His death wasn’t unexpected.
Just shy of his 88th birthday, he had been in declining health for several years. Multiple fractures, infections, COPD and Parkinson’s had gradually reduced him to a shadow of his former self. He knew it was his time and he was ready, even if I wasn’t. Holding his frail hand, I stayed at his side, tearfully encouraging him to let go and move on to wherever it is that death takes us.
But the finality of it took my breath away. I seemed to hurt in every way possible as I flew home to resume my life – a life without my father in it.
Looking back, I think one of the things that hurt the most was the realization that I would never again hear his stories. As soon as he was gone I began to worry that I would forget them. Why hadn’t I written them down? Why hadn’t I asked more questions?
My father was born in the small town of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1928. Early on Christmas morning when my father was ten years old, his father woke him to tell him that his thirty-three-year-old mother had died of a stroke in the night.
As the nation began to slowly emerge from the Great Depression, father and son found themselves grieving and alone. Within months of his mother’s death, the two of them moved to Madison, a city where my grandfather could find better employment and my father could make a fresh start without the ghost of his mother in every room.
A jovial and loving man, my grandfather was the son of Norwegian immigrants, and my father followed right in his footsteps. Both were wonderful storytellers, and the two of them filled my childhood with tales of trolls and nisse (tiny and mischievous gnomes that wear a red stocking hat.)
Aside from the folklore stories, I grew up believing that my brothers and I had inherited the spirit of a Viking warrior and the toughness of an immigrant farmer who could carve a successful life from a wild patch of Wisconsin woods. And while I later found out that there is a good percentage of non-Norwegian DNA in me (I did have a non-Norwegian mother after all), it didn’t matter.
The characters in those stories set the narrative for who I was and what I could do.
The journey through grief is different for every person. What surprised me most in the months that followed my father’s passing was a painful feeling of disconnection from my roots. My father and my grandfather were gone and, without my realizing it, they had served as a bridge to my past. I suddenly felt adrift and unsure of my place in the world. I wasn’t the owner of those stories, and without them I experienced a loss that I had trouble explaining, even to myself.
One winter day, the thought of knitting crossed my mind. My daughter took up knitting while in college, and it seemed to help her to manage all the stresses she faced on a daily basis. I wondered if it would work the same way for me.
Years earlier, I had owned a wool Norwegian sweater – the kind with intricate patterns and colors. Somehow the thought of learning to knit “like a Norwegian” grabbed my attention. My brain latched on to the idea that I could connect to my heritage by interacting with yarn in a way similar to my ancestors. I went online to research the idea, looking for images of the snowflakes I remembered in my sweater. Naively confident that my Nordic heritage made me somehow inherently skilled to do this, I printed a beginner cowl pattern, bought the needles and yarn, and set about teaching myself how to knit. I could almost feel my ancestors smiling down with approval.
Need I say that my first attempt was a bit of a disaster? It was, and so was my second and third. With no one to teach me, I had no idea that the uneven stitches I had learned to cast onto circular needles had to be going in the same direction prior to joining them. Half a dozen rows in, I had a hopelessly twisted and unknittable mess.
So, out those stitches came and I tried again. I looked up Youtube videos and had “Aha” moments over and over as I stubbornly knit and ripped out, knit and ripped out. The cheap acrylic yarn I had purchased fuzzed and frayed. Stitches were missed entirely. Repeats went askew as I attempted to change color from gray to white and back again.
That cowl never was finished. I recently found a photo of it at a point where I still thought it was going to be wearable, and I greeted it like an old friend – a friend who had held my hand as I doggedly tried to find myself in every sagging and overly taut stitch. That single photo on my phone is the only tangible evidence of my journey through grief in those first few months after my father’s death, and of the personal healing I experienced through the process of knitting.
As the months went by, the unused yarn from the cowl project became a scarf that I gave to my husband. His encouragement during that time merited the gifting of my very first completed project. A Christmas table runner followed with Scandinavian motifs and Merry Christmas knit in five languages including Norwegian (God Jul). Most recently, I completed a pillow, the design of which I adapted from a tote bag pattern in a Norwegian Knits book, that has a place of honor on my bed.
As I worked on these projects over the course of a year, the sharp pains of grief gradually softened without my realizing it. Week by week, through the simple act of needle and fiber working together in my hands, I found emotional healing and a restoration of my sense of connectedness in the world. For that I will always be thankful.
My knitting has now branched out to include non-Nordic patterns, although they will always be my go-to when I want to connect with something deeper in my soul where the spirit of my father and grandfather live. While I no longer am compelled to knit Norwegian-style projects exclusively, those first few projects, with their dropped and wonky stitches, will forever serve as a reminder that grief does not last forever, and that eventually what is painful can become something precious.
The process of knitting is fun, obviously, but it can also be meditative and healing. It can be a way to not only craft something beautiful using techniques as old as man or as new as our minds can imagine, but also a wonderful way to find solace within yourself and like-minded friends along the way.