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The Best Gift

The best gift I ever received came from my sister Pam, when we were both in our mid-twenties, and Pam was suffering from end-stage Cystic Fibrosis.  Christmas was coming.  We each knew it might Pam’s last.  We wanted to give each other something very meaningful.As snow fell on the frozen stream in front of the house and softly graced the pine boughs, Pam with needle and thread sat at our parent’s kitchen table in Brantford.  Tenderly, with her slender fingers, she smoothed the soft gold cotton she had chosen.  She unraveled the measuring tape, considering the many inches, and carefully marked the fabric.  She lifted the shears and slowly, meticulously, cut the cloth.Miles away in Toronto I, I threw my windows open to the cold.  Sleet glistened on the sidewalk. I removed the lampshades and turned the tri-lites up to their brightest wattage.  I spread newspaper on the living room parquet, and knelt before my grandmother’s old wooden hope chest, rescued of late from her backyard shanty.  I put John Denver (Pam’s favorite) on the stereo, vacuumed the chest’s innards, donned a pair of rubber gloves, dipped a brush in paint remover and stroked the surface of the wood with great affection. The finish creased and bubbled up.  Fumes stung my eyes.  My lungs ached as I inhaled.  Flecks of remover splattered and burned the exposed skin in tiny spots on my wrists and cheeks. Pam sipped her tea and smiled at the squares of bright cotton paisley she had trimmed, knowing how much I loved the colors brick red and teal.  She turned their edges under one by one then pressed them flat with a hot iron.  She dropped a spool of thread onto the sewing machine, pulled the strand and licked its end with her pink tongue, winding it around and down.  She stopped to cough, then contemplated the eye of the needle, deftly poked the thread through, and gently pulled.  With careful concentration, she ran the edges of each square beneath the sharp, flailing tooth of the machine.I scraped the tar-like finish from the chest, imagining my sister’s face on Christmas morning.  I took the steel wool in my hands and rubbed the naked walnut until it glowed.  I glued and clamped the broken leg.  I threw on an extra sweater and made myself a cup of tea.  The frozen sleet had turned to snow and back again.  Colored lights twinkled in the twilight from other balconies.  I oiled the hinges and removed the cellophane from the package of fine-grade sandpaper.Pam draped the soft gold cloth across her knees and turned the compressor on to have her mask.  She basted on the paisley squares by hand in two neat rows.  “It’s looking good,” my mother said.  Pam smiled.  “I hope she’ll be surprised.”With tender care I brushed new varnish on the wood, and gently sanded when each coat had dried.  When that was done, I polished the warm, golden finish with flannel cloths and lemon oil until it glowed. “It’s looking good,” I told my mother on the phone, and smiled.  “I hope she’ll be surprised.”Pam unrolled the fluffy batting and smoothed it into place between the lengths of fabric she had sewn.  By hand she knotted strands of soft green yarn between the paisley squares on what had now become a quilt, and hand-stitched the finished edge.On Christmas morning we exchanged our handmade gifts. “This to keep you warm,” she smiled.I smiled right back.  “This is to fill with hope.”Pam passed away at the age of 26 in September of 1980, but almost thirty years later her precious, hand-stitched quilt is still keeping me warm. Adapted from the book “Sixtyfive Roses:  A Sister’s Memoir,” foreword by Celine Dion, currently in development at Hallmark Hall of Fame with Eva Longoria and UnbeliEVAble productions.  For more on this story, visit www.sixtyfiverosesthebook.com.