Stitch by Elaine Neil Orr

And in your loneliness you’d notice
how really very gently they’d take
the fabric to its last, with what
solicitude gather up worn edges
to be bound, with what severe
but kind detachment wield
their amputating shears:
forgiveness, and repair. 

-C.K. Williams, “Invisible Mending”

My husband and I hadn’t wanted to know the sex in advance. While I was in surgery, undergoing an emergency C-section, he was across the street getting breakfast. I learned this later and have never quite forgiven him. 

My water had broken in the night. We packed my bag. It was January, cold, still dark. The baby was six weeks early, due mid-March. This was January 30. I suffered from diabetes, and suffered is just the right word. Roller-coaster blood sugars. Near collapse from lows; stupefying fatigue with highs; and in pregnancy, toxicity. The nurses prepped me, scrubbing my moon belly. 

“Can I spread my legs?” 

I didn’t say may.


A pat on the arm.

My stomach was enormous and on this flat surface, I felt splayed. I let my legs fall apart. I was ready to die or be delivered, and I didn’t care which it was. I was that exhausted.

The gas mask came down. I fell into that delicious state of burdenlessness that might be eternity. No wonder people take drugs.

As in a dream, I heard, “it’s a boy,” which meant I’m a mother. 

I don’t know how long the surgery took. I woke in enormous pain, screaming obscenities at the nurses in the recovery room. Vaguely, I remember my husband beside me, sympathetic but unable to help. The next thing I recall is being wheeled down a hallway on the maternity ward, the gurney stopping before a span of windows. The attendant said, “There’s your baby.” A nurse on the other side of the glass held up a squalling, red-faced infant. I was shocked. What would I do now? Could I carry books and a baby and go to the grocery and walk and plant a garden? But I was exhausted and only dimly past the point of being ready to die.

In a hospital room, the obstetrician visited. “Your baby saved his own life. The placenta had deteriorated. He would have died. But he fought.” And then I knew we were bound, that squalling, red-faced infant and me. He meant to live. My center of being shifted toward the boy who had not left me. We would live, even though he went nameless for three days. I must have been expecting a girl to dress in tiny frocks and bonnets. Later I was wheeled to the neonatal unit where I placed a palm on my baby’s chest as he received oxygen for his underdeveloped lungs.

I had been given a lower transverse incision, just above the Mound of Venus. Because the babe was premature, we were in the hospital for nine days. The area around the incision was still numb when the stitches were taken out and remained numb for some months. The full feeling across that cut has never come back.

A stitch is a movement of the needle from one side of the fabric to the other and back again.  

A suture is a stitch or row of stitches holding together the edges of a wound or surgical incision.

Ten to twelve stitches per inch is required for quilting. How many stitches did my grandmother make in the double wedding ring quilt she designed for my missionary mother to carry to West Africa? That quilt was a fixture in my Nigerian life. Folded at the foot of my parents’ bed, it was made of dresses from my mother’s childhood, dresses my grandmother had sewn, along with aprons, pillow covers, tea towels, shirts, and pants, the last for her boys. She kept mounds of discards for piece work.

Suddenly I remember a Singer treadle sewing machine in our bungalow in Nigeria when I was four years old. It sat in the large sun room at the back of the house where we ate breakfast, pushed up against the open louvered windows. I suppose my mother could sit there and sew and watch my sister and me play outside. 

“Women derive a pleasure,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle.” Though I tend to agree with him, I wonder what his evidence was. He uses the word “toil.” Forced stitching must surely be a tyranny. 

Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and slept for a hundred years. 

For my mother, sewing allowed a connection with her mother, on a different continent, and her girls outside the window, a ring of stitching I inherited. 

Sewing was later a form of prayer for me when I was separated from my mother and father with an ocean between us. 

I can’t say when I first learned to thread a needle. It’s hard for me now, to find that sliver of light. Harder to get the thread through. 

My first surgery occurred when I was eight and in Nigeria.

One midafternoon, I was laid out on my stomach on the operating table to have a growth, the size of a pearl, excised from the back of my leg. I still had my dress on though the hem was tucked into my underpants. I had never been in the operating room of the hospital where my parents worked. Missionary doctors were here, I thought, to do surgery on Nigerians. As a white American child, I had not imagined I would be the patient, inhaling the strong hospital antiseptic that permeated every room and wafted out the windows. 

