Today is hot. Hazy, smoky, airy hot. The kind of hot that can put you in a bad mood if you’re not careful.
And so it was with some frustration that I had to leave the house to run errands instead of stay home and get work finished. But family needs/business shopping needed to be done. So off we went.
I tried to stay calm as the stationary store searched for my order. And as the line grew quickly behind me, the poor store clerk became more and more frustrated with the confusing computer while she searched for my lost order. “It’s okay.” I leaned in and tried to speak just a touch louder than the tapping toes and audible sighs behind me. “Take your time. It’s ok.”
And it was with some frustration when a gentleman in his massive SUV cut me off to take my parking spot at Costco. “It’s ok. He must be in a hurry.” I said to myself. I can wait.
As I navigated the huge grocery store, shoulders heavy with fatigue and a cart full of items that were eventually going to have to be unpacked and put away, I was finally ready to pay for my cart full of groceries. As I made my way to the checkout, I noticed that a woman was hovering between two lines. If I had to guess, she was about sixty-five. I gave her a wide berth while she made her decision of which line to enter, not wanting to pressure her in her choice. She appeared confused, eyes wide and distant, like she wasn’t quite…there.
In the few moments I was waiting for her, I saw that she didn’t have much in her cart. A soft blanket. A pair of pants. A bit of fruit. She was impeccably dressed. Lovely in a suit-ish dress with coordinating, shiny shoes and brightly colored handbag. She finally noticed me standing there, and embarrassed, whisper-shouted “Oh my! Please, go ahead, I’m sorry!” as she looked around to get her perspective back. She absentmindedly turned her cart to the left lane, so I entered the right lane just next to her.
“It’s ok!” I encouraged, looking over my shoulder understandingly. I know the feeling! And I smiled and nodded as began to unload my cart onto the conveyor belt. A moment later I felt a soft tap on my shoulder.
“I..I just have to apologize.”, she said, the creases around her eyes narrowing just a touch, as if she was searching for something that she couldn’t quite see. “I’m sorry I was in such a daze there. It’s just that…I don’t know where to go. I just…I just…came here.”
Something in her voice stopped me.
I set down my items on the belt, turning around fully to look her in the eye. And she leaned in close to me. Her hand found my arm again, nervous to cross the distance between my body and hers, and it settled gently on my tricep.
“I’ve lost my husband.” The words slipped over her tongue and past her lips before she could stop herself.
I was completely present in that moment, with her, right there.
“I just came from the funeral home. He was cremated. He is going to be interred. I just left him there. And I just didn’t know where to go. I just…I just…I came here.”
And she turned around briefly to look at her cart in the lineup while still holding gently to my arm at the scattering of unplanned purchases that didn’t really matter.
She looked back at me.
“Do you have somewhere to go after you leave here?”, I asked, resting my hand under her elbow to help steady her wavering gaze.
“My friends. They want me to come for dinner. But I wasn’t ready. I’m not ready.”, as she looked up in to my eyes with a question. Her makeup was applied with such care. Her hair was done in such a lovely way.
“I see you.”, I said. “I hear you.”, I said.
And her soft touch turned to more of a grip, and her other hand found my hand, and she held herself for just a moment like she was trying to find her balance. She was close enough that I could smell her. And she smelled nice. She was shorter than me and I looked down the length of her, noticing the glint of light bounce off of her shiny, patent shoes as her toes pointed forward at first, and then in again.
“I don’t know why, but I need to tell you this.”
She brought her hand up to her mouth, and I noticed that her fingernails matched the same hue of her lipstick that she had so carefully applied. She shook her head a slight bit, as if to settle the words that were chaotic and spinning in her head, and her gold jewelry jangled softly on her ears and around wrist. The world stopped spinning just then.
In the lineup of that busy grocery store, everything fell away except her and her soft voice and her tiny feet shuffling now and then when she paused to begin talking. And so I welcomed her hands as she searched for both of mine. I nodded. She leaned in even closer.
And she began.
She told me his name. She told me how many years they had been married. She told me about her adult children, and how she’d been nurturing him as he was sick. She told me about the cancer, except she pronounced it ‘can-sah’ in her beautiful east coast accent. And her eyes glowed with love as her floodgate mouth opened to let through everything good and real and shining about her beloved. If there were the sounds of tapping toes behind me, we didn’t notice. If there were sighs of impatience, we didn’t hear them. The only voice I heard was hers. With her tiny hands in mine, looking down on her as she spoke, I knew.
She had said everything that she needed to say. We shared a long hug and I could feel the relief in her shoulders.
I could feel her old-fashioned dress-slip beneath the fabric on her back beneath my palm. And I knew that she had sat on the edge of her bed that day while she chose her perfect outfit, picked out the best shoes. I knew that her bedroom would still smell like him, and that his shirts would still be hung neatly in the closet next to hers. I knew that she chose his cremation suit just as carefully as she had chosen her own.
The lines continued to move, and as the swell of people surrounded us, she let go of my hands. She paid for her items. I stood there in the middle of the aisle, watching her as people streamed around us. Her line had been faster than mine, as the checker in my line had been having a tough time with the cash register, so I was several feet behind her by now.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”, she called from the end of the line. “I was supposed to meet you today.”
And she blew me kisses as she positioned herself behind her cart and placed her tiny hands around the handle, waving at me, her eyes bright and clear and searching for me as she walked away toward the rest of her life.
I blew her a kiss. I waved back.
She didn’t see as I turned away and the tears began to slip onto the conveyor belt as my groceries moved past me.
My shirt still smells like her. I’ll never forget that scent.