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.
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.