A Woman Knitting

Terrie Relf

The first time that I saw her, she was sitting in the corner chair of my gynecologist's waiting room, leaning over her knitting, intently tracing a pattern across the beginning rows of her work, with fingers surprisingly youthful for a woman of her seemingly advanced years. She had a blue tint to her silver hair, as if it had been blue-black in her youth, and her eyes reminded me of a painting I had seen once, of an old woman sitting by a well.

Smiling, as if she held some precious secret close in her heart, she reached into a bag sitting in the chair next to her, and withdrew a skein of incredible sapphire blue yarn; it was iridescent, as if some divine artist had spun light itself within the strands.

I stood hesitantly, feeling drawn to her somehow, but wondering if I should sit next to and possibly disturb her. As if sensing my reluctance, she looked up, patted the chair to her right, and welcomed me with a smile.

"What are you knitting?" I asked, grateful that I would have someone to sit and talk with while I waited for my appointment.

"I'm knitting a shawl for one of my daughters," she responded.

"It's so beautiful," I said, noticing the shawl's intricate patterns which drew me into her magical world.

"Thank you," she said, then placed a finger on her forehead. "I follow the designs as they come to me here. We never really know where they will lead." She shrugged, then smiled reassuringly.

We sat together in silence for what seemed like more than an hour; but time plays games with us when we're ill. I watched the shawl increasing in length as she added fuchsia, magenta, lilac, and indigo, as well as other shades for which I had no name. The experience was so intense that I didn't even hear the nurse call my name. When I felt a hand on my shoulder, I looked up into the nurse's kind face.

The knitting woman raised her eyes from the shawl and looked directly into mine. I felt that she understood me, that words were unnecessary with her-and that thought calmed me.

"It was nice talking to you," I said. "I'm sure that your daughter will love her shawl."

The woman just nodded, then resumed her knitting. But I could feel her gaze following me as I crossed the room and passed through the door to the examination room. I felt protected-rather than disturbed-by her scrutiny.

When I returned to the waiting room, the woman was gone. I wondered who she was and if her daughter-or perhaps her granddaughter-was having a baby. Or if, like me, she had some mysterious, undiagnosed disease that was rapidly consuming her. I hoped that it was the former rather than the later. My thoughts wandered...While babies and soft blankets are life-affirming, what affirms death?

* * * *

Weeks passed and my condition grew worse. I could barely walk now from the pain. My perceptions were altered. It was as if I lived underwater, and that an undercurrent were gradually pulling me further out to sea. My doctors continued to urge more embarrassing and painful tests, to try this or that new medication, to be part of some colleague-of-a-colleague's study, to try a "soon-to-be-released" experimental drug, or to swallow yet another medication, supposedly stronger than the last...

I kept my doctor appointments, but realized that they had no real purpose any more. It's not that I wanted to die-that I had resigned myself to that-but I didn't want to live my proverbial "last days" in bed either. So I listened to them patiently and observed them with amusement. These excursions gave me a chance to leave the house, to sometimes connect with people I met in their offices, most of whom seemed so much worse off than I. And since I'd met the woman knitting the shawl, I looked forward to seeing her. That seemed to be enough for me.

The next time I went to my regular doctor's office, she wasn't there. I leafed through a year of Prevention Magazine while I waited for my appointment. I made a mental note to ask the woman what her name was the next time I saw her, which I felt certain that I would. But then my regular doctor decided that she couldn't do anything more for me, and so referred me to yet another specialist. Serendipitously, it was at this new office that I saw the woman again.

"How are you, dear?" she asked genuinely, as I slowly eased myself into the overstuffed, mauve-velvet chair.

I couldn't help but notice that the more ill these doctors believed you to be, the more comfortable were the furnishings-the more expensive, too. There was even a plush couch in this room, where a young woman with short dark hair lay asleep against a young man. He was staring into the corner of the room, hypnotically stroking her remaining hair, seeing perhaps a life without this woman, as there were tears pooling in the corners of his eyes.

The knitting woman held her needles, looped a new color-a warm beige-around her fingers and then over a needle. I followed the yarn's path over the woman's knees to where it ended at the now-folded shawl at her feet.

"It looks like you're almost finished," I said, eager to see the work's completion.

