First, the hat. It was the winter of 2007, and I had just realized that the chemotherapy I was undergoing for stage 2 breast cancer would render me bald long before my wig was ready. So after one of my infusions, I dropped in on the hospital shop and burrowed through a large basket filled with hats. After trying one on and asking about the price, I learned that all of the hats were free, having been donated by people who wanted to make things a little easier for cancer patients. I gratefully accepted the hat, moved by the fact that a stranger had donated it. I had always pitied Blanche DuBois and her reliance on “the kindness of strangers,” but now I suspected that she recognized a good thing when she saw it.
The hat did its job well, keeping me warm and reasonably fashionable until chemo ended. It was spring by the time I moved on to radiation and my hair began to grow back, so I stuffed the hat into the back of my closet and forgot about it. But that trip to the gift shop popped into my mind much later, when I had been cancer-free for five years and was looking for a way to mark this statistically significant milestone.
Although I had no idea what form my gesture would take, I knew I wanted it to honor the support group that had been so helpful to me throughout my treatment. Thinking about their generosity reminded me of the hat that had been donated by a compassionate stranger. Then it struck me that alongside that hat in my closet were gifts that I could share with someone I didn’t know. During my treatment, I had been given two handmade prayer shawls, so-called because prayers for recovery had been knitted into them. I left the shawls with Hester, our inspiring group leader, and asked her to give them to whichever members of her current group she thought could most use them.
A few days later, my friend Maria, a gifted artist, volunteered to donate three more shawls. On her blog, Hester described the fate of one of the shawls: “A young woman in great distress and despair . . . was in the midst of losing her hair, feeling physically crummy, unable to go to work, experiencing serious financial problems, and her longtime boyfriend had just walked out (‘I can’t deal with the cancer’). I could not fix those real problems, but I could give her a shawl. She immediately wrapped herself in it and wept.”
Maria was so moved by Hester’s account that she sent out a Call for Shawls to friends and colleagues, and in short order ten volunteers were briskly knitting shawls, scarves, and hats. Many donors were intimately acquainted with serious illness and loss. One had lost a sister to breast cancer, another had lost her best friend. Another, whose daughter had died a few years earlier, remembered how much she had appreciated a shawl given to her at the time, by a friend who suggested, “When you need a hug, wrap yourself in this.” A daughter, whose mother had recently died of pancreatic cancer and who had been an avid knitter for many years, donated all her unused yarn, explaining, “I know that my mom would be so pleased if the yarn she so carefully chose was put toward helping others with cancer.”
Sometimes the term “prayer shawl” became doubly apt. One soft brown shawl went to an elderly Cambodian man, a Buddhist, who was undergoing a difficult bone marrow transplant and who was always cold. Hester reported, “He loved it for the warmth—and even more for the sentiments,” and said he intended to wear it while he prayed.
Some of the shawls rapidly became cherished legacies. When a 60-year-old woman died after 12 years with metastatic breast cancer, her 13-year-old daughter attended the wake wrapped in the shawl that her mother had often worn and talked about. Marcie, the colleague who had passed the shawl along, observed, “I think that shawl did everything it was supposed to, and more.”
Although neither Maria nor I realized it at the time, we and our recruits and their recruits had unwittingly joined a national prayer shawl movement that is something of a cottage industry, although its products are not for sale. The most thorough exploration of the ministry, Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry, was written by Susan S. Izard, a Congregational minister, and Susan S. Jorgensen, a Roman Catholic layperson and spiritual director, and a majority of the knitting groups are church-affiliated.
In “Knit Together with Prayer,” which appeared in this magazine in 2004, Izard explains that knitting eventually acquired a spiritual dimension for her: “One day as I was knitting alone, I realized that the click of the needles and the movement of my hands had become a mantra. The rhythm of the needles had the same effect on me as the prayer word I used while practicing contemplative prayer.” Izard helped me understand why I had found it so important to give my shawls to women I did not know. She writes, “While knitting and praying for someone you don’t know is a different experience than the intercessory prayers for a specific individual, praying for a stranger enables us to connect to the great mystery of life and the human family.”
My own participation in the ministry—first as a grateful recipient and then as a donor—has sharpened my awareness that the spiritual dimension of cancer treatment is at least as important as the medical dimension.
May this shawl be
A shelter for times of overwhelming grief,
A shade in times of sorrow too deep for words, and
A shield from times of unimaginable loss.
—from The Unofficial Prayer of The Prayer Shawl Ministry