I’ll never forget the blizzard of ninety-six. That was the day of my tenth birthday, and the day my mom died from an overdose. My mom wasn’t always an addict, I don’t think, and truth be told, she had no idea who my dad was. That was what she had told me anyway. We lived in an old apartment, on one of the most drug influenced streets in the city. The day started out much like any other day, next to nothing to eat, and my mom still hadn’t come home from the night before. My little brother was at the neighbor’s like he always was, and I was left to fend for myself.
The neighbors had been grumbling for several days at the impending storm we were about to get, and all were out buying the necessary essentials to get through the next couple of days. Sitting on the front stoop was the place to be if you needed to know something. Each neighbor passed me as if I didn’t exist-just like any other day, with the exception of the old cat lady, Mrs. Crumbnick. Even though she smelled like cat pee, she never walked past me without bending down and patting my head like one of her many kittens, and slipping me a little something for my grumbling belly. Today was no different.
The snow was beginning to fall harder, and the flakes were small, making it nearly impossible to see down the block. It didn’t take long for the cold to start biting through my threadbare clothes. My winter coat had long since become too small, but it was a coat nonetheless. My stomach had started its symphony, and I really hoped my mom would walk into view carrying a grocery bag-that would be ideal, maybe even a cupcake inside for my birthday.
Even in the storm, the familiar blue and red lights penetrated the veil of snow as they grew closer. There wasn’t any sound to accompanying the flashing and as they grew closer. All the neighbors on the block started to press their faces up against their windows to see who was in trouble this time. As the car approached my end of the block, it had slowed down to a crawl and stopped in front of the stoop where I was sitting.
Behind the police car, a city bus had pulled up and a few people stumbled off. Among them, a middle-aged woman stepped off the platform. I could tell right away she was out of her element. She was bundled up in a thick, furry, winter coat with gloves that matched, and trailing down the back of her coat was a red scarf. It dangled precariously on the edge of being sidewalk decoration, and as she swiveled around looking at her surroundings, it did just as I had predicted-it fell.
Everything from that point on kind of happened all at once. As I jumped up from my perch and retrieved the lady’s scarf for her, she realized that she had gotten off at the wrong stop, and jumped back on the bus. I was calling out to her with the scarf in my outstretched hand, when one of the officers grabbed my other arm, pulling me back to the stoop with him. As I watched, the bus pulled away. The officer was telling me how sorry he was, but they had found my mom and she had been involved in an accident during the night. Meanwhile, the lady inside the bus mouthing thank you and smiling at me and the softest red scarf, which was still clutched in my hand.
One of the officers placed me in the back of the warm cruiser, while the other officer retrieved my brother from the neighbor. The snow still fell from the sky, the neighbors still had their faces pressed to the pane of their windows, and I still had the scarf in my hand. It truly was the softest thing I had ever felt. My hand just sank into the folds of the angora, and that’s when I noticed the bottom of the scarf. A small square patch of red silk was attached to the scarf, and embroidered on it were three letters, YWS.
For years that scarf has seen the brutal side of what life can deal. I was thrown from foster home to foster home. At first my brother and I had been able to stay together, but after some time, we were separated, and I never saw him again. Now here I am, decades later, walking to work, in a snow storm, with my red scarf. It’s not as soft as it once was, the silken patch has faded and is worn from me rubbing it.
For the last twenty-two years, I worked at a facility for those who suffer from Alzheimers, and tonight, is our Christmas party. Over the years, I had received at least thirteen scarves from my secret Santas, until last year when Amy asked me why I never wore any of the beautiful scarves I had received. So, over some eggnog and cookies, I recalled to them my story and of the lady with the red scarf.
They all knew that I had grown up poor; when you work with the same people for over twenty years, bonds form and small tidbits of all of our pasts come out. I had explained to them that the only thing that got me through those years was that scarf. “You see, to some the initials YWS are just that. Someone’s name. But for me, I thought it was a sign from God; You Will Survive. No matter what heartache, hardship, or impossible situation that occurred in my life, you will survive got me through it.”
