Sunday, February 1, 2009

Chairs: What if you could not get out of yours?

I apologise that this is far from a happy cheery quilt. But, as I struggled with this theme (and boy did I struggle to come up with anything!) I realised that it was because I did not not have a story about chairs. All my quilts for this groups seem to stem from a tale of one kind or another. Okay, there was Goldilocks (and I came close, oh so close, to making a bowl of steaming porridge), but that seemed too obvious. No, somewhere out there I believed there was the story for this theme and if I just waited it would be dredged out of my consciousness. And one night, as I was hovering on that hazy edge of sleep, there it was.

Daniel James was a 23 year old who had been paralysed from the chest down when a scrum collapsed as he played rugby. He was not terminally ill and had regained a tiny amount of movement in his fingers. However,he had constant pain in all of his fingers. He was incontinent, suffered uncontrollable spasms in his legs and upper body and needed 24-hour care. This previously fit young man considered his new life to be a 'second class existence'. He tried to commit suicide and his parents and other people implored him to live, encouraging him that despite his severe disability there were things in life worth living for. No doubt, people like Christopher Reeve were cited as examples. He could not agree.

In September 2008 his parents helped him to travel to Dignitas, the assisted dying clinic in Switzerland, where, against their wishes, but with their understanding, he was helped to die.

By co-incidence as I put the final touches to this quilt, Julie Walters played Dr Anne Turner in a made for TV film about the Doctor who took the same route in 2006. After nursing her husband through an illness which left him completely motionless, she discovered she had a similar illness, progressive supranuclear palsy. She invited the BBC to film an interview with her and to film her journey on the condition it was not aired until after her death.

She did so to highlight the fact that it is illegal in the UK to assist in the suicide of another, even when it is done to end terrible suffering. In fact although over 100 Britons have now travelled to Dignitas (some doing so a little earlier than they would have liked because otherwise they would be too unfit to make the trip) no one has yet been prosecuted. Several have been investigated including the parents of Daniel James.

Some people with illnesses - like Diane Pretty, who has motor neurone disease - have sought advanced declarations from the courts that their spouse would not be prosecuted for helping them to die, feeling that they could not ask without such a guarantee. The argument is that if they were physically capable of doing it themselves then it is not illegal - survivors of failed attempts are no longer prosecuted. But, if she feels that her life is intolerable because of an illness that prevents her making the necessary movements to end her own life, it is illegal for her to get help from her carer. The courts have refused such advance declarations.

Campaigners against assisted dying ( in which people are enabled to take their own life) have either religious beliefs which relate to the sacredness of life and/ or fear abuse of the vulnerable if the law is changed. Often the debate is confused with that of euthanasia ( i.e the relieving of suffering by death of those who have not asked for it/ do not administer the means of death themselves.)

I am not seeking with this quilt to say what your view should be on this issue. I am asking you to consider - if you feel able to bear it - what you would feel if you could not get out of your chair. Not because I feel you should have a 'position' on assisted suicide, (or because I want to make you miserable) but because it does us all good to be more observant of and grateful for the movements we can do and take for granted.

In terms of the construction, the quilt is simple ( but I hope graphic!). It is a black background fused onto Fast2Fuse. The seat and back of the chair is an image of a spine MRI printed onto Extravorganza and in two pieces to suggest a broken back. The tyre is felt, embroidered with a 'tread' pattern and with a button for the spoke centre, all in grey, as if the MRI or X ray had included the chair. It is satin stitch edged and a Swiss flag is fused and zigzag stitched in the corner.


Gerrie said...

You have ot disappointed me, once again. I always wait to see the story you will tell in your piece. Thank you for making me think.

I love the starkness and simplicity of your design. It helps to tell the story. Your title was a bit of an enigma to me. I thought of a 500 pound woman stuck in her chair. Fortunately, you did not take the low road with the title. When I saw the wheel, I knew immediately where you had gone with the title.

Diane said...

This is very clear, and graphic, and as usual the details add to the overall image perfectly. The wheelchair image is instantly apparent -- I love the spine film transfers for the chair itself. Even without your thought-provoking text, the message from your piece is clear and beautifully said.

By the way, it brought to mind a Christmas tree I saw on tv this year, after a large department store asked children in a hospital to design their ideal tree. One boy drew his tree decorated with wheel chairs, crutches and artificial limbs -- because he viewed those aids as wonderful gifts to anyone who needed help to move. The store actually made his tree and put it in a store window, and to see a tree decorated with wheelchairs brought the same feeling to me as your quilt does. Beauty, and poignancy, and a reminder to appreciate what we can do.

Nikki said...

Once again Helen you amaze me with you thought provoking quilt!

StegArt said...

I saw the wheel chair image instantly and upon reading your thoughts on your chair quilt I am now sitting here thinking about it. I am indeed very grateful for the movement my body can do. Thanks for the push to really think about this.

Kristin L said...

Thanks once again for a thought provoking quilt. Your message comes across loud and clear with this simple design. Profound!

Hilary Metcalf said...

Very powerful image and thought provoking story. I recently had a a very bad experience with my back and went through MRIs and X-rays - the doctors were depressingly negative and I felt completely powerless - it was a dreadful feeling. fortunately, I am on the road to recovery and was never in any danger of being confined to a wheelchair - but for a while, the negativity of the doctors made me feel like that was my fate - I can't describe what a sense of dread I felt. You have reminded me to feel grateful every day I get out of bed, put me feet on the floor and stand upright, without pain - and even when there is pain, I know still to be grateful I can get out of bed unaided. thank you.

Karen said...

Helen, your commentaries are as interesting to read as your quilts are to look at. Another thought provoking piece.

Del said...

Not long ago I had a broken ankle and was forced to have a wheelchair to get to and from airplanes in large airports. It was an eye opener - I've never felt so helpless and invisible in all my years. Your quilt is an excellent response to the chair challenge. Del in SCal

Terry said...

Very powerful quilt and story. I live in the state of Oregon, which, I believe, is still the only state in the US that has legalized physician-assisted suicide. I have had very mixed feelings about that, but believing that people should have the freedom to exercise choice about their lives, I reluctantly support it. Interestingly, the reports say that the vast majority of those who have applied for permission to end their lives, most with painful, deteriorating conditions,
do not actually carry through with it, but say the knowledge that they have that as an option has greatly improved their quality of life and given them peace from the fear of intractable pain. I think none of us knows how we would react until we are put into a desperate situation, but you have given us something to think about.

Judy said...


Glad someone chose a wheel chair it is sad that some people need such a chair but it is a reality of life for some.

I doubt I would choose assited dying but I really won't know till I am faced with such an irretrievable situation, however I hope I understand those who do make this choice and would support them 100% It is time courts, governments and law makers took a different stand to simple the 'letter of the law' in such matters and looked at the emotional presures of people facing death where they have no ability to have a say in their mental and physical suffering.

Vivien said...

Powerful and very thought provoking

tuesday said...

Awesome!!! Having MS with limited mobility, I am thankful for my wheelchair. I can walk; short distances and very slowly... so I can get out of my wheelchair. But as much as I HATED IT I am now making peace that with it, my husband and I can go and do things that otherwise would not be an option. So, a wheelchair is coming to mean freedom to me. Your quilt is so very powerful. Thank you for your courage to approach the "unspeakable".