My daughter pulled a toy train, cleverly made from pieces of candy, out of her stocking; its wheels were Reese’s cups, it’s boiler a roll of Lifesavers, the cab a stack of Hershey’s bars, and so on. There was no note or name attached. My mom explained, offhandedly, that she had helped my grandmother make the candy locomotives the day before, so that she would have gifts for the kids this year. Her casual tone was a little careful and deliberate, so I didn’t ask any more questions, knowing that it would probably cost Mom more to elaborate than she let on.

My grandmother, or Nanny as we’d always called her, had been hospitalized earlier in December with symptoms that looked terrifyingly like a stroke. She’d been incoherent, confused, and had entirely lost her appetite. She had to be fed intravenously for weeks. She couldn’t recognize anyone or speak in complete sentences.

It wasn’t a stroke, it turned out, but a mixture of side effects from a new medication, in addition to early dementia.

But this is the kind of person my grandmother is: she couldn't bear to show up to Christmas without presents, despite the fact that she'd been in a hospital bed for several weeks with memory and function loss so severe she couldn't walk or recognize her own daughters. She made candy sculptures for every one of her grandkids as soon as she could remember our names.

I have begged off responsibilities after appendectomies and dental surgery and other setbacks much less important. Nanny, however, is so generous and loyal and so given to service I'm not sure she's capable of acting otherwise. It's a decency baked into her bones; it continues to operate even when she is fighting to regain her conscious mind. In my every memory of her, and in my every present experience with her, she puts others before herself.

I wish I had this instinct, but I know I'm much more selfish. I do work hard to behave according to Nanny's example, but I see my own mind, every day, thinking otherwise. Left to my own devices, I simply think of myself first. I am naturally self-absorbed. It takes an embarrassing amount of conscious effort — of discipline and will — for me to choose not to follow those instincts. I often fail. It took the example of someone like Nanny to inspire me to try to make something better of myself — to try to listen more and speak less, to offer help without expecting reward, to be there for people I care about no matter what I'd rather be doing.

And, in the end, the example she's set for me — for all of us — is the bigger gift. The candy train is merely a reminder.