part of me that had begun to develop in eighth grade. I had to roll up the sleeves three times, and the sock heels bunched between my shoes and pegged jeans.
“Yeah, sure,” he said, rolling over to pick up his homework from the floor. “It’s in my closet.”
I stepped inside and, standing on the pile of dirty clothes, reached to the upper shelf for the sweater. I opened a few drawers before finding his stash of colored socks. When I emerged, Jeff was laying on his back, the English book closed on the bed.
“Did you already give up on your homework?”
“Yeah, whatever.” He grinned. “Somebody always tells me what I missed. Yours is already done, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He rolled his eyes but smiled.
“Thanks,” I said, nodding my chin at the sweater in my arms.
“It’s cool. ’Night.” He was already reaching for the phone.
“Goodnight,” I said as I closed the door. I hugged the sweater as I walked back to my room, liking the weight of it in my arms, its warmth against my chest.
Jeff began everything with a swagger, but he rarely followed through. Whether it was tennis, saxophone, or theater, his enthusiasm waned as soon as hard work was required. In junior high, he decided to write an assigned paper on procrastination, but he never finished. Like senior English, or high school.
In the September that he should have started college, I was beginning my junior year of high school. Jeff had moved into an apartment with a friend, and he was working and taking a few community college classes. He dropped by the house on a Saturday afternoon and, after talking to Gary, visited my room.
“Hey, I hear you’ve got a date tonight,” he said as he appeared in my doorway.
I blushed and told him a little about the guy.
“That’s cool,” he said.
Then, out of nowhere, he offered to teach me how to drive a standard. We climbed into his new Toyota Tacoma and drove to the nearby parking lot where we had ridden our bikes as kids. We switched places. From the passenger side, he schooled me on how to shift and work the pedals. Unlike my dad, who flinched at each grinded gear and pushed me onto a busy road before I was ready, Jeff stayed calm as I lurched around the lot and killed the engine. He explained that it was about the feeling the clutch: “Like a woman, you just have to pay attention to what she needs.”
“Of course you’d say that!” I said.
“Yeah,” he grinned. “But it’s true.”
I tried again, positioning my feet on the pedals. When I felt the clutch begin to tremble, I pressed the gas, easing the truck into a gentle roll for the first time. Jeff smiled and clapped me on the back, “Nice job, little sister.” I drove in circles through the empty lot, guiding the wheel through turns as I shifted. I liked to hear the engine respond as I moved through each gear.
Knitting can function like a daily journal. With few exceptions, I knit every day, stealing time to sit on the couch, my hands poised over my lap, the yarn feeding into my left hand and the stitches emerging from my right. With even the smallest of motions, I can build something complex over time.
In 2007, I find the pattern for a sweater called Roam, a zippered cardigan with a generous hood. The sample is made from a variegated yarn in the tones of tide pools—saturated earth, pale sand, deep blue sea. My mind clicks into gear, wandering, searching for something until… yes, Jeff’s sweater. I can ease apart the old seams and find new possibility in the cotton yarn.
I picture myself on the couch, unraveling the sweater row by row, undoing the loops and lines that comprise its unflattering shape. I hear the individual pops blurring into a quiet but audible whir, like the slap-slap-slap of playing cards taped to bike spokes becoming a motorcycle roar when, as a kid, I pumped my legs faster and faster.
Unraveled yarn holds its knitted shape, curling and looping like permed hair. Some people wash the yarn before reusing; I usually just wind it tightly in a ball and begin to knit. Cotton, unlike wool and other animal fibers, does not maintain its knitted shape when unraveled. Cotton has no memory.
A few months after the driving lesson, Jeff dropped by the house for another Saturday visit and found me crying in bed. The September date had flourished into my first relationship. But my boyfriend had suddenly ended the relationship the night before. Stepping over an empty pizza box and tissues, Jeff sat on the edge of my bed and listened to the story.
After a few minutes, he said, “Alright, little sister. Let’s get out of here.”
I argued with him; I didn’t feel like leaving the house.
But he was persistent, as usual, so I relented. “Put on something fun,” he said, and left the room so I could change. I met him in the garage, and he gave my tank top and tight jeans a thumbs up.
