I was walking happily along the street this morning, swinging my bag and feeling happy to be a part of the throng. It had been a long time since I had last ventured into the big city by myself, and I was feeling mighty fine.
The sun was shining, and the air smelled sweetly of donuts and bus fumes. The city seemed to glitter in the bright morning light as I strode along the sidewalk.
I looked up to my right, where a fountain sparkled in the sunlight. Along its edge, a small plot of annual flowers nodded in the breeze. Zinnia, marigolds, daisies and cheerful black-eyed-susans all bobbed their heads as I passed.
My eye was caught, just then, by the sight of a woman sitting on a stone bench, her eyes closed and her soft brown hair caught in a ponytail at the top of her head. As I passed, I saw her smile very faintly, and slowly, gently lean herself back as if to rest against a wall that simply was not there.
Her expression of thoughtful calm never changed as she laid herself back so gently into the space behind her, and gracefully toppled off the back of the bench and onto the pavement below. I stopped where I stood, unsure of what I had seen. She had moved so calmly and with such grace. She had simply arched her back and let the emptiness take her down.
From where I stood on the sidewalk below the fountain, all I could see were her too thin legs, raised above the bench, the crooked knees holding her blue hightop sneakers aloft. They didn’t move, and I didn’t dare to leave.
After a moment or two, I realized that the woman was in trouble. I had no idea how hard she had fallen or whether she might be hurt. I quickly mounted the granite steps and walked to the bench from which she had fallen. I looked behind it, and saw her lying perfectly still, on her back, with her legs still raised above the bench.
“Hey. Are you OK?” There was no answer. Her closed eyes never moved, and her hands stayed curled against her chest.
“Come on, open your eyes. Are you hurt?”, I asked more forcefully. This time there was a sound, a faint shake of the head. I leaned in closer, and could smell the source of both her grace and her absolute loss of balance.
I looked up and around, to this lovely urban park with its flowers and silvered fountain spray. I watched at least 20 well dressed people walk by my fallen companion and I as if we were absolutely invisible.
Then four men approached, wearing shirts and hats that identified them as maintenance workers at a local university. They asked me what had happened, and I told the story of what I had seen. One man knelt by the woman’s head, cradling it in his strong hands and asking her “What hurts you?” Another pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911, while the other two went to stand on the corner to alert the rescue squad as to where we waited.
I felt somewhat useless at this time, unable to help the woman to raise her head, to answer our questions or to rise from her uncomfortably cramped space between the stone bench and the stone garden wall. I wanted to comfort her somehow, so I held her hands and tried to ask questions. “Did you hit your head? Does your back hurt?” Her only response was to mumble something incoherent and squeeze her eyes more tightly closed.
Then I noticed a canvas bag on the bench beside us. It was a shopping bag, clean and crisp and still retaining its squared shape. Inside of the bag, I saw the most improbable sight: three skeins of bright yarn, yellow, orange and green; all neatly wound and as clean as new snow. And attached to the yellow yarn by a long strand of wool were two small hooks and an absolutely beautiful blanket.
“Hey!” I said, in some surprise. “Is this your yarn? Did you do this knitting?”
For the first time since I had noticed the woman, her eyes opened wide. Hazel eyes, trying desperately to focus on my face, bloodshot, wandering, golden lashed and beautiful.
“No.” Her voice was suddenly both firm and clear. “Not knitting. I crocheted it.” She reached out one thin, strong hand, trying to grasp the bag and the treasure it held.
“This is beautiful.” I told her honestly. “I could never make something like this.”
“Yeah, you could.” Her voice was slurred and rough, and her hands shook. “I’ll show you.” She took the blanket in her hands, and tried again to sit up, but she couldn’t do it, even with the young man supporting her. “Grandma…showed me. Grandma.” She reached for the yarn, still trying to explain it all to me.
While we waited for the rescue squad, the four gentle young men spoke softly together in Spanish, leaving me to my lessons with this unlikely teacher. I couldn’t understand even half of what she said, but I heard the words “niece” and “blanket” and “Grandma” more than once. And I heard her say, almost clearly, “Yes, you can do it.”
Finally, after dozens of people had walked by us without a look or a word, after a handsome young family had eaten their breakfast sandwiches not four feet from where my sad companion lay sprawled on the pavement, finally, finally a fire truck pulled up and four strapping uniformed men stepped toward us, snapping on their rubber gloves.
“What do we got?”, they asked. I started to explain what I had seen, how this woman had toppled so slowly and gracefully, losing her hold on the earth like an old birch tree in the wind. I started to tell them what the woman had said, but they cut me off. One shook his head, the other gave a sharp, barking laugh.
“Oh, yeah. We know her. We’ve had her a bunch of times before.” They stepped toward her, bending with confidence over her huddled form, reaching down to where she lay, clutching her crocheting hook and her bright, bright yarn.
I knew that she was safe for now, that the right people were taking care of her. I knew that my momentary cameo in her drama was over, and I turned to walk away, following the broad backs of those kind men who had stopped to help. I left the woman there, surrounded by a flock of young, healthy EMT’s, so sure of themselves and of their place in the world.
But all the way down the street, past the tourists and the flowers and the pretzel vendors and the businessmen, I wanted to find a way to tell somebody about her. “She is a person.”, I wanted to say. “Her Grandma taught her to crochet in neat, perfect, beautiful rows. She is making a blanket for her niece.”
She made me so sad. She is someone’s beloved grandchild. Someone’s sister. Someone’s Aunt.
I don’t understand how she came to be on that stone bench on this sweet summer day. I don’t understand how she came to so gracefully bend and sway and fall to the earth the way that she did.
I hope she remembers that I saw the beauty of what she had created, and that I held her hands as she lay on the clean gray stones.