Gayle Robbins loved to knit, crochet, garden and sing.
“She loved the outdoors, music, crafts and many other things. For the most part, she did not wear makeup, jewelry or fancy clothes. Material things were never a part of her life, but simple life was every part of her,” Steve Sweet said of his late wife.
Robbins died of cancer on Feb. 1. She was 57.
Today, the community that she impacted through her volunteer efforts is honoring her with a chemo cap knit-a-long.
Those who know how to knit or crochet are invited to visit the Knitting Nest in downtown Weyauwega, where they will be able to pick up free yarn and free patterns to make chemo caps.
People may knit as many caps as they wish. Completed chemo caps should be dropped off at the store by May 1. The caps will then be taken to St. Elizabeth Hospital’s chemotherapy center, which is where Robbins went for her chemo treatments.
The yarn that is being used to make the caps belonged to Robbins. Her husband donated it for the project.
Sweet said Robbins, who often worked on about five different projects at once, had storage tubs full of yarn.
He is happy to share that yarn with others.
Catherine and Patrick Martin own the Knitting Nest and have created a display in the store, where visitors can learn about Robbins and choose yarn and patterns for the chemo cap knit-a-long project.
The memorial book from Robbins’ funeral is also there, so that those who knit or crochet a chemo cap in her honor can sign the book.
Catherine was a family practice physician for a number of years and remembers when her patients lost their hair as they went through chemotherapy treatments.
“I had patients who got a baseball hat to wear, but it’s nice to have something made by someone, even if you don’t know the person,” she said.
She met Robbins a couple years ago when she was volunteering at the senior nutrition site in Weyauwega. At one time, Robbins was the site manager.
The two women shared a love of the fiber arts, particularly knitting. In fact, Robbins won many awards at the Waupaca County Fair for her work.
“When I met Gayle, she was about six months or a year out of her course of chemotherapy from breast cancer,” Catherine said. “And, yes, she had lost her hair during her chemo. But, being a knitter/crocheter, she just made herself some hats. In fact, she liked hats with brims, but the yarn wouldn’t always cooperate, so she would thread some craft wire through the edige of the brim and shape it the way she wanted.”
Sweet said Robbins’ first bout with cancer was around 1998 when it encapsulated her appendix. At that time, she was living in Arizona.
Robbins, who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula following her chemo treatments.
She helped care for her father until his death and was living with her grandmother when Sweet met her in 2002.
They met online.
“We chatted back and forth every day for three months,” he said. “I decided it was time to call her.”
As he talked to her on the phone, he heard wind chimes in the background.
“There was something in her voice,” he said. “I knew this was the girl I would marry.”
He described Robbins as a very simple person.
“She didn’t even own a car when I met her. The cancer had left her disabled, so she couldn’t work full time,” Sweet said.
Robbins, who graduted from Michigan Stage University with a degree in human resources, served four years in the U.S. Navy. She married, had her son Owen and then divorced, often working two or three jobs for the next 20 years.
Her grandmother taught her how to knit, and when Robbins moved back to Michigan to live with her grandmother, the two women, along with their church, knit thousands of slippers for men going overseas, Sweet said.
Sweet and Robbins hit it off, and soon, he was heading to the Upper Pensinsula every Friday to visit her.
He did that for nine months. They were married in 2003.
After moving to Weyauwega, Robbins got more into knitting and flowers. “Our yard was full of color all summer,” he said.
Before the couple had met, she had her second bout with cancer. That time it was skin cancer, and she got through it, reading about nutrition and supplements.
Sweet was already gardening before he met Sweet, and so, after the two of them met, they realized they had that as a common interest.
They were among those who helped to start community gardens in the Weyauwega area.
In addition to knitting and gardening, Robbins also began volunteering at the senior nutrition site, Sweet said.
Caroline Webb is the site manager there and knew Robbins for about a year.
“She made an impact in that year’s time” Webb said. “Mostly, it was her sense of humor.”
Robbins began knitting with those who visited the site and was described by those who volunteer there as a giving person who was a good worker, was unselfish and who treated everyone fairly.
“She cared very much about the seniors. She was an advocate for the seniors,” Webb said.
Sweet said he and Robbins enjoyed their time together.
She once said to him, “I never dreamt I would be with someone who would let me be myself.”
About four years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. For about three years after that diagnosis, she was doing well, getting checked every three months, he said.
“It hit her like a freight train in between her checks,” he said.
Initially, she thought the pain in her back was from exercising too much. Last June, they learned she had cancer in her liver, in one lung, in one kidney and up and down her spine.
She was terminal, but refused to give up and went through chemo treatments yet again.
“She never let it get her down,” Sweet said. “She actually reduced the amount of cancer by about 60 percent.”
More cancer returned in December, and she began to prepare herself for the end of her life.
“We kept going and enjoyed every single day we had,” Sweet said.
They celebrated his birthday last August, her birthday in December and Christmas and the new year. Last fall, she even went deer hunting one last time.
Around the time that Robbins was diagnosed with cancer last summer, the Martins were preparing to open their knitting shop.
Because Robbins had some background in business, she gave them some information as they tried to write their initial business plan.
Catherine said that when she talked to Robbins about her plan to have a sitting area where people could knit and crochet together and the idea of doing community or charity knitting projects, Robbins got excited.
Of the chemo cap knit-a-long, Catherine said, “I planned to do it next fall, in October for breast cancer awareness month. But, when she passed, I decided to do it now to remember her.”
Sweet said he was surprised when the Martins decided to do the project.
“I am grateful her genuineship of a person is being recognized,” he said. “She lived the life that God would always want us all to live and didn’t even realize it.”
The thousands of online chats that the couple had were saved and printed.
In the bedroom of the home they shared are two hats that she knitted. One says, “sweet,” and the other says, “sassy.”
Each time she went for a chemo treatment, she took along two or three caps for others who were going through the treatment.
Sweet said they were married 8 1/2 years and that he was never so close to anyone.
“She would wake up every morning thanking God for another day,” he said. “She would start that day with a positive attitude and see what she could do whether it was knitting, gardening or whatever she could accomplish to make the most of every day.”