We drove all over Dallas that day, riding high above the traffic in his truck. We cranked the radio and sang along to “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” He treated me to lunch at Campisi’s pizza, the candles glowing even at noon, and we washed down the crisp crust and fennel-laden sausage with Coke from red plastic tumblers.
When we left the dim cavern of the restaurant, the sun seemed to glow even brighter in the Texas sky. Speeding along the highway, I felt energy creeping back into my body. As Jeff eased the truck to a stop in front of our house, he said, “You’re gonna be just fine.”
A year later, on October 3, 1993, Jeff slammed a friend’s car into a tree while running from the police, who were only after him for speeding. Empty cans clinked around the backseat. The tree trunk bulged into the driver’s side.
After the crash, the police yanked his friend Sam from the passenger seat.
The way Sam told the story, after they crashed, and just before Sam was pulled from the car, Jeff turned to him and said, “What do we do now?”
No one was there to witness his death. I imagine the deputy shouting and pulling his gun on my brother before he discovered Jeff was not breathing.
A Madison County deputy left a message on the answering machine of the main phone line at our house. Gary was out of town at a conference. I had my own phone number. After getting home from dinner, my mother forgot to check the machine.
To us, Jeff wasn’t dead until October 4.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her book, On Grief and Grieving in 2005. Her wisdom was not available to me in 1993. As I read the book now, I am struck by her insistence that grief does not conform to a timeline. Kubler-Ross is surely speaking to me when she says, “Grief is not a project with a beginning and an end. It is a reflection of a loss that never goes away.”
If I carry my grief always, does it crouch in my shadow? Or reside in my body? If you looked at an x-ray, would you see my loss, rounded and full, pressing against my organs like a tumor? Or does it conform to the space available, stretching long and thin, a continuous line of grief winding through my body?
The ex-boyfriend returned in the days following Jeff’s death. One grief resolves as another begins. This version creates a tragic, yet pleasing symmetry. But to tell the story that way erases a year, from fall 1992 to fall 1993. To tell the story that way invites a gray uncertainty into the narrative.
I consider practical questions before undoing the sweater: Will I have enough yarn? Is the yarn the right size for the project? Will the cotton be too heavy? The truth is that I feel uneasy about taking apart the sweater. In my journal, I find the phrase, “I fear this will be a huge undertaking.” I wonder how I will feel if I cannot complete the project.
I decide, however, that acceptance will follow action. Nearly twenty years since we met, nearly ten since his death, I will take apart Jeff’s sweater. I will reclaim the raw material to be reworked by hands into something new. I will undo it stitch by stitch, beginning with the last. To unravel, I must begin at the end.
Before October 3 was September 5.
I opened the front door that afternoon to find Jeff was standing in a tuxedo. Gary had told me that Jeff would stop by on his way to a wedding. Jeff took a drag from a cigarette.
I narrowed my eyes.
He blew smoke from his mouth. “Hey.”
“Yeah?” I said, filling up the doorway.
“I need the vacuum,” he said.
“Okay.” I looked at his cigarette.
Instead of dropping it and putting it out with his fancy shoes, he placed the burning nub on the outside windowsill. He stared down at me.
I rolled my eyes and exhaled audibly. I want to kick the cigarette to the ground; instead, I said, “Come in,” and turned away.
His shoes clicked as he walked onto the tiled entryway.
I went back to my room, crossing through the doorway in which I had first seen him. Of course, I didn’t recall that moment then. I thought this was just another awkward encounter with Jeff, like the fight the year before when we yelled at each other about who left the front door unlocked as moths drawn by the light fluttered above our heads, or the phone calls when I stiffened at his voice and immediately called for Gary. I didn’t know it was our last meeting. So I didn’t watch him walk towards the garage, his back receding, the black jacket tight across his shoulders. I didn’t follow him or ask how he was doing. I didn’t want to know.
A few minutes later, I heard him stride back through the house, his shoes again tapping across the tile by the door, which opened and then slammed.
Before September 5:
Jeff stopped going to the community college classes for which Gary paid.
Jeff lost his job at the sporting goods store.
Jeff got a friend fired from Outback Steakhouse by stealing knives from his table.
Jeff was arrested in Bossier City for stealing money out of a tip jar. He told Gary that he just wanted to see if he could get away with the crime.
When I look back to that year, I realize that Jeff was already gone. I no longer lived with or talked to him. I didn’t borrow his clothes. He was absent from my life.
