20 Dec 2023
Nicola’s special way of remembering her dear friend, Carol
Nicola Gray channelled her sorrow for the loss of her friend Carol Stevens into an ambitious creative fundraising effort for Leukaemia UK. Their long-distance friendship was forged over a shared love of sewing and quilting, and when Carol died she left a special gift for Nicola which eventually turned into the fundraiser.
“In 2007 my husband David and I went on a holiday to Vancouver Island,” recalls Nicola, 67 who lives in Gloucester and is retired from a varied working life in the police force, in local authority and as an aromatherapist. “There we met a couple from Canada who were on holiday – Rom and Aileen. We struck up a great friendship with them, keeping in touch over the years, and in 2015 we joined them on a road trip down the Pacific coast to San Francisco. On the way back we stopped off at SeaTac which is near Seattle to meet their lifelong friends, Carol and Harlow.
“We hit if off immediately. I walked into her beautiful home and could see her quilts and sewing bits and pieces and knew we’d have so much in common. In fact on our way back on the trip we stopped off to see her again and ended up staying five days.”
Carol, who was retired from a career as a maternity nurse, had been quilting for decades. Nicola had always sewn but came to quilting later in life.
“My love of quilting started when I went by a beautiful little shop in Newent on the bus about 15 years ago,” said Nicola. “It was called the Patchwork Basket, and I made another trip back to have a proper look inside. It was full of lovely fabrics and sewing things, and I ended up joining the Newent Quilters who have connections with the shop.
“Carol and I would send pictures of our quilting projects. A couple of times I got stuck and would ask her advice and she would always point me in the right direction. It was her lifelong ambition to visit this country but sadly it was not meant to be as her husband had too many disabilities to travel long distances. I miss her sunshine personality, enthusiasm and encouragement. She sits on my shoulder whenever I sew!”
In January 2022, Nicola took a phone-call from her friend Aileen to say Carol had been taken to hospital and had been given the devastating diagnosis of an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
“She’d been very tired for a few months which we thought was possibly Covid that hadn’t tested positive. It was a terrible shock to hear she had blood cancer. She was told she only had a few months to live and was offered an aggressive treatment with no guarantees of much more than a few extra months of life, during which time she would not be allowed to have visitors. She was incredibly brave and decided not to have treatment. She was in her late 70s by then and said she wanted to be as well as she could be in her last days.”
Carol was lovingly looked after in her home by her family, aided by Rom and Aileen, and welcomed a stream of guests into her home to say goodbye, giving away possessions and gifts to them. She passed away at home on 9th April 2022, nine days short of her 79th birthday.
“It was incredible how many people’s lives she’d touched and how quilting had run through those connections. She’d made quilts for veterans’ associations, and if any friend had a new baby they would get a quilt. Quilting was her way of expressing love. And she loved colour. She said when you go into a fabric shop it immediately lifts you.
“She really found that time saying goodbye to everyone very fulfilling even though she knew she was dying. It was an extraordinarily brave thing to do. She never ever felt sorry for herself. It was very uplifting in a strange way and has been a huge lesson to me on how to die well.
“About two or three weeks before she passed I had an email from her saying she was leaving was me some fabric and wanted me to ‘keep busy’. I was of course very touched. In September 2022 Aileen and Rom came to stay, with a huge suitcase in tow. We opened it on the living room floor. There was so much in there. Beautiful fabrics. I couldn’t actually deal with it then and there, it was too much. But after they left I found a quiet day and went through it.
“There were a couple of blocks in there – pieces sewn together to create a design to be repeated – in pattern it was called ‘churn dash’. I looked at it and I thought I know what you’re telling me. All the fabric was there to do more blocks and make an entire quilt.”
Nicola took the project to Newent Quilters with idea of raffling the finished quilt as a fundraiser at their forthcoming exhibition. Once the quilt top had been pieced, Ali Shayle of Orchard Quilts completed the actual quilting process.
“When I saw it completed I had to stand back from it as I found it quite overwhelming to see this thing that had been gifted to me suddenly become a quilt. Quilting is all about connection – shapes, patterns, colour, and they’re made with communication and love. There it was. The colours were typically Carol, orangey reds and blues and creams. It was quite an unusual pattern for English quilters to put together, very much what you’d expect to see in North America traditions, so it attracted attention at exhibition.”
The quilt took pride of place at the Newent Quilters exhibition at the town’s Memorial Hall on Saturday 4th November 2023 where it was raffled. The group succeeded in raising around £1300 to be split between two charities in memory of Carol – Leukaemia UK and Maggie’s, a Cheltenham-based cancer support and care charity. And when the winning ticket was drawn, Nicola couldn’t believe it. The quilt was destined to go back to the US to take pride of place in the home of Carol’s son and daughter-in-law Deana who live in Washington State.
“Call it a quirk of fate, karma or simply a coincidence. I have to admit I was totally stunned to hear her name announced, really quite emotional. Carol’s daughter, Christine, who lives in South Dakota, also won fifth prize, a quantity of beautiful fabric called a ‘layer cake’. Aileen and Rom had bought raffle tickets on their behalf without either of them knowing.
“I think it is such a fitting outcome – the quilt is being returned to the family and the circle is now complete. I think Carol would have been absolutely thrilled to see her quilt. She would also have laughed her socks off at the massive project this has been for me, not least of all the anxiety of parcelling it up and getting it safely back to America! So yes, I was kept busy Carol!”
Want to read about other inspiring fundraising stories? Read about Rebecca and Jo’s fundraising story.
Discover more personal stories like Nicola’s.
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