Nearly 20 years ago, my wife Hannah, an expert knitter, taught our 5-year-old son Abe the basics of knitting. When I returned home from work one day, Abe excitedly met me at the door and insisted I sit with him while he taught me his new skill. He held out a pair of blunt wooden dowels with acorn caps glued to the tops and a ball of lavender yarn attached to one of the needles. Using his own set, he proudly began to knit, inserting a needle into the first stitch. “In through the front door, run around back,” he sang as he made the stitch, “peep through the window, and off jumps Jack.”
“Now it’s your turn, Papa,” he said after demonstrating each part of the stitch several times. He watched my attempts carefully, offering helpful advice. Hannah sat on his other side, whispering additional pointers he could offer me. Most nights during the coming weeks, I received additional lessons from them and eventually was able to knit a simple scarf.
Over time, I became a slow but reasonably proficient knitter. I’ve knit alligator-shaped scarves, hats for immigrant children, felted messenger bags, and many pairs of socks. A single pair might take me a hundred hours to make. Based on my hourly wage as a physician, a pair of socks can cost me $20 in yarn and $6,000 in labor.
After my diagnosis with glioblastoma, an aggressive and terminal type of brain cancer, knitting became a way to keep my hands busy and my mind calm. As I recovered from brain surgery and went through six weeks of daily radiation, I knit dozens of simple cotton dishcloths for my friends and family to thank them for their support. Each took only a few hours to make, but every stitch made me feel emotionally connected to those who cared for me.
When I was first diagnosed, I was given a prognosis of little more than a year to live. After my post-radiation MRI showed that my cancer had not advanced, I felt as if I could exhale for the first time in months. I knew the cancer would still kill me while I was in my 50s, but I began to believe I might live at least a few months longer. I cast on a cream-colored scarf for my mother, which took about a week to knit, and then a colorful shawl for Hannah, which took a bit longer.
Abe, after being home with us during and immediately after surgery, had returned to college as the new semester started in the fall. Throughout radiation and the chemotherapy that followed, the highlight of each week was getting updates about his classes and social life. Nonetheless, thinking about my son also left me heartbroken. I knew I wouldn’t be able to dance at his wedding. I probably wouldn’t even see him graduate from college.
I wanted to knit something for him, as I had for other people I loved. It might take me — still a slow knitter — a full year to complete a sweater large enough for the man Abe had become. I thought I was unlikely to have that much time, so I wouldn’t allow myself to even consider a project that big. Instead, I settled on a pair of fingerless gloves with a cable on the back. I was pleased with how they turned out, but they seemed paltry compared with what I wanted to make for him.
Soon after I completed chemotherapy, Hannah and I attended a yarn swap at a local brewery to celebrate. We spent the afternoon drinking craft beer, chatting with other knitters, and admiring works in progress. Near the end of the event, while Hannah was ordering final beers for us, a woman approached our table and started talking with me. She eventually asked me what I would make if I had the beautiful undyed wool she’d seen me admiring earlier. I told her I dreamed of knitting my son a sweater, but I didn’t think I had enough time left to complete it.
She walked back to her table and returned with more than enough wool to knit a large sweater. “For you,” she said. “Just promise me you’ll try.” I protested, but she told me she had driven a hundred miles with this yarn to make sure it found a good home, and she couldn’t think of a better place for it. When Hannah returned, I teared up as I told her how I had been given the large bag of yarn in front of me.
As soon as we got home, I found a sweater pattern that would work with the wool and pulled out the needles I would need. I wound two skeins of yarn into balls before going to bed with visions of Abe wearing the completed sweater.
The next day, though, I couldn’t get started. Why should I even cast on when I knew I would leave Abe something woefully incomplete? The yarn remained in the bag all week.
At the next meeting of my cancer support group, I talked about the unexpected gift of yarn and my fear of failing to finish. In response, members of the group shared stories of their own challenges stemming from the knowledge that they were likely to die soon. I was not alone in my fear of starting something new. Our conversation helped me understand that starting the sweater would be a personal commitment to not giving up before I needed to. And I could keep my promise to the woman who gave me the yarn: to get started ― to try.
I cast on that night, and with every stitch I thought about my time with Abe — receiving knitting lessons from him, listening to him play violin and guitar, sharing a love of Shakespeare, teaching him to drive, saying goodbye after he moved into his dorm room, and hugging him before going into surgery.
Often when someone is diagnosed with advanced cancer, friends and family offer advice to stay strong and be positive, insisting that the person will beat even the most aggressive form of the disease. For me, these types of well-intentioned comments are not comforting. Instead, they highlight our culture’s fear of dying and its denial of death.
When I was diagnosed, I knew that no amount of strength, positivity or even faith would stop glioblastoma from killing me. The thought of leaving the people I loved left me heartbroken, but I chose to confront my prognosis honestly and openly. I thought deeply about what was most meaningful to me so I could make conscious decisions about what to do with the limited time I had. Rather than making a bucket list, I decided to continue working in a job I found deeply rewarding, to spend time with friends around our backyard fire pit, and to enjoy many evenings with Hannah reading aloud to each other while we knit together on the couch.
I finished much of the sweater before my cancer became active again this past summer. I had to put it down when I underwent a second brain surgery and another round of radiation. I am knitting again now, but at the end of the day I am often fatigued. Tremors in my hands make it hard to manipulate the knitting needles. Nevertheless, I am slowly making progress, and the sweater is nearly complete. My goal is to finish it and present it to Abe when he comes home for the holidays. If I am unable to finish it, I am confident he can knit the final stitches himself. Either way, he will know that my love for him helped me learn to live fully — even while dying.
David Meyers is a family physician and a health policy researcher in the Washington, D.C., area living with terminal cancer. He is writing a joint memoir with his wife, Hannah Joyner.