To begin the sweater project, I acquire a yardage counter to determine how much yarn the sweater will yield. I download and print the pattern. I research how to take apart a machine-made sweater.
And this is where the project falters. I discover that the construction methods for hand and machine-made sweaters are different. Hand-knit sweaters are comprised of shaped elements. You knit the front, back, and sleeves. You sew together the pieces. To take apart the sweater, you simply reverse the process.
A machine-made sweater begins with a large swath of knitted fabric. The components—back, front, sleeves—are cut from the fabric. The cut edges are serged to prevent unraveling. The pieces are then sewn together. The first step in taking apart the sweater is the same, only unraveling the serged pieces will yield not the continuous length of yarn necessary for knitting, but hundreds of short fragments.
In the weeks after Jeff died, we told each other stories:
Jeff sneaking out. Jeff befriending the liquor store security guard who then bought him beer. Jeff’s eyes crinkling when he laughed. Jeff at the center of the dance circle in junior high. Jeff playing me the Beastie Boys, They Might Be Giants, Nirvana. Jeff trading stolen sporting goods for stolen sandwiches at his mall job. Jeff flirting with my friends but never crossing the line. Jeff at White Sands National Monument, where he climbed to the top of the dunes again and again, not to stand atop the sandy mountains for the view, as I would have done, but to throw himself down the slopes, to feel his body gain speed as he hurtled toward the bottom.
Other than their belongings, what remains of any deceased person are stories. Those that we tell over and over to keep the person alive, to make him real for someone who never met him, to process the loss. In Jeff’s case, we tell the stories to figure out what happened, to try to understand the gulf between his life and his death.
The gap between who we believe we are and who we are perceived to be exists for everyone. In other people’s eyes, we are made of hundreds of stories and images, fragments pieced together in another person’s equally complex mind. We are contradiction, inconsistency, ambivalence. But a deceased person loses the elasticity of a present self, becomes trapped in the person he was to us in the past. Our memories, compressed by time and tidied by our need to cleanse the dead of imperfection, aim at one idealized version. Death is a frame through which we view the deceased, but we have to allow for the person to stretch beyond the image we construct. We have to let him surprise us.
A few years after Jeff’s death, when I was in college, I talked to his best friend Greg. We drank whiskey Cokes out of tall plastic cups, water beading on the slick surfaces in the sticky twilight heat. In the midst of his stories, Greg revealed that Jeff used to steal from me. “You had a purse or something in your closet, and he would sneak in when you weren’t home, peel off a twenty dollar bill.”
“Huh, I thought I was just paranoid,” I said, remembering times when I would unroll the bills and find less than I expected. “How did he know where it was?”
“I don’t know. But when Jeff had spent his paycheck on girls and gasoline, you were his bank!”
I felt Jeff’s betrayal as a weight on my chest. But it also seemed like such a small thing. I laughed, my feelings slightly numbed by the whiskey, knowing at least I was hearing the truth about my brother.
A few minutes later, after a big gulp of his drink, Greg’s eyes changed. I could see him try to focus through his buzz as he looked at me. “He loved you, you know,” said Greg. “I’ve got a sister too. I could hear it in his voice, the way he talked about you. He’d say, ‘I hope that boyfriend is treating her right.’”
I breathed in Greg’s words. I knew he was telling me what I wanted to hear, but I hoped it was also the truth. In that moment, the air softened by the heat, my defenses blunted by the whiskey, I felt I could accept Jeff for not just what he gave to me, but for what he took.
The sweater hangs over the couch in my office, lying flat against the cushion, no body to fill it out. I turn my head from the computer screen to look at it. I stare at the shape, the colors, the stitches.
The variegated yarn allows for some variation in how the colors interact and appear. Sometimes, I see each stitch in its own color, a Pointillist effect. If I move far enough away, perhaps a picture will come into view.
In the lower half, the colors line up messily in diagonal stripes. Uneven bands of yellow, blue, red, and teal jog down the fabric, plinking from row to row. Color collects and pools, acquiesces into meaning beyond rows and columns, beyond stitch counts, and beyond measurement.
Kelly Martineau’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Barely South Review, Quiddity, and Redux. She is a 2013 Pushcart Prize Nominee and holds an MFA from Spalding University. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters. More information is available at kellymartineau.com.