My eyes sought something familiar, brown tables against the wall, louvered windows. My mother held my hand. Then I felt pricks on my leg. I had fingered the growth often, and if I sat on it wrong, I felt an ominous pinch. A missionary nurse noticed it when we were swimming at the river. 

“Anne,” she said to my mother. “You ought to have Jack look at this.” She meant our neighbor, one of the missionary doctors.

So I was on the table, my mother beside me. The pricks were over. I could feel pressure, and then pulling. 

For two weeks, I couldn’t swim. That was the worst of it. Until the stitches came out. There must have been four or five, each cut and pull a sharp hurt. And even after that I could not swim until the wound was fully healed. The scar is rounded, not a line, which makes me think the stitches came out too early. Many things happened too early. Others too late. 

The sewing needle was likely invented during the Upper Paleolithic time period that began 40,000 years ago, about the same time cave paintings appeared and fishing took hold. Grooves fashioned in antlers held the fiber. The earliest needles that look like the ones we have today were invented about 25,000 years ago, during the Gravettian period in Europe, the last time Europe was a unified culture and a period famous for its heavy-breasted Venus figurines.

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve sew fig leaves together when they see that they are naked.

Nigeria, where I lived, boasted a multitude of tailors. These men worked treadle machines, sitting on clay stoops beneath a sheltering roof of palm fronds. 

The more embroidery on a Nigerian man’s traditional gown the more notable and wealthy he is. If my stitches ever conferred wealth, it was in the form of healing.

I was fated for stitches.

About the time that Mary Tyler Moore was making a television movie about a woman who found a lump in her breast, and it was cancer, and she died, I found a lump in my breast and my mother was on another continent. I was twenty-four, in my second year of graduate school, two years married, and terrified. I tried not to touch it. But in the shower, I sought the lump, over and over. 

With my husband, I waited for surgery because my student health insurance hadn’t kicked in. Meanwhile there was an attempt at aspiration, to draw off fluid. It didn’t work. How could it? The lumpish mass felt like coral under velvet, hard and nubby, not a bubble.

By the time I went in for surgery, I was convinced I would die, war-weary from anxiety. The prepping, the orange wash, the nurses casual. The doctor came in. “I’m the one who is going to cure you,” he said. Now I would think he was a prick. Then I loved him.

The usual injections, the deep sting. I was wide awake, feeling not the cuts, but the pull and release, pull and release. The sound of metal. Scissors? A knife? Finally the stitching up. 

I slept the afternoon and evening away in our graduate school apartment on the ninth floor. That knot of tissue was excised. The test came back negative. Only fibrocystic disease, not cancerous. The scar was barely perceptible, like a silk thread against my skin. 

I swore never to touch my breasts again. There would be no lumps if I didn’t find them. Not looking for trouble was surely the best approach.

Women of my grandmother’s generation sewed: to clothe their children, to keep warm in winter, to hold worry and loneliness at bay, to beautify their surroundings, to create where creative expression was limited. Needle and cloth was an available art form: practical yet yielding to personal vision. Our living room sofa in Nigeria was distinguished by my grandmother’s smocked pillow covers. To my mother, they may have been a laying on of hands.

A netting needle, or shuttle, is used to mend fishing nets. On a drive with my parents and husband along the coast of West Africa in 1980, we stopped to watch men mending nets. They wore beautiful blue shirts and the corks on their nets were also blue. My parents had believed my new husband would only understand me if he visited my country of origin. Our visit was one month in duration, long enough for me to show off the several wrap-around skirts I had sewn for the journey but not long enough to feel truly at home.

Perhaps it was loneliness that motivated me, the year after the pearl-sized growth was removed, to begin to sew on a play sewing machine I received for Christmas. I was nine. We had moved away from two girl friends who now lived eight hours distance via Nigerian roads. I must have feared they had forgotten me. Rather than write a letter, I sent the first products of my sewing life. 

