Change by Cathy Wilkerson

the future is female Jan 18, 2018

Last year was filled with such a profound loss for me that I have been forever changed.

2017 was a roller coaster ride for me. Exactly one year ago I found out that my best friend, Betsy, had a very rare, very aggressive form of cancer. In February she was given a prognosis of 7-9 months to live. She died 8 months later in October at the age of 51. She had an amazing husband and 2 teen aged boys. Betsy was my rock on too many occasions to count. 

I am learning to live in a world with out her. 

Anne Lammot wrote:

“Death; wow. So f-ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and are not supposed to. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. We Christians like to think death is a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live fully again in your heart, at some point, and make you smile at the MOST inappropriate times.

All truth is a paradox. Grief, friends, time and tears will heal you. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk.”

The sentence; “But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you”. This really hits home. That’s what grief has been like for me, homesickness. 


When I visited Betsy in February of last year she appeared so healthy, so vibrant- it seemed inconceivable that such a wonderful, caring soul could be gone in a few short months. I mean really,  you hear about stories like this, but when it happened to me, it was like the first time I REALLY experienced shock and disbelief. 

                     betsycathypattyhannah  That's us, just all one word.

                     betsycathypattyhannah  That's us, just all one word.

Betsy and I met when we were 15 at a summer camp we both worked at. We also have two other friends that made up our amazing quartet. Last year the three of us put many areas of our lives on hold to do anything and everything we could do to be there for Betsy and her family. Betsy lived in Chicago, 1000 miles away from us. Our families, jobs, household duties, and other responsibilities all came in second place last year. Phone calls, group calls, face time calls, plane rides, texts, letters, and emails trying to make sense of what was happening became the norm, and hand holding. Lots of holding hands. Over the summer we sent copies of our inked finger prints off to a local jeweler in Chicago to have rings made. They were completed three weeks before Betsy passed. This ring is like a constant hand holding mine. Those fingerprints, pressing against my hand. Reminding, remembering, honoring. 

Rings by Slowack Jewlery

Rings by Slowack Jewlery

I am typically a very positive and optimistic person, but a funk started to settle in throughout the spring and summer. The balm that helped to soothe me, and helped me to cope was making.

And making, I did. 

I decided to continue my exploration of the mysterious dye, indigo. I read, researched and experimented with shibori, sashiko, and resist techniques using indigo as the dye. I quilted, stitched, embroidered, embellished, knit, under-dyed, over-dyed, distressed, formed creatures and got caught up in all the small details of mark-making in and on my samples. I am more of a process maker, so the end result was not about a finished product per se, but about the discovery of a medium and technique. As friends and family were telling me I should sell what I was making, I didn’t want to. That’s not what this was and is about for me, it is about the making, the process of making. It’s the process that is the really nurturing, fulfilling and thought provoking. 

The intense blues of indigo lead me to create with another medium that is also intense and has beautiful, blurry shades of blue; cyanotypes. I started to create small works and samples on paper and fabric. The sometimes randomness of this process is very similar to indigo. But unlike indigo, making cyanotypes allowed me to incorporate deliberate patterns and motifs, like plants and identifiable objects into the process. I then started to embellish these samples, similar to my indigo pieces. 


When I started to make (and make, and make), I wanted to share what I was making with like-minded people. I began hosting workshops with my tribe of creative women. We would sit in my back yard and have potluck lunches while we discussed and appreciated the dichotomy of fine detail and bold patterning in both indigo and cyanotypes. What fun it is to create and explore with your friends who really “get it”. They didn’t ask “what is it?” or “what are you going to do with it?”, they just let the process be what ever it was going to be. No end result, just freedom to mess up, get messy and explore. Now, that is liberation!

It was suggested to me during one of these private gatherings, that I should do this with other people and hold workshops. At first I shrugged it off, but the idea ate away at me. So, I stared a business; The Indigo Squirrel. Starting a business enlarged my network of fellow makers and gave me a new way to think about indigo. It allowed me to share my passion with others.


In the autumn, I joined makers-spaces in both Boston and Providence. I attended and have held workshops in these spaces. Once again, just being in those spaces gave me another world of creativity and experimentation to fall into. I am able to give back, inspire and share my techniques with women who would define them selves as creative, and women who didn’t think they had a creative bone in their bodies. The latter are sometimes the most rewarding students to work with, they are easily startled and overjoyed with their results. They say proudly “I made that”!

Creating, marketing and starting a business started out as a distraction from cancer, surgeries, debilitating chemo treatments, and discussions about making final plans. On Betsy’s last day on Earth, the four of us spent it together in her room at the hospice hospital. We also had a last sleepover party with her too. Betsy couldn’t speak, but she was aware that we were there. We sang, danced, laughed, cried, and held hands. Once again, lots of holding hands. It was one of the most beautiful times of my life.

The process of artistic discovery continues to help me to grieve and bring joy and change into my thoughts and actions. I can jump into a world that honors the messy and the beautiful, just like grief.

holding hands.JPG

Thank you, again, for joining me on this Tuesday journey. See you next week. Be kind to one another, Cathy


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