It was hard to watch her fail. Physically she was growing thinner and more stooped. Mentally she was losing her ability to sort out reality. Initially, my grandmother had railed angrily against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that were eroding who she had always been. Eventually, the anger gave way to frustration, and then resignation.
My grandmother had always been a strong woman. She had a career before it was common for women to have careers. She was independent. In her eighties, she was still dragging out her stepladder every spring to wash all the windows in her house. She was also a woman with a deep faith in God.
As my grandmother lost her ability to live alone, my father moved her into his home. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren were often in the house. She seemed to enjoy being surrounded by the noise and activity of a large, extended family. As she slipped further away from us mentally, my grandmother would occasionally have moments of lucidity when she knew where she was and recognized everyone around her. We never knew what prompted those moments, when they would occur or how long they would last.
Toward the end of her life she became convinced that her mother had knit everything she owned. “Mama knit my boots,” she would tell strangers, holding up a foot clad in galoshes. “Mama knit my coat,” she would say with a vacant smile as she zipped up her raincoat. Soon we were putting on her boots for her and helping her zip up her coat.
During my grandmother’s last autumn with us, we decided to take a family outing. We packed up the cars and went to a local fair for a day of caramel apples, craft booths and carnival rides. Grandma loved flowers, so my dad bought her a rose. She carried it proudly through the fair, stopping often to breathe in its fragrance.
Grandma couldn’t go on the carnival rides, of course, so she sat on a bench close by and waited while the rest of the family rode. Her moments of lucidity were now a thing of the past – having eluded her for months – but she seemed content to sit and watch as life unfolded around her. While the youngest members of the family ran, laughing to get in line at the next ride, my father took my grandmother to the nearest bench. A sullen-looking young woman already occupied the bench, but said she wouldn’t mind sharing the bench. “Mama knit my coat,” my grandmother told the young woman as she sat down.
We didn’t let my grandmother out of our sight, and when we came back to the bench to get her, the young woman was holding the rose. She looked as though she had been crying. “Thank you for sharing your grandmother with me,” she said. Then she told us her story. She had decided that day was to be her last on Earth. In deep despair and feeling she had nothing to live for, she was planning to go home and commit suicide. While she sat on that bench withGrandma, as the carnival noises swirled around them, she found herself pouring out her troubles.
“Your grandmother listened to me,” the young woman informed us. “She told me about a time in her own life, during the Depression, when she had lost hope. She told me that God loved me and that He would watch over me and would help me make it through my problems. She gave me this rose. She told me that my life would unfold, just like this rose, and that I would be surprised by its beauty. She told me my life was a gift. She said she would be praying for me.”
We stood, dumbfounded, as she hugged my grandmother and thanked her for saving her life. Grandma just smiled a vacant smile and patted her arm. As the young woman turned to leave, she waved good-bye to us. Grandma waved back and then turned to look at us, still standing in amazement. “Mama knit my hat,” she said.