THE OLD WOMAN AT THE STORE
Today I held the heavy glass door at the grocery store for an elderly woman while she hobbled through. Since I was a child, I’ve always been a bit saddened whenever I saw the elderly. She was bent over almost at a right angle — clearly inconvenient — maybe even painful, yet she still took the time to smile broadly at me. As usual, I was in one of my hurries so it irked me that she was shuffling along so slowly. Then I felt the guilt I always feel for my impatience and pity towards older people, neither of which is a bit helpful. The woman’s sagging, watery eyes revealed no self-pity or anger, yet her hands shook like thunder, while grabbing onto a cart to steady herself.
I grabbed the last cart quickly behind her, now anxious about my time. I began to rush. My cart was lame — the front wheel was facing off to the left causing it to roll with a limp. I sighed, glanced down at my watch and noticed my own hands — spreading them out to survey, like I was modeling a manicure. It wasn’t so long ago I’d seen mother’s hands in my own — like a mirror into my not so far away future and it comforted me like we were one. Sometimes I’d even say, “Hi Mom.” Now I see my Grandfather’s hands — because time is rushing on. Perhaps it’s the new spots or the teal veins rising higher now like river tributaries. I wondered if the brown marks will eventually overlap each other as Grandpa’s did — or if my cheeks will blister and bravely ward off cancers as his did.
I followed the old woman into the vegetable aisle where she stood bent over, squeezing peaches with the spunk of a teenager, only to be betrayed by the crooked body of an octogenarian. I was curious about her apparent acceptance of her body, and age. And I was very attracted to her joy, and hope.
Approaching the daunting decades of my own life — I wondered how I’d fare if I were to become disabled like she is? She started up a conversation with a young pigtailed girl, and they both laughed by the mangoes. Their heads at the same level, it occurred to me that she talks to many children from her perspective. I want what she has. Acceptance. Serenity. Joyousness. Acceptance.
I have always been deathly afraid of aging. As a child, old people depressed me, even frightened me a bit. Until I was six I stupidly thought that some people were born young, some old, and those were just the breaks. Luckily, I got to be a pretty little girl with tight skin and no fear of the future. When I later found out that I too would age, I began a life-long dread that has undermined my happiness throughout. I didn’t want my skin to buckle and drag. I didn’t want my hands to bulge with arthritic knots. I couldn’t imagine my nose melting like a candle into my face like my mother’s father’s had. I loved my Grandparents — as an idea — and nothing was better than receiving their birthday cards with the requisite five bucks in them, and that sweet message on the inside. But seeing them in person was merely an up-close reminder of how unfair life really was. It made me sad beyond consolation and I’d be forlorn for days after we visited them. All four of them just seemed bereft of real happiness. The main message I got from my grandparents was, “Don’t get old, Debbie.” Until I was six, that was good advice —and now, I try to pass it on to the youngsters I meet along my trudge.
I remember my mother assuring me that old age was so far into the future, it would never seem to come. She said I had all the time in the world, and I think she believed that, then. Now that doesn’t seem as true, as it once did. Time on earth has run out for all of them, my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, even my older brother.
For a second in the store, I regressed to that hopelessness that old people always aroused in me. Then I see my new role model zipping along near the dairy, and I smile towards her, relaxing into a new moment.
Suddenly I missed my Grandparents, sad that I hadn’t appreciated them more as a young, frightened girl — steering clear of their skin that didn’t quite fit anymore. What I wouldn’t give for an hour with any of them now — there are so many questions. “Were you happy? Was your life fulfilled? Are you afraid to die? How ever will I cope?” I hope that people held doors for them at stores, I hope they smiled in appreciation. I hope they knew how much I loved them even though I kept a distance — not knowing how to love them.
Now my octogenarian hero is at the register, swapping laughs with the cashier. I dash over to join that line, I want to be in her light. Many of us wish her a good day — yelling after her as she heads towards the exit. She disappears out of the store, leaving a gust of energy behind.
I paid for my groceries and for a minute, imagined a new hope for my future. Young children won’t be frightened of me, I can laugh with them too, assuring them that aging doesn’t have to be joyless. I can be an inspiration, I can choose that. Just like the old woman at the store.