I didn’t think I would run into her anytime soon. I was sure that with the current state of our country, her family dynamics, plus having to balance work from home, would keep her life busy. I stopped giving her much thought and like a lot of things in my life, she slipped into the back of my memory bank. I compare it to that old raggedy pair of favorite sweats you keep tucked away. You love them, but know they have seen better days. Still, you keep them because they are a part of you and your past. Every once in awhile, you will pull them out from the back of the drawer and slip them on. “Well, hello old friend.”
At one time, she was all I could think of. I worried and agonized so much over her day and night that all other aspects of my life took a back seat to the pain she was experiencing. But, as time passed, normalcy gave way and other more important and timely things took precedence. And if I was to be perfectly honest, lately I hadn’t thought of her much. I knew she was moving on. Her social media posts were happier, funnier, more upbeat than usual. There were pictures of her smiling, laughing over a glass of wine, taking trips, enjoying her family life!! I naively assumed she didn’t need to be coddled or soothed like in the past. I thought that this was an answer to prayer. After all, I had prayed day and night that she would become a stronger more resilient human being. It seemed like her sadness had finally dissipated. She would once again be whole.
So, there I was, minding my own business at Vons. My brain was somewhat muddled. I walked aimlessly up and down the aisles wondering what apocalypse I had wandered in to. The empty toilet paper shelves, the missing pasta, the lack of water. I watched as people’s shopping carts were close to toppling over due to the amount of non-perishables they kept piling on. I must admit…the insanity started to pull me in. I began to panic. What if my family was suddenly without? I hurried around a corner, my mind racing trying to figure out what I needed to start grabbing. Just then, as I raced by the produce isle narrowly missing another flustered shopper, I ran straight into her! I froze! I tried desperately to turn my cart around, divert my gaze, to pretend I was REALLY interested in the price of kiwi, but it was too late. There was no turning back, no running away. I just stood there, unable to move and it really didn’t matter anymore. She saw me, but most importantly I saw her.
There was an audible gasp and my eyes locked on hers. I stood there facing her, not saying a word. I wanted to say I was sorry…to forgive me for not thinking of her, but I couldn’t get any words out. I wanted to sit and talk to her and tell her I was proud of how far she had come. How I was too scared to tell her because I was afraid of the real truth and that she would tell me it was all a farce…a well-played misinterpretation of her life and that in actuality, she was in a deeper darker place than before.
She just stared back at me, not saying a thing but reading my every thought. She had this look of anger, bitterness, deep sadness. She looked like a frail, beaten down old lady. I saw the dark circles under her eyes. They seemed sullen and the wrinkles around her face were more intense than ever. Her hair seemed thinner and grayer than I remembered. Her shoulders were slumped over. She looked defeated. She was someone I hardly recognized.
My head dropped. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. A huge lump formed in my throat. I didn’t know what to say. I just started to cry, my head hanging low, and I didn’t care. The crowd around us seemed to have disappeared and an eerie silence filled my head. She just stood there and watched me as tears rolled down my face. She knew I was hurting; she knew I was in pain, but she didn’t care. She wanted me to feel her agony. She wanted me to feel that burning, gnawing feeling in the pit in of my stomach. You know the one. That horrible nausea that alerts you to the “something is wrong” emotion. Just like the gut feeling I had the day Joey died. She had this grasp on me and I felt she didn’t want me to walk away, ever so oblivious to the pain that, no matter how hard she tries; she can never get rid of.
I don’t know how long I stood there. With no tissues in sight, I started using the cuff of my t-shirt collar to dry my tears and snot. The young produce guy stood by me and asked me if I needed help finding something. I mumbled some idiotic remark under my breath. I think I scared him, so he just nodded and walked away. I, though, just stood there. I felt guilty just walking away and honestly, I didn’t want to walk away. I knew that by turning my back to her, it would only intensify the guilt I felt, and the bitterness she clung on to. I mustered my strength and squashed any embarrassment I may have felt. I decided right there and then that she needed to hear the truth. She needed to know that even though she only crossed my mind on rare occasions, I still loved her and prayed for her. Nothing in this world, other than husband, my children and grandchildren, meant more to me than she did. She needed to know that it was okay for her to laugh. She didn’t need to feel guilty if the tears didn’t come as often or if a day went by without her recalling her worst nightmare. I needed to tell her that moving into this new phase of grief was good and that it would NEVER diminish the love she had for him. It was a new part of this journey and I was honored to be a part of it with her.
So, as I stood there, looking in the mirror that gleamed with mist from the vegetable wash, I looked at my reflection and I mustered a smile. With the Iceberg and Endive lettuces as my captive audience, I finally gave myself permission to not be held captive by my grieving self. I told her….ME…that it was perfectly OK to have a “normal” day or two, in my “abnormal” world.
Joey would be happy and so very proud of me….tears, snot and all.