There she was. She stood out in the crowd, or in this case, the produce section. She was tall (WNBA tall) and very large (NFL large). Her arms were like a man’s legs. She was wearing a tank top and shorts like she was dressed out for PE. Her hair was braided off of her face and there was something almost child like about her. Her baby girl in the grocery cart was absolutely precious. You couldn’t not notice her if you tried. So I noticed, and moved on to the next aisle for ripe avocados and vine ripened tomatoes.
There she was again on the dairy aisle. I was looking for almond milk, her cart was parked in front of the cheeses. Her little one was sitting up making all kinds of cute baby noises. Our eyes met. Something about her seemed far off to me. Once again when I was hunting down pistachios and almonds our paths crossed. And one more time our eyes met as I passed the bakery just to sneak a peek at the goodies and breathe in all the smells. She reminded me of “that couple” that you meet on vacation. You stand in front of them when you’re checking in; they’re at the table next to you for breakfast and somehow they end up right there when you’re picking seats by the pool that afternoon.
I stood in the checkout line while they scanned my cart full of groceries. It took a while because the Rosenberg cupboards were bare. After being sick in bed all week, we were down to rations. Just behind me at the next register I could hear confusion and then the cashier call for a manager. She explained that her customer wanted to put back some items because she didn’t bring enough money. And yes, this woman was my woman. I could hear the customer saying she might be able to come back. She said she just had a stroke and this was her first time going to the grocery store. The water welling up in her eyes started to overflow. She had a noticeable dent in her throat where I imagined a tube had been placed. I could feel the hot tears streaming down her face. My cheeks were starting to flush.
It took my breath away actually because it wasn’t but about 6 months ago that I was in the thick of rocking anxiety stemming from severe vitamin deficiencies and a huge excess of Cortisol, the fight or flight hormone. My body wouldn’t let me sleep at night for weeks, so on a good day, I was shaky.
In the midst of this difficult time, I was determined to make a solo trip to Whole Foods to pick up jicama and bokchoy. This would normally be a short stop on a long list of things to do and places to go. It was my one and only goal for the day and I was holding it together with all my might; hoping not to run into anyone I knew. All they would need to do was look into my eyes to see clearly that I wasn’t at home in my own skin. It was a charade; me pretending to be me. I found produce and selected both items. Quite pleased with myself, I arrived at the checkout line without event.
I remembered my sister Margaret going with me a few weeks earlier. She helped me pick everything because even teeny tiny decisions would push me out of whatever comfort zone I had left. She was respectful of my state of mind and never judged. She still saw me in there. The slightest sign of stress would send me into a panic. Margaret asked me to pull up my Amazon account. It was a simple request but I couldn’t find my password. I was quietly panicking. Sensing my distress, she pulled hers up immediately and scanned it.
In much the same heroic manner, at the end of every phone call I would ask her to tell me what she always told me. Never once did she hesitate. “This is temporary and everything is going to be okay.” And when she said it with such confidence, I had no choice but to believe her. She believed in me when I forgot how to believe in myself. She showed me her light when I was in the dark. Now weeks later, I wanted to scan my account so I summoned up the courage to ask the lady at the register if she would remind me how. She was so tender with me that I started to cry. She asked if everything was okay and I told her that her kindness felt like a life raft. I was weeping tears of pure gratitude. She was exactly who I needed in that moment.
Back at Publix, I quietly leaned in and told the woman, who felt more like a really big little girl, that I would be happy to pay for whatever else was in her cart. She stood tall, proud and graciously refused my help. The lady in line behind her then offered and the lady behind her as well. We were all looking at each other, having a silent conversation with our eyes. It was one of those incredibly tender moments that happens organically to remind us that the world is still good. After offering again unsuccessfully, I said goodbye and pushed my cart out to the car; but I just couldn’t shake her.
I packed up my trunk with bags and walked back in to see if she was still checking out, but she was gone. The manager who had offered to set aside the groceries she couldn’t afford was still standing there with the food. I told her I really wanted to help. Another woman reached into her wallet and handed me a $20 bill. I looked in her eyes and said, “I recently went through something myself and it would really mean something for to me to help her.” I didn’t ask how much it was; just quickly handed the manager my credit card.
The cashier started bagging as quickly as she could so we could find our woman before she left the parking lot. The next customer in line was handing over items to bag and we all went into overdrive to make this mission of mercy happen. It was an instant assembly line. The manager literally ran out the door with bags in hand. I watched from the other side of the parking lot. I could see the exchange. I’m not sure what was said and it doesn’t even matter. There was a time in my life I would have wanted that validation; needed the credit, but that was long ago. I was able to pay it forward today. It wasn’t that long ago that I stood at a checkout as hot tears streamed down my face, grateful for the kindness of a stranger. Today I had the privilege of being that stranger.
It’s tough out there, but kindness exists. I am certain I was checking out at that exact moment for a reason. I am blessed not to have to think twice about whether I can afford to help someone else with a few bags of groceries and determined to do it when I am moved to. It felt so good to pay it forward. When you slow down, take a breath, and actually look into someone’s eyes, you can really see who they are. Her eyes cried out for help even though her voice wouldn’t accept it. Our eyes told her that her that we care about her and that she matters. I guess we all needed that reminder today.