First, I cut out fronts and backs for two blouses, using one of my own as a pattern. Then I stitched the sides and tops, leaving a hole for the head and two arm holes and putting rickrack where a more advanced seamstress would have stitched a hem. Without my knowing, my mother may have added facings to the neck and arm holes before these primitive offerings were carried, in a car, to the recipients. They would not have withstood a washing before unraveling. The toy machine had its limits. It only went forward. And I had to turn the wheel by hand. I was fond of my friends, perhaps fonder of making things, though I didn’t yet know what I really wanted to make.

Six years later, in the U.S., in a Home Economics class in Decatur, Georgia, I learned darts. Darts are required for fitting women’s breasts. Even the shifts we wore as teenagers in the sixties included darts. A pattern is cut. The cloth is flat. Darts are one of the first things the seamstress sews, before arm holes or sleeves are finished or the neckline, certainly before the zipper is sewn in or the hem stitched. A dart is made by sewing across a triangular fold in the fabric. The acuteness of the angle gathered in the dart depends on breast size. I learned early that my darts would not be acute.

All writing is the body trying to speak. 

Is sewing a form of sign language?

And sutures the story’s denouement?

In the middle of my life, I was not only sewn but embroidered.

I was forty-four years old, eighteen years post-childbirth, when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease, or kidney failure. Through a shunt in my side, I released and refilled a glucose solution four times a day. The solution dwelled in my peritoneum, drawing toxins out of my blood. My belly was always bloated. 

Two years in, I developed a hernia. From the pressure of all that fluid, I assumed. I was too despondent to ask. The hernia was grotesque, swelling out like a hot dog at the fold where my leg met my torso. We were back at the Mound of Venus but it was not very sexy now. Men have hernias, not women. So I told few. And then fired the first surgeon I met for the procedure. He came highly recommended, but I found him emotionally careless. Perhaps we are only broken bodies to surgeons. I wanted mine to pretend otherwise. Pretend I’m human like you. As we discussed the method of dialysis I was doing: at home, not in a clinic, he stood in his fine shoes and declared: “Neither option is good.” My greatest power was that I could dismiss him. 

“No,” I said to my nephrologist. “Find someone else.” 

The next surgeon was older, kinder, closer to death himself. I don’t even remember going in for the surgery. It was all too familiar by then. 

My guess would be twelve sutures. My Mound of Venus had become a terminal of crossed tracks. More writing on my body, though the sentences weren’t clear. 

All writing is the body trying to speak. 

Is sewing a form of sign language?

And sutures the story’s denouement?

In The Odyssey, Penelope weaves a shroud for her father-in-law and unravels it at night, thus postponing remarriage with undesirable suitors since she vowed she would not remarry until the shroud was finished.

Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, the heroine sews her personal writing into her clothing, against the intrusions of a predatory master. Or she keeps it in deep pockets that were themselves an undergarment, a pocket on a sash and as large as a purse, tied over a shift but beneath the skirt. She could keep everything there: keys, wafers, a journal.

A body of writing.

My body written in surgical intervention.

Pamela did not seek pleasure in her writing but relief, security, privacy.

A body in surgery loses all privacy.

The pockets are exposed. 

An ancient Egyptian papyrus speaks of sutures being used to treat a man’s shoulder. “Thou shouldst draw together for him his gash with stitching.” 

We say we’ve got something sewn up when we’re going to win.

The Psalmist sings, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

Months, even years passed in my wait for a new kidney and a new pancreas. I met with the surgeon, Dr. C. 

"How small an incision can you make?” I said.

“How small do you want it?” he said.

I looked at his hands, not too large, but a man’s hands, not dainty. 

“From my navel down. Not stem to stern.”

And so, when the blessed day finally arrived and I was splayed out on the table, unconscious, once again ready for death or deliverance, that’s what he did. As I saw later, he circled around my belly button, creating, when healed, a kind of scallop effect, like a dainty collar or a sea shell.

A kidney-pancreas transplant is two surgeries accomplished with one incision. Mine took six hours.

The kidney went in on the left side, the pancreas on the right; the purifying instrument stitched in first. Immediately, it began to work, the ureter of the donor kidney connected to my bladder. And then the pancreas was sutured to artery and vein and intestine, and my blood sugar was stabilized for the first time in twenty years.

