April 24, 2010

Fern and her Purse


Almost a year ago we took the youth to visit at the old folks home for the first time. It was the only time we visited Cottage 1, which is where the more severely affected Alzheimer's patients live. We sang, painted some nails and talked to them. Their responses were underwhelming and we weren't even sure that some of them knew we were there at all.

But there was one woman who, though she didn't say much, did smirk and smile at what was said to her. I remember that Barb told her that she was an attorney and she actually gave an indignant little, "Hmph!" It was so funny.

This same woman became attached to a purse made of folded candy wrappers that belonged to one of the young people in our group. She ran her fingers delicately across the ridges of the folded foil papers and seemed to marvel at the bright colors. When it was time to go there was chatter about whether or not the woman would make a scene when Klarissa took the purse back. I don't recall her making one.

Almost a whole year later, I was admiring a friend's bag made of Capri Sun pouches sewn together with a smartly printed fabric lining. The upcycled bag reminded me of the candy wrapper purse and the old woman's fondness of it so I told the story. A few weeks later, that friend showed up at my house for Gooney Bird club with an almost identical candy wrapper purse. She said that if it would give that old lady some joy in her last days that she wanted her to have it. That is the most thoughtful thing I have encountered in these parts. I mean, it's a pretty cool purse and she and her girls (all very stylish) were parting with it so that an old lady with no fashion sense could run her fingers across it. I was touched.

So the day came to deliver the coveted candy wrapper purse and I began to wonder if I would recognize the woman if I saw her all this time later. Then I worried that she was dead already. I mean, she seemed to be clinging to life a year ago and things can turn around fast at that place. So I found a picture of her with Barb during our visit on a slide show that I had made of the youth service projects and snapped a picture of the computer screen. That's right! My camera obsession actually came in handy for something! I took the purse and the picture and walked into cottage 1 with the kids swirling around my feet.

This was Fern a year earlier.

I showed one of the attendants the picture and explained the whole story and she pointed to the woman right in front of me. I would not have recognized her. She looks like she's actually gotten younger. She was dressed as if she might have gone out instead of in her old faded sweater over pajamas, and she seemed to be wearing lipstick (although it could have been sweet potato leftovers from dinner still clinging to her mouth). I could tell looking between the picture and the woman before me that it was the same person, but she did just look amazingly more youthful.

I went over to her and put my arm on her shoulder and rather loudly said, "Ms. Fern? Hi. My friend heard that you like purses like this and she wanted you to have it. It's a gift. For you to keep. I hope you like it." The attendants all made such a big deal over it, as touched by the gesture as I was. They gathered around to watch her receive what was likely the first gift she had received in along while.


Fern lit up like a firefly in a June sky. She said nothing, and she seemed too dazzled by the preciousness of the purse to even touch it. She let it fall to the table and she just beamed as she looked at it. I wasn't sure that she knew that it was hers so I reiterated, "Ms. Fern? This is yours now to hold any time you want. Okay?" The attendants kept placing it back in her hands and she kept setting it down and rubbing it with her hands from the center outward as if she were smoothing a delicate folded linen. When she finally picked it up, she did just as I remembered her doing a year ago. She very softly let her fingers float along the ridges and lines formed by the wrappers. Her eyes were big and the smile seemed cemented to her face. Nothing else existed in that room but her and that purse. It's amazing how much was conveyed without her ever speaking a word. Her smile said it all.

Hannah Jane went on and on for the rest of the day about the look on Fern's face. It choked me up to see my little girl seem more happy than she had ever been before just from giving joy to someone else. I don't know what was better for me- seeing such pure bliss on an old woman's face or seeing my daughter basking in the fullness of doing for others. It was truly a blessing to get to be a part of that. Thank you, Sarah, for making it happen. I wish you had been there to see it for yourself.

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