Boxes of Desperation by Jennifer Ross
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Jill opened her garage door and stared at two rows of what she liked to call “the brown beasts”. They were actually brown dusty legal boxes they had brought back from her parents’ house. The house sold very quickly and despite months of work they were still unprepared to move out in a short time frame so they grabbed empty boxes and desperately started to pack up what was left in the house. She had several names for them besides brown beasts but mostly she called them “boxes of desperation”. Jill swore they had multiplied in number in the last 18 months or maybe that was one of her many reasons not to unpack and get rid of them. The task seemed overwhelming but had to be done.
Her father must have loved these boxes since there were probably 300 of them stacked neatly in her parents’ basement. They were meticulously labeled but rarely contained those items. There were even ones that were labeled “empty” which were always the fullest and made them laugh. They had made it through about half of them when the house sold. She had thought more than once that it would be easier to throw them out but she just couldn’t do it. Who knows what they had packed into the truly empty ones? The ones they didn’t get to before moving were probably like the rest, mostly things that could be thrown out or sent to the thrift store and almost always priceless family photos, letters, and an occasional important paper. If it hadn’t been for those treasures Jill would have set fire to them long ago.
An hour later she had plowed through 10 boxes.
Pleased with herself she decided to tackle the box labeled yarn. Surprisingly it was filled with yarn. Yarn she recognized. Her mother had been a voracious knitter. It fascinated Jill to watch the needles fly at lightning speed all the while her mother barely glanced at it. Jill had tried to learn but was all thumbs. The cream yarn was left over from a cardigan made for her younger sister, and the light blue yarn was from her brother’s much-loved baby blanket. Most endearing were the remnants of well-loved winter hats and mittens, that were passed on from one kid to another.
They held up remarkably well and when one was lost Mom just knitted a new one.
She smiled at the thought and caressed the soft yarn imagining it on her mother’s knitting needles clicking furiously just moments away from becoming something beautiful. She grabbed a clear plastic bag and piled the yarn in it wanting to get it out of the dreary brown box. It was in surprisingly good shape having survived storage in her parents’ dank basement. In the bottom was a small notebook with a sample of each yarn and what had been created with it as well as a complete set of carefully organized knitting needles in a wrapped bundle. She grabbed those as well trying to remember when her mother set her knitting aside. Why did she stop something she loved?
Maybe with some encouragement, she would remember how to do it. It was worth a shot.
Jill walked into Memory Care with a birghtly colored cloth bag brimming with the found yarn balls. She waved at her friends Debbie and Tammy. They had formed a deep bond over the shared experience of having a mother with dementia. It was nice to have friends who truly understood and laughed instead of being shocked when you said you thought the place should have a pop-up bar for a stiff drink after every visit.
Mom’s face lit up when she saw her. She was having a good day, alert and semi talkative and her hair was neatly combed and curled. She asked about her Dad not remembering he had died almost three years ago. Jill circumvented the question by showing her the bag of found yarn. Her Mom smiled and dug her hand in deep, feeling the softness of the fibers. “Would you like to try and knit?” She shrugged and then nodded her head.
The one thing Jill had retained from her failed attempts at knitting was how to cast on.
She cast on and handed the needles to her Mom who took them, looking at it intently for a minute or two. It was obvious she was trying to remember what to do and ever so slowly she slipped the needle under the first cast on stitch and started knitting. Tears sprung up in Jill’s eyes as she watched her Mom knit. Her mom continued until she had several rows. Jill had to help her a bit along the way and she wasn’t nearly as fast or adept as she had been years ago but she was doing it. After a few rows her Mom handed her the knitting, smiled and closed her eyes signaling she was done for the day. It was one of their best days in a long time. She packed up the knitting project and headed out. Debbie and Tammy were outside waiting for her.
She had totally forgotten they had a lunch date. “No worries” Tammy said smiling.