Imagine all those stitches, the small veins, the needle held not by Dr. C’s hand but by an instrument he held that held the needle. Stitches dainty as lace. I imagine lace collars, lace gloves, lace cuffs at the ends of sleeves. 

Then the incision was sewn up, down to the Mound of Venus. 

I visited the Temple of Venus in Athens with my family when I was ten. It was a continuation of an excursion we began in Egypt as we traveled from Nigeria to the U.S., one of many tours we took as we headed west on furlough years. These trips were a kind of stitch. We left Nigeria and a year later returned, coast to coast and back, though the places never quite came together for me. The stitching was too irregular and flimsy to hold.

With transplant surgery, I was in the hospital only three days. I went home with my stitches and showered and patted them dry and watched day by day as the bruises surfaced, for, of course, there were multitudes more sutures hidden beneath the skin, blooming lavender and pink. And then the color began to fade. 


My new organs, meanwhile, hummed away. The night after surgery, I dreamed of flying over evergreens and collecting a bounty of roses. 

As I became accustomed to my new life, I imagined the organs as interior pockets, openable by no one, not even me. They held a secret, the name of my donor, a name I still do not know. Is there a divine economy in which this gift is weighed? The donor family was willing.

My stitches slipped out easily, as if they’d been oiled. The scar puckered slightly where it crossed the C-section incision. 

A stitch in time saves nine, Benjamin Franklin wrote.

Neither before nor after that surgery have I researched the life expectancy for the organs I gained. I believe the pockets will hold. 

One hundred forty million years ago, the continents of Africa and the Americas were connected. I’ve been trying all my life to stitch my African past and my American present together.  

Flesh is harder to puncture with a needle than is cloth.

In all sewing, it’s the uniformity and care given to stitches that sets the great seamstress apart. Remember the story, “A Jury of Her Peers,” by Susan Glaspell, how the two friends understand that their neighbor has murdered her husband because her beautiful uniform stitches suddenly became irregular and sloppy?

The woman strangled her husband because he strangled her song bird. The evidence was in her sewing basket.

The needle wasn’t through with me.

On a routine visit with my dermatologist when I was fifty-four, he discovered a carcinoma near the tip of my nose, a little to the right of center for a person looking at me. I couldn’t perceive it. The surgeon used local anesthesia, so I was awake. My nose was sliced in paper thin wafers, each slice of skin checked under a microscope for cancer cells. I could smell burning flesh as the blood vessels were cauterized. After the first clear slice, the surgeon took a few more wafers, for extra security.

 managed, even with the smell, until I was handed a mirror reflecting the open wound.

“How do you want me to stitch it up?” the doctor said, “this way or that?”

I screamed at the obscenity, of my bloody nose and his demand.

When my husband calmed me, I asked the surgeon to do what he thought was best. But he refused. And so I chose.

We left, I in a state of shock, my nose bandaged to baseball size.

Fortunately, by the next day, when I pulled back the gauze, my nose looked rather familiar in the mirror, the sutures barely discernible beneath a series of pale adhesive strips across the cut. What was discernible was a little red line, off-center, down my nose. It looked as if I had been decorated with a thin-tipped marker. Each day, the color faded and the swelling abated and I looked more like myself. Even more fortunate, I had a five week writing residency planned. The stitches could be taken out by a local doctor. Once I reached rural Massachusetts where the poppies were blooming, I wished my mother could join me, just to see those flowers like red announcements. And I was so proud of my chutzpah with this particular surgery. I wanted to share that too. After three or four days, I hardly gave my nose a thought, except to admire how well we were doing. As my nose healed, I gained a slight upturn where the incision ended at the tip of my nose. I rather liked it. The scar turned white, rather than red or pink. Today, I can’t even see it. 

As it happened, on that lovely writing residency, I fell down some stairs carrying a ceramic bowl. The bowl broke and sliced the palm of my hand. I was sutured again. And kept on writing. My greatest annoyance was that I lost an afternoon when I could have been producing pages. 

