I turn back the tissue paper and see the intricate pattern of the eggshell white yarn. I touch it, first with one finger, softly tracing the outline of one of the patterns, then I rub the palm of my hand against it. I pick it up and hold it close to me and smell the sheep-smell of the yarn and feel the harsh texture against my skin and feel a pause in the pushing forward of time.
I first saw an Irish knit dress at an ethnic arts and crafts show. The display card said that, for centuries, the wives of Irish fishermen spent the long winter days knitting clothes for their husbands to wear while tending the fishing boats.
Traditional Irish knits of untreated yarn are all the same yellowed white. To offset the monotony of the color, Irish women began knitting patterns in their garments to represent family histories. A diamond pattern symbolizes fishing nets, and the bulky, twisted cable represents the strength of the hand-made ropes used on the boats. The mock cable was formed into a never-ending tree with upturned branches. This signified family: generations of men fishing and women knitting. The dress, and its history, fascinated me, and I decided to knit one.
For about two weeks I worked on the dress. I found the knitting dull and repetitious. The yarn smelled, and no matter how often I washed my hands, the odor of sheep lingered on my fingers. The patterns were intricate, and too often I ruined their symmetry by daydreaming while working on them. I tired of ripping out my work and starting over, so I put the coarse yarn in a corner of my closet and forgot about it. Let the Irish women knit; I had more interesting things to do.
Sometime after I had abandoned my project, our son, who was then 3 and our only child, awoke with severe chest pain. His color was gray, and his skin was clammy. He was apprehensive and restless; his fingers picked at the bedsheet and he cried with pain. He had been born with congenital heart defects, and I knew he was in cardiac trouble. The day kaleidoscoped: contacting doctors, hospitals, airlines, and finally flying to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. For some reason, I packed my knitting bag into my suitcase.
The days that followed were measured by crisis and fear. Surgery is necessary, we were told. Without it, he will die. Surgery is a great risk, we were told. With surgery, he may die. I began to knit. The surgery took more than six hours, and my fingers felt cramped and arthritic. Finally, we were allowed to see him in intensive care.
He looked defenseless surrounded by so much lifesaving equipment. Under his eyes were gray, smudgy circles. He had intravenous needles in both arms and a hard, black plastic airway in his mouth. Electrodes were taped on his arms and legs, and a gastric tube was taped in his nostril. A fan was blowing cold air over him, and he was lying on a circulating ice-water mattress.
"Please nurse, just one blanket?" I asked.
"No," she said.
A thin diaper crossed his groin and a huge adhesive bandage dressing covered his chest. The adhesive was stark, sterile white against the mottled marble skin. I could see his ribs, expanding and contracting as he sucked in air.
Back in the waiting room, I began to knit. I didn't want anyone to touch me. I would fall into little Picasso pieces on the antiseptic tile floor if anyone touched me. I couldn't talk because my throat seemed to be swelling shut, and if I tried to talk, I knew I would suffocate. Let me knit. Knit one, purl eight, yarn over. God, don't let him die. Knit one, purl eight. God, I'll finish this dress. Slip two, knit one. If I finish this row, God, let him have a blanket.
The days passed. The dress began to take shape. My fingers were oily, and I smelled of wet sheep. I carried the knitting bag with me to the waiting room, to the motel, to intensive care. He was getting better. Thank you, God. On March 17, St. Patrick's Day, the doctors said he was well enough for my husband to return to his work in Ohio. I would stay in Pittsburgh with our son. I would watch him get better as I knit, the umbilical cord of yarn always with me. He was getting better. The nurses were in a gay mood. The head nurse was named O'Brien; she had a green plastic shamrock pinned on her white uniform and her dark red hair curled close to her head under her stiff white cap. She was allowing us extra time with him to celebrate the Irish holiday.
I sat by his bed and talked to him of how we loved him and wanted to hold him. I ran my fingers across his forehead and he smiled. A very old smile. A very young child. The smile faded and his pupils contracted, dilated, contracted. The very efficient cardiac monitor beeped, beeped, beeped. The very efficient Miss O'Brien sent us out to the Lysol-smelling waiting room. I saw the rush of white uniforms. Everyone was so intense, determined, yet detached. Knit, purl, please God help him. Knit, purl. My fingers were frozen to the needles.
Knit, purl. I couldn't stop knitting. The resident stood before us and talked. Knit, purl. "Cerebral accident ..." Knit, purl. ... "possible brain damage"... Knit, purl. ... "not good ... not good." Finish a row.
Finish another row. I knitted a prayer into that dress. The twisted cable was the will to live. The diamond pattern was a calendar of the days of help and the days of fear, together and overlapping. The never-ending tree with upturned branches was every mother, any mother, reaching up for strength.
I never wear the dress. It's hot, bulky and uncomfortable. Even after years, it smells of sheep. But I keep it because I can't throw it away. It has a history. I can understand the Irish women knitting and praying for the seas to be calm, for the fog to lift, for their men to come home. After our son was discharged, alert and well, I knitted him a sweater with the same patterns as my dress. He wouldn't wear his sweater, either; he said it was too hot and it made him itchy. So the dress and the sweater are stored together in the cedar chest.
When I see the dress twice a year, I pause and remember the mechanical movements of my fingers using thin knitting needles as a rosary against fate. I feel the coarse yarn and smell the heavy smell of wet sheep, and I can understand the Irish women knitting and praying. I understand.
Previously published in Pittsburgh Magazine and the Tribune-Review.