The month after I had a baby, I couldn’t figure out how to go to the drug store. My parents had finally left after staying to help with Jackson for the first week, and then returning a few days later after I started sobbing on the phone during a casual update. Taylor was back at work, my Percocet had run out, and Jackson writhed in pain every time he passed gas. We needed provisions.
I ran over the logistics in my head. A friend had given us a swanky swivel-action carseat that made getting Jackson into the car a breeze, but carrying the bulky thing required both hands and a core strength I hadn’t had since before pregnancy.
What if no one opened the door for me?
How would I carry the ibuprofen, baby probiotic droplets, and chocolate, let alone retrieve a credit card from my purse? If I took him out of the carseat, my load would be lighter, but holding his body and steadying his wobbly head required a careful configuration of arms and hands and clavicles.
What if the people behind me in line wouldn’t wait for me to perform this careful balancing act?
I thought of Joan Didion as a young woman in New York, freezing in her hotel room for three days because she didn’t know how much to tip the whoever would come to help if she called.
Was anyone ever so young?
In the end, I waited the long hours until Taylor returned from work, and then went by myself. As I stood by the cash register resenting the existence of everyone else in line ahead of me, a woman entering the store caught my attention. She almost hobbled, and I had to glance over to see that she wasn’t disabled–just bone tired. Her dress slacks sagged around her hips, but her thinness didn’t seem like the lithe, toned Lululemon-clad bodies I saw at the gym. It seemed like the body of someone who hungers for sleep and quiet more than food.
I turned back to the cash register and the row of untold candy bar plenty beneath it, trying to match one flavor to my particular craving. Peanut buttery, crunchy, salty-sweet?
“Has anyone seen my son?” the woman yells at the top of her lungs. “My son is somewhere in the building.” It’s not quite hysterical, but desperate. For a moment I’m transported back to the ER where I worked. She sounds like one of the psych patients. Someone used to being ignored.
Probably just off her meds, I think, reaching for the Reese’s, my old favorite. But then the people around me–the cashier, the truck driver in line ahead of me, the old man–take action. They stop what they’re doing and disperse through the store. The cashier whips out from behind the counter and stands on tip toe, scanning each aisle.
“He has autism and down syndrome and he can’t talk,” says the mother, standing in the middle aisle of the store as if that’s as far as her feet will carry her.
I turn around and watch the customers moving through the aisles, their heads bobbing above the shelves of candy and dusty discount makeup and feminine care. Like watching a pac man game from the side.
And all of a sudden, I feel it. How the only cynical person here is me.
Maybe I assume other people are unwilling to help because I’m unwilling. Or maybe I gave up believing that people could be helped. I looked down at my feet, as if compassion and faith in humanity were objects that could have slipped out of my hands and landed on the carpet beneath me.
Did I drop them when I was in the hospital serving those psych patients? Or when I was in the hospital as a patient, having this baby who would take so much of me?
Before I can even start to help in the search, someone says, “I think I’ve found him, ma’am,” in a heavy East Tennessee accent. A minute later the mother and son walk down the aisle together. She still looks weary but her haggardness has softened with relief. She looks younger, too. The teenage son walks on his tip toes, giving him an air of cheerfulness in the chaos.
As I shift the plastic bag onto my wrist and slip my credit card back into my wallet, my hands are free. I start to step out onto the sidewalk but something yanks my attention back to the store where the mother and her son are checking out. I think how this woman knows vastly more about sacrifice and hardship than I probably ever will. But I think that she also knows more about the tenderness of strangers–like an enormous underground lake I’ve been walking over my whole life and never noticed–too. Maybe, I think, there is grace in need.