Saturday, August 27, 2016

Heart-wrenching truth from a nonagenarian

(My mama... young and beautiful, circa 1938)

Full disclosure: For those of you who are not profound introverts, you may not realize that those of us who are need a minute after we leave a store such as Target or Trader Joe's to sit in the car and take a second for a long sigh of relief. (Yes, we are tense and somewhat anxious the entire time we're shopping—too many people, too much sensory overload. Oh, and don't even try to get me to set foot in a Costco.) So when I left TJ's on Thursday, I got in the truck, took a deep breath, started the engine, poked the button that gives me a local NPR station, put the truck in reverse—but didn't back out of the parking space. I took a moment to look around me, to make sure I wasn't about to mow anyone down in my distracted hurry to return to the safety of my home-sweet-home—and that's when I saw the elderly woman sitting in the passenger seat of the SUV parked next to me.

Her body language reminded me so much of my mother when she was in distress—head bowed over her chest, the fingers of one hand splayed across her forehead, as if the pain were mental as well as physical. It wasn't scorchingly hot on Thursday mid-morning, but temps were well into the 80's and rising quickly. With both windows down in the truck, I felt the heat, and I recalled the scene two years ago as I walked out of a pharmacy to find my truck surrounded by police cars and an ambulance. In the car parked next to mine, a man in his twenties had left his elderly grandmother sitting in the heat while he went off to shop. She'd fainted, and he'd called 9-1-1 when he couldn't rouse her. The gathering crowd was hostile when they realized, as the cops questioned him, what he'd done. And rightly so. This woman in the parking lot of Trader Joe's looked to be in distress. I couldn't leave.

Nor could I get out of the truck right away to check on her. Again, full disclosure: For an introvert, interaction with strangers is tremendously challenging (unless the person is in extreme and immediate danger, so yes, no worries, I would jump in the lake or whatever to rescue your loved one even if we'd never met and I would feel severely awkward for a long time afterward). From what I've observed, extroverts have no trouble whatsoever jumping into a conversation with someone they've never met before and asking direct and personal questions. Introverts not only lack this sort of valor, we generally spend a long time before we initiate conversation rehearsing what we're going to say. ("Excuse me... Are you okay?" Is that direct enough? "Excuse me... I don't mean to bother you. But it's a bit warm to be sitting in the car. Are you alright? Is someone coming back for you soon?" Okay, that's too verbose—she could faint by the time I got to the end of my speech.)

See what I mean?

I put the truck in Park, turned off the engine, and sat for a few minutes, willing someone to emerge from Von's or TJ's or wherever, offer profuse apologies to the woman in the car, then leave. Only then would I be able to get the hell home and on with my life. Because I couldn't leave her there, sitting in the heat. But no such relief occurred. We sat, the woman in her car, who occasionally looked up hopefully at the sound of an approaching shopping cart, only to be disappointed, and me in my truck, conflicted about whether I should intervene and angry at myself for being conflicted.

When I couldn't take it anymore, I opened my door and got out.

"Excuse me... " (I had decided to go with the simplest approach) "are you okay?"

The woman's face, dappled with age spots, opened in an enormous smile. "Oh, I'm fine!" she answered, chuckling, adding as a qualifier, "Well, I'm ninety-six." She paused. "Going on a hundred!" She laughed gleefully. Brown hair framed her face. Her short bangs were carefully curled under. I couldn't help thinking of how fastidious my mother had been about her appearance until the day she died.

"Are you sure it's not too hot in the car?" I bravely and directly asked, proud of myself all over the place for breaching the scary wall to make the inquiry. Now that I saw her smile, she was no longer a stranger.

"Oh, no, I'm fine," she said again. "I have a hurt hand." I saw now that she had her right hand resting on a pillow. "My daughter just took me to the dentist." She made the face a child would make about the same experience. "She just ran in to get some things. She'll be right out. She takes good care of me."

Some positive affirmation escaped my lips here. I don't remember what it was. The woman went on talking. Again, I was reminded of my own mom.

"Don't get old." She laughed again. "You know, when your hands don't work, you can't pull your pants up. You can't fasten your brassiere." She held up swollen, arthritic hands. I started to mumble something regarding how much I worry about my own hands, which have already begun to ache and swell, but she continued.

"Stay young and beautiful."

"Well, you look lovely," I told her, omitting the word "still" that makes me cringe every time a younger person uses it in reference to an older person.

"Oh," she said, "well, I still color my hair!" She laughed and nodded toward my silver threads of wisdom. I laughed too, then, and suggested perhaps I might have better luck finding a man if I started coloring mine again.

We talked like old friends after that, about the early onset of gray hair, about finding a good man. We discovered we both have four children, two boys and two girls. She said that all of her children are "wonderful," and I said the same about mine. Her husband died twelve years ago. "I don't know what I'd do without my children," she sighed. "I don't know what I'd do without mine," I said.

We continued to chat about our kids (a brag fest, for sure), and eventually she looked at me and said again, "Well, stay young and beautiful... if you want to be loved." That is what My Daughter the Poet would call a "gut punch." Whew. It nearly winded me with its truth.

I do want to be loved. And so do you.

But I'm just going to conclude this narrative without further comment on that.

I never asked her name. I should have asked her name. An extrovert—bold and young and beautiful—would have asked her name. I just wanted to make sure she wasn't overheating in the car. But I felt like I made a friend, a very wise and sweet friend.

I wished her well and thanked her (yes, I thanked her) for chatting with me. She waved and smiled as I started the truck. Then she turned her head to look hopefully again for the daughter who still hadn't returned.


  1. Kay, I had no idea you are a writer. Bill never mentioned it, only that you were a teacher--and now a retired teacher. I saw your three books listed on this page and clicked on them and there you are, three books on Amazon. Very nice. I am jealous. Don't have an author page, but do have three books there also. A memoir, a book of poetry, and a book on business writing.

    1. Art, I think Bill doesn't associate that aspect of my life with our friendship. My writing career began long before I was a teacher--and writing books was on hold while I taught with Bill as I was working full time and raising my kids. In recent years, however, I've been able to get back to it. Setting up an Author Page on Amazon is extremely easy and will lead fans of one work to the others written by you. I'm going to check out your memoir!

  2. One doesn't have to be an extrovert to "see" this one...It is a story to bring a smile and it is not a "mystery" story.

    1. Thank you, Glenn. I only regret that I didn't get her name. I will look for her now every time I go there.