It has been nearly five years since my grandmother passed away in 2013. In honor of her memory, I would like to share the story of how she saved my life.
Grandma was a very independent lady. After my grandfather passed away in the seventies, she stayed in the same Brooklyn walk-up, and lived there well throughout old age. She loved the city. Everything was nearby and she never had to travel too far to get the necessities. Eventually, however, the apartment became tough to manage on her own. She started to fall a lot. Doctor’s visits became more of a burden. My mother convinced her to move into an assisted living facility in our home town by the Jersey shore. Grandma didn’t like it, but the place was beautiful; and truthfully, my best memories with her came from this time period. This is not one of them.
One summer evening after the move, Grandma called the house, and said she would like help unloading groceries. It was not an unusual habit. Normally, someone at the assisted living would volunteer to help, but I think she used the request as an opportunity to see her grandkids. I had just turned eighteen and received my permanent license. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to borrow Mom’s car, and offered to drop by and make dinner for my grandmother.
I arrived at the facility shortly after six at night and found her sitting on a park bench outside. She looked worried. When she saw me walk up, Grandma barked in a voice that sounded tired and weary.
“I thought your brother was coming?“
My older brother lived home as well. But he had been spending the evening out with friends. I told her the same and Grandma grunted back.
“Okay. You’ll have to do. Listen to me… I bought some booze at the grocery store. But I don’t want the other ladies in the lobby to see it and gossip. Will you help me get it inside?“
Grandma pulled back the big to reveal a handle of Seagram 7 Crown Whiskey. I did my best not to laugh. She made the entire encounter sound like a drug deal. Even the way she tried to update her lingo with a cool word like ‘booze’. In a way, I also felt bad for her. Here she was, almost ninety years old, and too afraid to buy herself a bottle of alcohol. I remember my reply very distinctly.
“Grandma, if you want a drink, you deserve a damn drink. Of course I will help.“
And so I did my best to wrap all of the bags around my fingers. They were heavy. Grandma stood on my left and held my forearm for balance. That move also conveniently allowed her to drape an oversized jacket over what I was carrying. We must have looked like a very odd pair strolling down the sidewalk. I did my best, again, not to laugh and blow her cover.
The lobby was packed. Several other retirees lingered about and gossiped on fancy leather recliners. Some ladies stood by the fireplace and stole accusing looks in our direction. Grandma tried to talk loudly about my mother and her job. I chatted back. Anything to distract the group from the massive bundles wrapped around my arms. But just as we were about to turn the corner, an elderly man approached us, and immediately called out the situation.
“Wow! That is a lot of stuff you’ve got there, Eve.“
My grandmother nodded and offered a polite chuckle before trying to push past. I smiled at the man and followed her lead. He didn’t smile back.
“Must be nice to have such a helpful grandson!” he called over our shoulder. She smiled at me and gave a gentle pat on the back.
We spent the next few hours cooking dinner and watching the local news. My grandmother was very ‘with it’ for her age. She listened to me complain about girls. She argued politics. She even listened to me talk about my favorite football team, and although she didn’t know much on the subject, she added topical bits that she had read in the local paper. The trip served as a great reminder of why I enjoyed hanging out with her so much. Grandma never expected anything. She never demanded I act a certain way. She just listened.
Around 9:00, it became time to hit the road. I did my best to clean up the dishes in the sink and set things up for bed. My grandmother threw some leftovers in a tin and then walked me to the door. She thanked me for the help. I gave a hug to her and the cat and told them goodnight. I headed into the hallway with my mind already set on the next thing. But before the door even shut behind me, a tired voice told me I was not alone.
“Can I talk to you?“
The words nearly caused me to jump out of my skin. I did my best to appear relaxed as the elderly man from early poked his head out of a door across the hall. He creeped me out right away. The lobby was empty. Everyone else was either in bed or in their rooms watching TV. Maybe he waited for me to leave my grandmother’s apartment. Maybe he watched her. I thought about alerting someone in the building. But when the man spoke again, my fear soon turned into sympathy.
“I’m sorry, young man, it’s just so dark. My son said he would change the light bulb. He never changed it…“
The man looked at me with wide, confused blue eyes. I relented.
“Okay, sure, I just need to head home after.“
He nodded and stepped aside happily. I followed into the dark apartment and tried to adjust my eyes to the lack of light. The man handed me a missing bulb that he pulled from the kitchen.
“You might want to stand on the chair. Pretty high to reach. I can’t get up there anymore with my Arthritis…“
I nodded and dragged a kitchen chair back into the living room. It took a few minutes for the bulb to catch into the groove. Once it did, no light came out. I called out for the man to hit the switch. No one answered. I started to turn around just as someone called out from the hallway.
The surprise of my grandmother’s voice in the dark apartment caused my foot to slip on the chair. I tumbled down to the floor and turned my ankle a little bit. Footsteps disappeared into the kitchen as my grandmother shuffled into the apartment to help me.
“You forgot your wallet. Come on. Let’s go. Why are you in here?“
I hopped up and limped after hert. The man was nowhere in sight, but I yelled for him to turn on the switch. My grandmother nearly smacked me on the head for that one. It was only when we got into the hallway that I realized my wallet was still in my pocket.
She pulled me by the arm and pushed me back into her apartment. Then she followed me and bolted the door with both locks. I tried to ask her what the hell was going on. But she put a wrinkled hand over my mouth. A door outside opened again with a creak. Two pairs of footsteps slowly trotted across the hall.
And then their owner knocked. Two, polite, courteous knocks.
“Call the police,” my grandmother whispered. I stared at her dumbly, but followed instructions nonetheless. I pulled out the old cell phone in my pocket and dialed 9-1-1. As the phone line trilled, a voice called out from the other side of our door.
“Eve… please… I can explain.“
My grandmother refused to tell me what happened until well after the police arrived. The cops brought the old man down to the station. They did not have much to go on, other than the testimony of a very aggressive and upset elderly lady, but they did pull his fingerprints as part of procedure. That led to a search of the International Crime Database. And, well.
The man who lived across the hall from my grandmother was later indicted for the cold case murder of two teenage boys.
Two days later, Grandma finally felt safe enough to tell my parents and me what happened. Apparently, when the man approached in the hallway, she heard us talking. My grandmother never trusted him. Allegedly, he always said creepy things, and always stared just a little too long. She followed us into the apartment and listened by the still open door. When she heard me call out without a response, grandma stepped inside and saw what I could not see with my back turned.
Standing in the corner of the kitchen was the elderly man. He stared at me and never replied to my requests to turn on the light. But in his hand, just pressed to his side, was a massive knife. Grandma said he had it raised and ready, just before she shouted, and changed his mind.
The man died in prison two years later. The case made a couple of those Forensic shows. You could probably find it for yourself, if you wanted. For privacy purposes, however, I won’t offer anymore details. It shouldn’t matter. To me, there is only one memorable part about this encounter. And that is the way in which my ninety year old grandmother saved my life.