A Scarf Can Hold the Universe Together




About six years before she died, my mom began suffering with rheumatoid arthritis—and yeah, it was “suffering,” not “living with” or “surviving” or any of the other empowering turns of phrase. RA’s fatigue and pain and stiffness made it hard for Nette, whose life had been a blur of sports, work, housework, and giving care to the entire universe, to do anything at all. But she could still manage to knit, the needles’ rhythmic click soothing, the constant motion easing the pain in her swollen, gnarled hands.

So I kept her busy.

“Andrew needs a warm muffler,” I told her, and a week later, he had a long, thick scarf in his favorite shade of blue. Never as easily bored as her daughter, she liked knitting that same cable pattern out of the same pastel baby yarn, so I found (or invented) one friend after another in desperate need of a winter scarf. Soon all our closest friends—not to mention my entire book club—had hand-knitted scarves.

Nette wrapped each scarf in tissue, tied it with a bow, and added a note with washing instructions. I doled out these packages with diffidence; they offered nothing cool, trendy, or stylish. Mainly, I thanked people for taking them. Then I raved to my mom (again, sometimes elaborating) about how they loved their scarves.

I think it took all of us, me included, a while to realize just how cozy and comforting those scarves were. By then, Nette was gone. A year or two after her death, an especially hip friend showed up at a party with one wrapped around his neck. A glamorous, tall, blond friend wore one as a shawl to a wedding. Our friend Bash Ahmed—one of the smartest people I know, equally at ease with science and tech and poetry— told me that Nette’s scarf was his favorite because it was knitted by hand, especially for him.

More years passed. Last week, Bash emailed, “I was just thinking about your mom yesterday. It was time to pull out the scarves, and I still wear the one she made.”

I swallowed hard, then said I hoped, in some alternate or parallel universe, she knew how much he loved it. Here is his answer:

“If the science someday becomes what I imagine, each of these interactions weaves into the pattern of her etched in the universe. Each thought, each touch of a scarf, a photo, adds to the beauty and complexity of a pattern that doesn’t even know what dying is.”

I read those words again, feeling them vibrate down the length of my spine. A pattern that doesn’t even know what dying is. Bash had added a caveat: “Forgive the poetic license. I’m a computer scientist, not a quantum physicist. Just spinning ideas here.” His idea, though, struck me as beautiful.

For years I have fought against the conventional, defiantly illogical notion of a resurrection of the body. People talk about being reunited with their loved ones and I want to ask just how they think that will be possible—at what age, in what shape? Why would a soul want a body again? Why would spirit return to the constraints of the material world? Yet even as I argue against that sweet notion, I want desperately to believe it. I want there to be some sort of enduring presence, some recognition of personhood still possible. I want to think love outlasts death. And Bash’s notion—that each life adds a pattern into the universe, and our love and memories continue to elaborate that pattern—made sense to me. Abstract but exquisite, it neatly reconciled the physical and the spiritual worlds.

I closed my eyes and remembered the twisty cable emerging under my mom’s flying fingers, the pattern forming over time. I thought of people wrapping those scarves around their necks and maybe, on a lonely or disconsolate day, feeling comforted by a mother’s patient kindness. Bash treasuring that scarf brought Nette back into our world for a minute, and his theory kept her here.

When I thanked him, he reminded me that he was “speaking poetically, not accurately.” I was not to take this as a lesson in quantum physics he did not feel qualified to teach.

“I’m not looking for anything more than metaphor,” I reassured him. “I just needed a way to imagine this.”

“Okay, good.” Then he added: “You know, I tried another scarf first this year. Even felt a tiny bit weird about it because I’m sentimental about my winter clothes (winter armor, in my head). My mother gave me this red one she bought with a brilliant pattern and a color that was striking against my black wool winter coat. Then the threads bled all over the coat. Then I got a lint roller to clean it up and went back to your mother’s scarf. Which just adds to my point: these interactions with my sentimentality, my armor, my perception of this place in time, all following her interaction with the yarn—it adds richness and complexity to my life without my ever thinking about it (even though I do think about it). It’s adding layers to our friendship right now. Your mother’s hand still moves!”

Beneath Bash’s simple, warm words lay his bright curiosity about quantum physics. That world is foreign to me; it feels dark and cold. All I know are scattered phrases, sound-bite concepts. Nonetheless, when I hear that “mirror neurons” attune us to one another, I can imagine the invisible patterns that relationships could create. Every connection we form adds a stitch to the cosmos, helping knit our universe together. “Entanglement,” definitely: we are intertwined in ways so spooky, one particle can “know” something about another particle instantaneously, even when separated by a vast distance. And particles can exist in multiple states or locations at once—my mother here with us and, mysteriously, somewhere else.

Thinking about the pattern her life made, my heart swelled. Pride, yes, and gratitude, but also envy, because I will never love as fully, fervently, and indiscriminately as she did. I shut my laptop, binge-watched From Scratch, and wept happily for a solid hour. That simple Netflix romance acted on me as a parable, illustrating how any love, your own or a stranger’s, can strengthen you. Just imagining a love that pure and strong spills hope into the world. It adds its pattern to the universe.

Do acts of cruelty rip those stitches? Are we like Penelope, starting over again every morning? I am not sure. We do not seem to be making much progress, as a species, when it comes to love. But every time we remember how someone touched us, we tighten the stitches.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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