Most of the time, I’m creating a personalized map for clients I’ve never met. But a few years ago, I embarked on something a little different. I decided to make a map of my time in Seattle visiting my sister Tina and her husband. Initially, my idea was to create an anniversary map, ready for her and her husband’s anniversary in August 2019. But then, a bomb dropped. In February 2019, my sister had multiple strokes and we found out she had ovarian cancer.

Things changed.

Map of downtown Seattle and West Seattle
West Seattle and the waterfront along Alaskan Way

I took more trips to Seattle and got to know the city on an even more intimate level. For what seemed like months, I went back and forth from the hospital to my sister’s condo in Belltown, always with my suitcase in tow. I got to know the ins and outs of both Virginia Mason and the University of Washington (UW) Medical Center. I ate a LOT of takeout food. On long runs around the city, I attempted to soothe my nerves and avoid routes with major hills. When she was finally discharged, I took the bus across the West Seattle Bridge to see her in a nursing home. On a rare outing, we were even able to visit Cupcake Royale and the West Seattle Farmer’s Market.

And Then…COVID

Once the pandemic started, my visits from my home base of Phoenix, AZ stopped. When it was clear COVID was going to be much longer than a few months of lockdown, I traveled fully masked and sanitized, changing clothes in the airport bathroom and wiping down my luggage for fear of infecting Tina. I told my brother-in-law I wouldn’t be able to hug her, and he just replied “She’s not going to be ok with that.”

The idea for the anniversary map changed. Now I thought that maybe I could have it for their August 2020 anniversary or maybe for her birthday in May? I continued to gather information on their favorite restaurants, trips around the Northwest, verification on day trips we took together, performances we saw, games we played and other memories. Maybe this could be something special I could make for her so she could see how much she meant to me as my only sister. Maybe it didn’t have to be about their anniversary but could instead be about all our memories together in Seattle: seaweed in our toes at Alki Beach, roller skating at Southgate, yoga in Capitol Hill, seeing eagles at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Map of downtown Seattle
Some of our excursions to the east and south

In mid-September, 2020, I spoke with her on the phone and she told me that the chemo wasn’t working anymore. She said she was stopping so she could feel better. Sometimes, because of her strokes, it was hard to tell if she understood the consequences of a decision but I made sure to be clear.

“You know what this means, don’t you? You know you won’t get better?”

“Yes, I know.”

I knew I didn’t have much time. Certainly, I didn’t have enough time to worry about a map for her. I only had time to make a few more memories. I couldn’t stay stuck at my drawing table when all I really needed to do was be with her.

Different Priorities

In the height of COVID and during one of the worst fire seasons California and the Northwest had ever seen, me, my partner and my son planned a road trip from Phoenix to Seattle to stay, at least for a few weeks. We still had no idea if my son’s school was going back to in-person learning and had to sometimes stop at a coffee shop parking lot to use their WiFi for a class session. We holed up in a hotel near Seattle Center where we conducted remote schooling, watched Black Lives Matter protests from our hotel window and mastered the art of preparing meals in a microwave oven. Hotel staff would only come to clean our room on a rare request. Denny Park became an unhoused encampment so we walked our son one mile to the next closest playground to have some semblance of outdoor, masked child interaction.

Map of downtown Seattle, a personal personalized map gift
One of my favorite Seattle running routes

Just a few blocks up from our hotel, I saw my sister every day. At Tina’s condo, we’d order takeout and I’d wait for them to finish eating in the living room before taking off my mask and eating alone in the dining room. I went running…a LOT—around Lake Union through Ballard and Fremont, through Centennial and Elliot Bay Park, up and down Queen Anne Hill, south down Alaskan Way and north to Magnolia Park. While watching my son play in the playground at Discovery Park, she told me she was sorry she was dying. I ran six miles back from the park so there would be more room for everyone in the car.

One Last Trip

Eventually, I had to go back to Phoenix but visited again in November, right around the Presidential election. Businesses around the city had boarded up their windows, fearing a violent response to the election results. In South Lake Union, I dropped her mail-in ballot off, with my signature as a co-signer. Occasionally, I’d take Tina out in her wheelchair to get some fresh air. On one walk, we stopped at the top of the hill on 2nd Ave, where you could see Elliot Bay. She gestured that she wanted to just fly straight into it. Later, with her physical therapist, we drove down the big hill from First Ave to be close to the waterfront and touch rose hips on chilly rose bushes.

Map of downtown Seattle, a personal personalized map gift
The focus of the map: Belltown

The morning of December 12, 2020, my brother-in-law called to say she had died in her sleep, making that trip in November the last time I had seen her. What would this map be now? This one that kept changing in my mind as once a gift to now a remembrance? Never had an idea to create something seem so trivial and so important, all at the same time.

Time for the Personalized Map

In progress map of downtown Seattle, a personal personalized map gift
A slow start to a complex, personalized map

It took me two years to genuinely start my personalized Seattle Map. I pored over Google Maps and Images, looking up restaurants that closed years ago and performance schedules long forgotten. This time, I told myself that this was a Christmas gift for my brother-in-law. But then I became so entangled with other map commissions that I kept pushing it to the side. Besides, I kept drawing and redrawing the layout, which never seemed to be right. Wasn’t I forgetting some important moment? I found the downtown area of Seattle to be so dense with our experiences that I had to keep adjusting the inset area—increasing the space between streets to make room for more drawings, more side notes, more references, more memories.

Finally, I reached a point where I stopped fiddling with everything. I had nothing left to do but draw.

You may not know this but a lot of making a map is staring at the page you’re about to draw.

Map of downtown Seattle, a personal personalized map gift
So many memories to include…I had to create an inset!

Memories flowed and I found a real freedom in creating a piece that didn’t “have” to be anything. This map, this time, was mine. This gift was really for me. Of course, it was for Tina, and her husband, and everyone who loved her. But this time, it was really for me to make myself remember and celebrate all of our moments together. For the first time, I could be both on the making and the receiving end of one of my maps. Receiving the final map from the printer, I pored over it the same way I hope my clients do. It had become something outside of me and reflecting our special sisterhood, as I hoped it would.