“What do you have there? asked Debbie pointing to the flowered canvas bag with the green knitting needles poking out of it. “Oh this”, she smiled, “I had a breakthrough with Mom today. I will tell you over lunch.” With great enthusiasm she bent their ears over lunch sharing about her connection with Mom. Jill showed them the small notebook with a sample of each yarn looped on the page and what project it was used for. “What will you do once she finishes with all the yarn pieces?” asked Debbie.
“Well hopefully I can find someone to put them all together in the form of a blanket, like a crazy quilt.” Jill said. “I honestly don’t care what it looks like, most of what Mom made is long gone. Everything well used and worn out after all us kids. It would be a treasure.” Debbie and Tammy smiled at their friend knowing what a breakthrough she had had. Jill had been such a source of solace for them as she had been down this road longer than both of them. It was nice to have someone to lean on during this and who seriously understood.
They spent the rest of the lunch laughing, sharing family news and brainstorming other ways to connect with their Moms.
Slowly over the next couple of weeks Jill sat with her Mom and watched as she made slow and steady progress with the knitting. It was the only way they connected anymore. Conversation was limited to a word here and there. If she got an “I love you” out of her it was a bonus day. Six weeks into the knitting project Jill walked into her Mom’s room and it felt different. The nurse was checking in on her and looked sadly at Jill. “I’ve seen this before” the nurse said softly, “there is no good medical term for it but she is fading away”. Jill understood. There was nothing catastrophic going on, it was just time to go. Her body had worn out and it was slowly shutting down. After much discussion Hospice was called in to help.
They would keep Mom comfortable and make sure she wasn’t in any pain.
Debbie and Tammy showed up shortly. The warmth of their hugs and just their presence made Jill feel loved. “Can one of you take this?” asked Jill pointing to the bag of yarn balls and knitting needles. For whatever reason she had brought it all in. Even the little notebook with the yarn swatches and notes. She had hoped to stop by a local yarn store to get help with the rest of it after visiting Mom but that was not to be. Tammy and Debbie scooped it up. Later Tammy returned with a large latte. Her thoughtfulness brought Jill to tears. “The Hospice nurse said this could last hours or days. I have no idea.” said Jill quietly. Given her Mom’s true nature she hung on for several days that stretched into a week. On the seventh day her breathing was slowing as was her heart rate.
Surprisingly Debbie and Tammy showed up with a gift bag and another coffee.
Jill was beyond tired. She had gone home at night but always returned early the next day. She wanted to be there with her Mom when her time came. Debbie set the gift bag aside and handed her the coffee. “It won’t be much longer, although my Mom may surprise us” Jill said smiling weakly. “You need to open the bag” Tammy said. “Normally we would let it wait but this is for both you and your Mom.” Curious Jill pulled the bag closer. She smiled at the beautiful gift bag adorned with roses, her mother’s favorite, and the pink tissue paper. She pulled out the tissue paper and reached in. Her hand touched something soft. She gently pulled and the gift landed softly on her lap. It looked familiar. It was a blanket but what it really was wasn’t registering.
Debbie and Tammy were quiet.
Jill ran her hand over the softly knitted surface and looked up puzzled. Tammy and Debbie gestured for her to spread it out over her Mom’s bed.. She stood up and slowly unfolded the blanket over her mother and gasped. It was all the yarn she had found knitted into a beautiful blanket. It was lovely with each color flowing into the next. How on earth did they manage this? Without asking Debbie handed her a pair of reading glasses and nodded for her to look. Each section had a beautifully embroidered label. Jill read “Tommy’s mittens, Jill’s booties, Sarah’s blankie, Julie’s hat, Michael’s baby sweater.” Every single one told the story of the yarn. Jill’s fat tears fell quietly dotting the evenly stitched yarn.
She gently placed her mother’s hands on the blanket and ran them over the knitted memories. Her mother’s face softened with a gentle smile and a sigh and Jill knew she was gone. It was a beautiful send-off to a beautiful spirit made possible by the kindness of two friends and their found network of knitters who volunteered to knit a blanket of love and memories. Never underestimate what the work of many hands and many hearts can do to make a treasure of memories. What were once boxes of desperation evolved into boxes of hope and love.
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