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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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He was no clotheshorse, but my husband's story is in what he wore.

He died last year. It’s been 17 months of living without the man I had known for more than 50 years and it still feels surreal. Our lives together created many memories – rich experiences, gladly shared – and these I know will help sustain me. But when our two sons and their wives – all new parents in this past blur of a year – presented me with a tactile and visual remembrance of their father, I was quite literally speechless.

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After Rob’s death, we went through closets and drawers – that is what we do when we don’t know what to do. One of his passions was mountain biking. He was highly skilled, winning races up to the provincial level. So there were lots of colourful cycling jerseys. On the other hand, many of his everyday shirts were common checks and plaids, and almost all were relics, including thrift-shop purchases that he’d hung onto forever. I remember rolling my eyes when he would put on the same shirt year after year. Our sons each took several items; probably not to wear, but something familiar of their dad’s to keep. Those tasks kept us busy – and close – in the first days of our new reality.

Some weeks passed. A little girl became my first grandchild, and two sweet grandsons arrived a few months later. Those new families grappled bravely with all the highs and lows of first-time parenthood while nursing a wound that could never fully heal. During this time a concept evolved, through the collaboration of my children and a talented family member: to artfully arrange pieces of Rob’s clothing to commemorate an accomplished, yet ordinary man. It is a quilt, although that hardly seems an adequate term for what was created. On one side, the colour and vibrancy of travel and cycling experiences are combined in stunning patterns, blending memorable events and locations. The cycling jerseys predominate but there is more. In recent years and because we live close to good wind on the water in Kingston, Ont., Rob rekindled a love of sailboarding. A shirt from the Outer Banks recalls a trip to North Carolina for that purpose. Elsewhere in the four-by-five-foot quilt, the logo of the Lunenburg Foundry reminds me of cycling from Kingston to Nova Scotia for a family reunion in 2015. The Poison Spider bike-shop square comes from a shirt bought in a well-known store in Moab, Utah, a mountain biker’s dream destination. Rob and our sons made that trip to Utah and Colorado together, less than a month before receiving a devastating diagnosis. The joy of father and sons on their bikes on those red rocks was captured in a video that we will always cherish.

The quilt’s creator had more to offer. The other side evokes a life lived through swatches of those everyday shirts (and his bathing suit) that all who knew and loved Rob would recognize at 10 paces. The workmanship is exquisite.

When we retired to Kingston five years ago, we finished the renovation of one of the remaining buildings of the old Portsmouth Brewery. We worked with a local contractor and it took a lot of vision, collaboration, risk taking and hard work. It is an unusual home. In our entry area, a canoe that Rob built hangs over the front door, and the bikes that we rode together are suspended from the wall – sculpturally appealing but mostly for easy access. On another wall hung Rob’s sailboarding equipment; that has now gone and the quilt has taken up the void. It hangs right by the staircase I walk up dozens of times a day. I stop on a stair and reflect on the ordinary and extraordinary man who was my husband.

The quilt has helped me absorb the fullness of his time on Earth; seeing that, for most of us, the lives we live are a complex mix of accomplishments – some stellar, some simple – and the daily relationships, habits and actions that form us. Hardly profound, but oddly comforting.

At a recent family gathering we placed the three babies on the quilt and began to tell them about their grandfather and the things he liked to do. This will become part of our new traditions. Rob missed meeting his grandchildren by only a few months, but he will become a person they know through the stories – both ordinary and extraordinary – that we will tell them.

Memories we carry in our heart are most precious but, for me, having something close at hand to touch and recall – and share with others – has already proven to be a salve for an aching heart. I have been touched by the response of family and friends to this work of love. It is a gift that continues to give each day and for that I am thankful – and grateful. Creativity and beauty do not always come from a happy place. In bewilderment and sorrow and loss, some will see patterns that can begin to bring order to the emotional chaos that is a natural part of grieving.

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Mary Jane Philp lives in Kingston, Ont.

Editor’s note: (Dec. 3, 2019): An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling of Mary Jane Philp's surname.
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