Preconceptions and Unknown Endings

I went grocery shopping this weekend and was stressed by the time I got to the store. A later than normal start, too much traffic, too many people, costs of everything so high, worrying about the list of things to get done…I’m sure you understand. When I finally got inside, gripping my list, here was this young woman blocking the whole aisle with her cart across it. She had a toddler on one hip and a little one, maybe around three, in the cart, and was waving her free hand as she berated a young man in a store uniform.

My tension immediately ratcheted up. I stood waiting, feeling martyred, and then sighing heavily, went to the left and around displays until I could come out on the other side of her.

But when I made eye contact with her, frowning to show my disapproval I’m sure, she burst into tears and came up to me holding out her child. The young woman was frantic. Rather than berating the store employee as she waved her free hand around, she was panicked. She asked me if I’d seen a wallet with keys. The toddler had fallen and hit her head. She didn’t know what to do and couldn’t leave the store without keys.

All my stress, all the things that a moment before had been so important, disappeared. I asked the mom if her daughter had a lump, and she said ‘yes!’ crying even harder. I told her that it was a good thing as it meant swelling was going out rather then in. Thinking the toddler had been walking, I asked how far the child had fallen and was horrified to hear she had toppled over the edge of the cart from the seat. I told the mom that was a significant distance and to go to customer service while the employee and I looked for her wallet. I told her if we couldn’t find it quickly to ask for an aid car. The other child sat in the cart, clearly trying not to cry, but she would look at her mom, and then up at me, a stranger, and the tears would start. Then she would grip the handle of the cart and stare at her hands, taking deep breaths until tears stopped. But then she would look back at me and the little face would crumple again.

As the young employee and I looked in the aisles the woman had been shopping in, an older man asked what was happening. When we told him he said his daughter had done the same thing when little and joined in the search. A store manager came to help. We thought to go back to the aisle where the child had fallen and I asked if anyone had a flashlight. With the flashlight, we found the wallet under the shelving.

The last I saw of the little family was the mother, still in tears, on her way out of the store and headed to the nearby urgent care clinic, thanking me as she went out of my life as quickly as she’d come into it.

I was left with two things that have remained on my mind.

First, I’m a bit ashamed of my immediately negative reaction. I jumped to a conclusion, made an assumption that the woman was one more self-entitled person so important they could block an aisle and no one else mattered. I was caught up in my own stress and projected that and all I saw was what my negativity and unhappiness wanted to see.

I have no idea why the woman burst into tears when she saw me. Maybe I looked like some older woman she knew. I certainly didn’t have an empathetic expression on my face, I’m sure. But the instant she started crying, my preconception was gone, like river mist when the sun comes out. I felt hollowed and ashamed later, but at that moment all I wanted was to help.

I need to remember that things aren’t always as we perceive them to be. I need to remember there are still kind people out there. Not just the employees, but the man who at one point was laying flat out on the floor in an aisle looking under shelving.

Second, I was left with no ending to the story. Was the toddler okay? And what about the other child, who looked to be around three? I saw myself at that age in her eyes. Gripping the handle, fighting for control, striving to be strong, and then not, because hell, she’s only three years old. Not fully understanding and powerless. Who will she grow up to be? And what about the mom? How will this change how she moves through her days from now on? Or will it change anything, once the fear is gone and everything is okay? Will it just become a bad memory?

One of the hardest things when I was on the fire department as an EMT, was never hearing the ending of stories. We would be so deeply, so intimately, involved in a person’s life for such a brief moment. Whether it was sharing the ending of a life, or helping after an injury or transporting after a medical issue, we were closer, in those moments, than any family member.

Chief and husband training recruits

And then they were gone. We never found out if they put their lives back together, or if they survived, or how they survived. We were part of them, and then not.

It’s so hard not having closure. Not hearing the ending. I used to make up endings in my imagination and hope they were real.

But in the end, I never knew.

10 thoughts on “Preconceptions and Unknown Endings

  1. It’s hard sometimes with stereotypes and preconceptions. We’ve built those from experiences; it’s generally not just one instance that led us to these notions, but so many. And they’re tiring, and trying, true or not.

    So it is nice, like you mentioned, when someone or something breaks all the preconceived ideas in our head. No shame to be had, more of a take-a-moment to enjoy the silver lining of this situation, at least that’s how I think of it. Instead of a self-entitled person, which there seem to be so many of, there was a genuine person in need. Restores a little faith in the humanity that wanes and wavers in your heart sometimes.

    Open endings and lack of closure do suck though. No sugar coating that one.

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  2. Such a salient point about assumptions — we don’t know, at first, what kind of a situation we’ve walked into. I think it’s unavoidable, though. And probably not necessarily a bad thing. The ability to make a quick reassessment, is something that is to be valued. I’m not sure I could say, exactly, what the woman and her child saw in you because I wasn’t there, but the honest truth is that I’ve seen other people gravitate to you and it is clear that you are regarded as approachable — someone who can be trusted, someone who is calm and intelligent. That’s not something I have marveled at because I see you the same way. However, I do envy that quality!

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  3. No need to feel shame, we’re only human. You immediately helped when you realized what was happening. We’re all so hard on ourselves, I guess that’s human too. The human condition isn’t pretty or fair.

    I don’t think I’d do well with not knowing how things end such as your time as an EMT. Once while driving home we ran upon a van pulled over and had his lights on a motorcycle with its rider on the ground. We stopped and I got out to help. The motorcyclist had fell off the back while doing a high speed wheelie. He was in a bad way. We stayed until ambulance arrived. I was beside myself with worry. I finally called around to a couple hospitals where of course they won’t tell you anything. But I finally found a person willing to help when I explained that I just wanted to know if he was alright. She was kind enough to elude to the fact that he was no longer in the hospital. I knew by her tone that he had passed. Not the closure I had hoped for, but closure nonetheless.

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    • I remember one call with a three year old girl who died. Her mother, also injured, had been my patient. A few years later I found a stone cairn built as a memorial and I knew those who survived had managed somehow to continue. Like you said, at least some sort of closure.

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  4. This piece of writing so resonates with me. You describe up the very human trait of filling in the unknowns of a situation, making assumptions, jumping to conclusions. I actually love it when I learn that I had misread a situation or come to a false conclusion. Makes me remember that human life is so complex and even with close attention often does not conform to our expectations or beliefs about what is going on. When this happens to me I am reminded to slow down and remain open, to allow my idea about what’s happening to be the quietest voice in the room
    I love that you wrote about this.
    And I always wanted to know the end of the patient story as well. The kind of nursing I do allows me to know what happens next.

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    • That’s an excellent point that this is a reminder to slow down and remain open. And that concept of being the quietest voice in the room, is powerful when you think about it.

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  5. LOVE this post; SO of human experience. I was reminiscing with a friend recently how humbling it is when we admit the SAME mistakes like the ones we’ve strongly criticized in others!! LOVE your nature photos – of inclement weather I also LOVE, and especially LOVE that photo of that most beautiful and adorable little girl. YOU! (You DO look like a Very Responsible person – I understand why that mother came to you, even though you weren’t looking empathetic!) 💞 Pat Larson

    silversheen1@gmail.com PHONE: 425-298-9431 (please leave a voice message)

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