Christmas is a time of magic and love, when strangers come together and share laughter, smiles and good cheer. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, kindness and consideration gets pushed to the side, but for some reason during the Christmas season, gestures of goodwill and togetherness abound. Something as simple as holding the door open for someone else to enter before you. It was no different here at the hospice, Christmastime brought with it an air of happiness inside of walls that were usually laden with sadness and forgotten memories.
I hadn’t stepped in the door more than ten feet when Wanda, a fellow nurse, came running towards me in her Santa hat and elf shoes.
“Cynthia, come quick.” Wanda bellowed at me, grabbing my free hand and nearly knocking my goodie bag out of my other hand.
“What’s the matter?” I asked as I tried to keep up with her.
“You’ll see,” was all she breathlessly answered.
We made it to the nurses station, where everyone was standing around and all eyes settled on me.
“What?” I asked. Had I grown two heads since I left my small apartment on the other side of town?
Wanda never let go of my hand, and she nodded to the girls as she dragged me further down the corridor towards room 125. This room was the dreaded room. The death room for one of these poor souls, who wasn’t expected to make it through the night. It was made to look as homey as possible; the family would bring as many items as they wanted to surround their loved one in as much familiarity as possible.
We entered the room, and it was barren; no comforter that smelled like home to cover her, no family portraits on the side dresser for her to look at as her eyes closed to go home, no flowers, no nothing. There was only the standard hospice bed, with the thin coverlet laying over a fragile woman, who stared blankly at the wall. My heart went out to her, and I grew increasingly agitated at the way Wanda was behaving-all happy in regards to this lovely woman.
“Wanda, why are we in here?”
“You should sit with her for awhile Cynthia.” She let go of my hand and gently closed the door behind her as she left the room. I stood there for a moment still in my coat and holding my goodie bag. Silently, I took off my coat and laid it overtop of the aged woman, in hopes that it would offer her some warmth, and sat in the chair beside her bed. It wasn’t long before she settled her eyes on my face, and then something amazing happened; her eyes grew bright, and the confusion that was there a second ago was replaced with a sparkle and recognition. She was staring at my scarf, and I involuntarily touched it.
“What a beautiful scarf,” she said quietly. “I had one exactly like that many years ago. It was my mother’s.”
“What happened to it?” I treaded carefully, knowing that asking questions that they may not remember, can make them agitated and scared.
“That was a long time ago. You should go be with your friends and not be in here with me,” she whispered.
“I would like to stay, if that is okay with you?” I remembered what it was like to be alone and scared, with no one around to comfort you and tell you that everything was going to be okay. There was something about this woman that drew me in, made me remember those things I tried a lifetime to forget. She looked at me and then back again to the scarf.
She continued her story, “I had just left my mother; she had passed away after being hit by a car, while she was trying to help a woman who had apparently overdosed.”
My stomach started to get queasy. This story was starting to get a little too familiar.
“I was trying to get back to my Aunt’s house and wasn’t familiar with the city bus route. My mother was wearing a scarf just like the one you have on. The hospital had given me her belongings, and I donned her scarf, because I wanted to feel close to her. I got off at the wrong spot and when I jumped back on the bus, I realized that the scarf was gone.” She paused.
I couldn’t help myself; by this time I was reliving that moment over again, and picked up the story where she paused. “You got back on the bus, I picked up your scarf and was yelling for you to get your scarf, but the officer was dragging me away. He was telling me that my mom had overdosed, and that a woman coming off of the night shift, stopped to help her and was struck and hit by a car. Neither had survived. Then the bus was gone, and the only thing left was the red scarf in my hand.”
We just stared at each other as the information we exchanged to one another sunk in. I carefully unwound the only best friend I had ever known, from around my neck and gingerly touched the silken patch with the initials.
“I’ve always wondered what they stood for.” I said quietly and laid it in her cold hands.
“My mother’s initials, Yara Willow Spencer.” She pulled the scarf up and laid it on the pillow. As she rested her cheek on it, she mouthed the words thank you to me, closed her eyes, and a single tear fell onto the scarf. Soon after she was reunited with her mother, protected by the softest red scarf.
I quietly stood up and walked to the door, I glanced over my shoulder and smiled, the little silken patch was facing me with those three letters staring back at me. Yes. I will survive.