He'd worked on the blanket for months. Rod Hardin's knitting needles clicked as he lounged beside the pool on vacation in Atlantic City, and little kids paused to marvel at the Santa Claus look-alike in a Hawaiian shirt, draped in threads of yarn. When autumn came, he continued his creation from a hospital bed set up on the first floor of his Germantown, Md., home.
By mid-November, it was finally done: a patchwork of vibrant colors, framed by stripes of sky and cobalt blue. A few days later, Rod could no longer sit up, and his husband, Nathan Jones, knew it was time to call hospice.
Nearly a year later, Nathan unfolds the blanket in the sunny room where he cared for his husband in his final days. "It was the last thing he worked on," he says. "I knew I wanted to do something with it."
The first time Rod won a blue ribbon at the Montgomery County Fair, in 2010, it was Nathan who had secretly submitted Rod's handmade blanket. After that, Rod submitted entries on his own every year. He had never mentioned anything about entering his final project at the fair. But seven months after he died, Nathan decided to do it anyway.
"It was the last thing I could do for him," he says, "and another way for him to be remembered."
Over the years, they had become crafting phenomena of the Montgomery County Fair. Nathan took up scrapbooking after they lost their beloved 16-year-old poodle; in 2001, he entered the competition and one of his books won the blue ribbon. More awards followed, for photography, baking and flawless roses. He became the first man to win the fair's coveted Baker of the Year award in 2012.
Rod taught himself to knit and crochet after suffering a head injury in a mugging in 1995: Doctors told him to find an activity that would help focus his attention. Rod found the process deeply relaxing.
The two Vietnam veterans drew their share of second glances when they first made their mark in the local crafting scene. The fair's judges, Nathan says, "were surprised that you would have these two guys from the military who baked and could do knitting and crochet and garden, so that initially got a lot of attention."
They had met in 1972, at a mutual friend's party in Washington. They were both 26, recently home from serving overseas as medics — Nathan in the Air Force, Rod with the Navy. Nathan doesn't recall exactly what they talked about that night. But "when you're a very quiet, very shy person, you have an instinct about people," he says. "If someone makes you feel immediately so comfortable, you just know."
For an interracial, gay couple of that era, they were unusually fortunate: Both of their families embraced their relationship. Nathan's mother called Rod her "other son."
Rod worked in a hospital lab, and later, at a medical research company. Nathan spent some time in insurance before going into retail. And they traveled: England, Belgium, Italy, Egypt, China, Switzerland, Japan, Greenland, Turkey, Greece. In one of Nathan's scrapbooks, a map of the United States is freckled with black dots, marking every city and national park they'd visited.
In the scrapbook's pages, time passes in photographs. Rod, bigger and beardier in his 60s, posing in a straw hat before the Tower of Pisa. Nathan, his face framed by a soft halo of silver hair, smiling beside a gurgling fountain. There is an image of Rod at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, his eyes trained on the wall of names, his hand hovering at his mouth.
They had lost many friends to the war, and later, to the AIDS epidemic. But Rod kept drawing new people into his orbit with his generosity, Nathan says. When a neighbor lost a job, Rod left bags of groceries on the front step. When his niece got married, he paid off her student loans as a gift. He spent much of his free time scouring public records online in search of other veterans, determined to reunite as many of his former servicemen as possible.
It wasn't until 2004, after attending Marine Corps reunions together for decades — as medics, they'd both frequently treated Marines — that Rod told their fellow veterans that the two were a couple, not just good friends.
"I was apprehensive," Nathan says, "But there was no judgment. Everyone was accepting." Many of the veterans were socially conservative, "but when it's someone they know, when it's close to home, it makes a big difference."
It was one of their military friends who first urged them to get married. And they did, just days after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in June 2013 made it legal, with a simple ceremony at their local courthouse.
That was three years after doctors found the prostate cancer, during a bladder surgery in 2010; the disease was already at Stage 4. For nearly seven years, radiation and chemotherapy controlled its spread. Last May, the couple took their final trip abroad together, to Spain. It was the first time Rod had to use a wheelchair.
Nathan doesn't like to think about Rod's decline, how he lost 112 pounds in his final months. But the day before he died in January, they watched "De-Lovely," a musical biopic about Cole Porter, and Rod sang every song and applauded the closing credits. A few friends came to visit, and Rod told them jokes, determined to make them laugh.
At the end, Rod was at peace with his own life, Nathan says. His only concern: "He wanted to make sure I was going to be all right."
Nathan, now 72, feels himself changing in Rod's absence; now he's the one who starts conversations with strangers, sharing things he once considered too personal. And he likes talking about Rod: "I'm proud of the life we had together."
When Nathan told the Montgomery County Fair judges that Rod had died, they created an annual memorial award in his honor: The Rod "Doc" Hardin Crochet Award. Rod won it for the first and last time in August, a recognition of his work over many years at the fair. Nathan found out when he visited the fair and saw the purple ribbon displayed beside the afghan.
This month, Nathan will return alone to Italy — Florence, their favorite city — and he'll leave some of Rod's ashes there. He'll spend Thanksgiving away from home for the first time in many years, visiting his sisters in Virginia. He thinks he might adopt a little dog to keep him company.
The closet upstairs is filled with dozens of blankets that Rod made over the years, and most will be given to the people who knew and loved him. But his final, prizewinning afghan — "I'm keeping that one," Nathan says.
He won't tuck it away in a drawer, or display it on a wall. It gets cold in their house, with its tall ceilings and many windows. So when winter comes, his husband's last work of art will keep him warm.