"We'll see, dear, we'll see. I think that I need to expand this pattern here-" pointing to a row of blues which seemed to flow into each other like the ocean into the sky. "What else does it need? What colors do you like?"

A number of combinations appealed to me, but she had included nearly every imaginable color. An image began to take form in my mind, and I welcomed the opportunity to embellish it. I was about to tell her, when she spoke for me.

"The blues, you like the blues, don't you, dear? One can never have too much blue, I always say."

She then reached into her bag and drew out a generous handful of blue yarn.

"I always come prepared. One never knows what might be needed," she responded to my exclamation of delight. Then, she placed all her yarn in my lap. Its warmth was like nothing I had felt before.

"Pick one or two shades-whatever you like," the woman said.

I closed my eyes and allowed my fingers to feel all their textures: some smooth and cool like the underside of a rock, others rough and knobby like the branch of a tree. The chill in my body began to dissipate as I chose first one and then another. I was far from the waiting room, then; as I opened my eyes, I looked at the yarn before returning it to her. A part of me did not want to let it go.

"A good choice, my dear," she replied as she took the yarn, an indigo blue with slender strands of gold, and an aquamarine with subtle hints of emerald green and flecks of bronze.

The woman began to add my choices to the pattern with great fluidity. I was so engrossed that I didn't hear the nurse call my name.

"Oh, there you are. We thought you might have left. Come this way please."

Wondering why the nurse would think I'd left, I rose reluctantly, wondering what was ahead of me once I left the comfort of the chair and my waiting room companion.

The woman set her knitting down and lightly touched my arm. "It won't be much longer now, dear. You'll see."

When I returned to the waiting room, the receptionist gave me an envelope that had my name written on it. In it was a generous strand of each color that I had chosen, wound together into a spiral and loosely taped to a note which read: "Enjoy these." I pulled, and the end of the yarn unraveled in my hand. I didn't think that I would ever see the woman again. Not now. This was her knitting-woman-way of saying "good-bye." We were two strangers, casual acquaintances at best. But it seemed that we were made more than that, connected as we were, with waiting.

* * * *

Less than a week later, I returned to the specialist's office once again for another consultation-surgical this time. Amazingly, the knitting woman was there again. The same young couple who had been lying on the couch were there as well. There was an eerie feeling to all this, and yet it was strangely comforting.

I sat down next to the woman, and realized that she had already cast off the last row of her daughter's shawl, and that she was adding fringe which draped across her knees and cascaded to the floor.

"How is your daughter?" I asked, realizing that I had been remiss in inquiring after her before.

"Oh, she's just fine, dear. Just fine. Coming along quite nicely."

"Thank you for the yarn-"

"Oh that's quite all right. I wanted you to have it, especially since I knew we'd be seeing each other again."

Something compelled me to look into her eyes at this remark. They were so dark that I could barely distinguish the pupils from the irises. The darkness grew deeper still, and a kaleidoscope of images began to emerge and then separate into unfamiliar forms. A silvery light appeared around the periphery of my vision, infusing the room. The light was so intense that I closed my eyes, only opening them as I felt the knitting woman approach me. She raised the shawl and placed it around my shoulders.

"This should warm you, dear daughter," she whispered into my ear. She placed her lips against my cheek then and said, "Good journey."

I just stood there for a time, savoring the warmth of the shawl, the generosity and tenderness of this special woman, and the surprise that this had been a gift for me all along. When I turned away from these thoughts, it was to see my doctor and the nurses crouched over my body, shaking their heads. I heard the words, "Is she gone?"

I never saw the knitting woman after that.

* * * *

A bag of yarn in each hand, the knitting woman approached the young couple on the couch. Slowly, and with hope in their eyes, they rose to greet her....

© Terrie Relf

A multi-genre, multi-venue writer, Terrie Relf's short stories, articles, and poetry have appeared in both online and print media. Highlights include: The Espresso, ComputorEdge, The La Jolla Light, Vision Magazine, Nightingale, Buddha's Temple, About.com, ZRomance.com, sandiegoromance.com, Star Leaper, The Martian Wave, Fifth Dimension, The World Haiku Review, and Sol Magazine. Upcoming publications include Personal Journaling Magazine. She is also a member of Promart Labs' Creator's Club.

This story was initially published in the 1999 edition of City Works (San Diego City College's Literary Arts Anthology) and was also posted on Pegasus Dreaming.

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