When I first learned to sew, really learned, in high school, I loved the patterns, the filmy tissue, the crinkle of it as I unfurled the pieces and laid them out, pinned each piece to the fabric, cut with sewing scissors, the cutting a distinct and lovely sound when the scissors were sharp, the crinkle subdued by the cloth. In sewing, cut fabric is reassembled as dress, pants, blouse, jacket. Cutting occurs in order to sew back together in a becoming and useful way.

I sewed my own clothes for a period of years and became quite the seamstress. When I gained weight, I let out the seams. When I lost weight, I took them in. But I never cut the extra fabric, not even when I lost so much weight the seams were two inches wide. I knew I would need to let them out again.

When I married, rather than making my wedding dress, I made muslin curtains for our Louisville apartment on Lucia Avenue off Bardstown Road. I made them as I might have sewn lingerie or bed sheets. I was in love and the reams of long pale cloth seemed like the tender unwritten pages of our consummation. 

When I started writing seriously, I stopped sewing. 

Did I no longer have time to sew? Or did writing fill the need that sewing had provided for? I couldn’t wear my writing. But I could go places with it. 

Sewing and writing are piece work. They can be root work, as in work that roots us to place, a sense of self, family, community. In the same years that I was sewing, many of those years separated from my parents, first when I was sent to the U.S. to finish high school and attend college and later when I married and they returned to West Africa, I also embroidered: calendars, pillow covers, wall hangings. So many stitches, so many knots as I tried to hold something together.

Margaret Atwood writes in Alias Grace, “I am certain that a Sewing Machine would relieve as much human suffering as a hundred Lunatic Asylums, and possibly a good deal more.” 

Thrown out of the garden, we are broken. Writing, sewing, sutured, we are put back together, or something close, close enough? Certainly it was not mere distraction that all those ladies sought when they did “fancy work.”

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne made her living by sewing. She spoke her body when she embroidered the letter A with extravagant gold stitching. By needle and golden stitch, she saved herself.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, two friends stitch a quilt together, using pieces from their dresses, and thus create an emblem of their eternal bond.


At last came my cataract surgery. Years of immunosuppressant therapy following transplantation made me an early candidate. For the first time, I had a female surgeon, mild and even as an angel. 

A sedative, dilation, an anesthetic injection I didn’t feel. 

We did one eye at a time.

A small incision on the side of the cornea. Then a tiny ultrasonic-wave producing probe broke up the old lens so it could be suctioned out. An injector tool placed the new lens in my eye where it unfolded like a leaf and the surgeon adjusted the placement. No stitch. But the view I gained! Glory. I could see individual pine needles fifty feet up. And the world was washed clean of the yellow film I had become accustomed to viewing it through.  Patch work at its best.

At the moment, I’m in a holding pattern when it comes to stitches. It’s all metaphorical right now: stitching up this essay, stitching parts of my life into a single week: writing, teaching, family time, granddaughter time, walks with our pup, Sam, yoga lessons. I haven’t sewn a dress lately or done any embroidery. But a craft learned, like a body sutured, is remembered in the tissue. 

Blessed are all the little stitches, all the frocks of my life, my Grandmother’s gifts, my surgeon’s hands. What if a stitching God had been emphasized in my girlhood? Might I have imagined Him as Her? “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews,” I reread in Job. A stitching God might have been cutting patterns, sewing seams, selecting buttons, creating openings and soft closings, embroidering at the wrist, the neck. Looping water to shore, pulling heaven to earth, fastening eyes to sockets, piercing earth with needles of rain, lacing dark and light, patching up the sick, raising the dead in a flurry of stitches. 

Elaine Neil Orr is the author of five books, including her memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (Univ. of Virginia Press) and two novels, A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa and Swimming Between Worlds (Berkley/Penguin/Random House, 2013, 2018). Swimming Between Worlds was called by the Richmond Times-Dispatch “a novel of great humanity . . . It scores a triumph for its author and a blessing for her readers.” It was also a finalist for the Phillip H. McMath Post-Publication Book Award. Orr has published widely in literary journals, including Image, Blackbird, The Missouri Review, and storySouth, among others. She is Professor of English at N.C. State University and teaches in the Brief-Residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.  

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