I Cried In The Arms of the Supermarket Checkout Lady

Exactly one week before this past Christmas, I found myself openly weeping in the arms of the supermarket checkout lady at my locally owned independent supermarket. Weeping sounds like a lovely description. It was actually a full blown ugly cry — the kind where you can’t see out of your puffy eyes and can’t breathe out of your snotty, stuffy nose.

I had not been to my local market in well over a week, which was a long time by my standards. I was sick with bronchitis, and an ear and sinus infection. I was in desperate need of cough drops, ginger ale and soup, not to mention food for the rest of my family, who I had neglected in a big way over the three weeks leading up to my supermarket meltdown as I was spending so much time and energy caring for my father.

Two days prior to the ugly cry at checkout on a Sunday evening, I was sitting with my husband and kids at my childhood kitchen table in my childhood home in my childhood assigned seat. It was the seat that backed up to the stovetop to the immediate left of the wall phone and stool where my mother used to sit when talking on the phone with her friends and other seemingly important adults making plans and then jotting them down on her large paper calendar that sat open face on the counter directly under the wall phone.

As my grownup family and I sat eating Chinese food that we had brought in to my childhood house while trying to convince my father to get out of his bed by yelling down the long hallway to his first floor master bedroom, the kitchen wall phone rang. I picked it up. On the other line was someone from the hospital informing me that my father’s bloodwork had come back, and it showed an infection in his blood. We should bring him to the hospital — immediately.

I quickly walked down the hallway to get my father and tell him the news — that he needed to get out of bed despite how lousy, lethargic and just plain out of it he was feeling and come with us to the hospital. My stomach was in knots. My throat hurt and so did my head. I threw my father’s things together in a bag by his bedside. A million thoughts rushed through my head. I was caught completely off guard by this phone call, by this evening rush to the hospital with the news of the sepsis, a result of complications from my father’s recent back surgery.

Two days later as I sat in my car in the parking lot of my supermarket shopping center giving myself an inner pep talk to get my shit together, walk into the store and simply buy some food to feed myself and my family, I realized that I should not have been so caught off guard by that Sunday night call. In truth, I had been waiting for that call for a very long time.

In the fall of 2001, as I sat at my desk in my garden apartment at graduate school in Michigan reviewing my economics notes, I received a call from my mother back home in Pennsylvania. She was calling that night to tell me that her cancer had metastasized and that she would soon start experimental treatments that would hopefully target the cancer. A pit filled my stomach that night. I’m not sure that pit has ever gone away. Until perhaps that night 17 plus year later over Chinese food in my childhood kitchen.

I’ve learned a lot about grief and loss in the last 15 years after losing my mom to cancer. I’ve written about it and even taught workshops on the topic. But up until that moment in the supermarket parking lot, I didn’t quite come to understand that I had been waiting for that second phone call.

When you lose your mother to cancer when she is 57, you do your best to get on with your life — to count your blessings, not sweat the small stuff, be grateful for what you have and to make every day a happy one. Or at least that’s what I tried to do. But I also kind of lived each day waiting  — waiting for that next phone call. Because if you get that call about your seemingly healthy and relatively young mother, you come to understand that you could get that call about anyone.  My waiting, I starting to believe, had at long last been over. I got the other call. The infection was in the blood. The other shoe had dropped, and the sky was about to fall.

I told myself I would be okay even after I hung up the phone with my brother in the supermarket parking lot that day as we debated the best possible path forward for my father to get better, as I wondered to myself if he actually would. To top it off, I couldn’t visit him in the hospital as I was sick myself and could barely speak to anyone in person or over the phone having lost my voice and so much of my energy. I prided myself for having strength in both of those departments.

Earlier that day I saw my own doctor who told me I had bronchitis and the sinus and ear infection. She said my immune system was shot. I was completely worn down, and I couldn’t see my father in the hospital. As I waited for my prescription at CVS, all I wanted to do was call my father and tell him I was sick. He would inevitably make the 44-year-old adult me feel better by telling me to go home and rest, and then he’d ask what he could do. He’d want to take care of me in his own way even though he really couldn’t. In the years since losing my mother, our roles had reversed in many ways as I took care of him.

When I was a kid and got sick, my mother was the best caretaker. She brought me ginger ale, cough drops and chicken soup on the light blue plastic bed tray up to my twin bed in my childhood room. She’d kiss my forehead checking my temperature with her cool lips in lieu of any real thermometer. And then she’d let me get back to watching game shows or soap operas on the small black and white kitchen television that she had set up in my room for the day.

My mother had been my person. She was the one with whom I shared my deepest secrets and my greatest fears. She was my biggest cheerleader telling me how cute I looked every time I walked in the room even during my supremely awkward years. She told me that I was more than capable and that all I had to do was try my best when I doubted myself in school and in the world. After she died I told myself I would never have this person again. But then that late morning in the supermarket parking lot, I began to wonder if somehow without me noticing it over the years, that my father had become my person.  After all, he was the one I wanted to call just then. He had the power to make me feel better like my mother used to do. He thought everything I did was great from my mediocre cooking to my questionable parallel parking skills and my bargaining abilities, which actually legitimately suck.

I wrapped my scarf around my neck extra tight in the car in the parking lot, put my cozy winter hat with the pom-pom on, zipped up my jacket imagining I had an armor of fleece and soft wool to get me through the not so big deal food shop I needed to accomplish.

The holiday music and smiling shoppers caught me off guard as I entered the market and observed normal high functioning people working their way through the large selection of organic strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Didn’t these smiling shoppers know that my dad lay in a hospital bed with IV antibiotics pumping through his body? That my mom had been gone for long enough to not even know of this very store’s existence and probably also the existence of organic berries? Didn’t they know that I could barely get my shit together to buy food to make my kids lunches for school? That I could never really be the mother I always imagined I would be because somewhere deep down I would always be missing my own mom and worried that something might happen to my own dad? That I felt guilty that my kids didn’t have that mom I imagined myself being? That they would never know the awesome grandmother that I thought my mother would be? And that maybe soon, they may lose the grandfather they so adored?

“The proof was in the pudding.” my mother used to say about the kind of kids people raised or the work they did or the lives they lived. I reminded myself of this when I told my kids the day before the supermarket shop that we could not go on our family ski trip out west because my dad was in the hospital. I hoped the lesson that my kids would learn about sticking around when someone you love needs you, would be far more valuable than any tips a private ski instructor would teach them while on the slopes.

As I made my was through the supermarket, aisle by aisle, I thought more and more about how my kids had been cheated. About how I had been cheated and was perhaps about to be cheated even more so. I thought about my own childhood and how idyllic I once thought it to be — about my former nuclear family that sat night after night at our assigned seats at our kitchen table discussing the day’s events. That seemed so long ago and so far away.

I told myself to keep it together. I reminded myself of how lucky I was. I mean there I was in the middle of the morning during the week in my local market picking out organic berries in a warm fleece jacket, a cozy hat and scarf. I had an awesome and loving husband, great kids, a wonderful tightknit family and a crew of really good friends —  the kind who call you so much when your father is in the hospital that you end up losing your voice from explaining the situation to them. I was not starving or a refugee or living in a third world country or under martial law. It didn’t seem to matter though that day in the market. My reality whether valid or not, felt really crappy to me just then. I had lost my mom too young, and I thought I may lose my dad too. I had gotten sick and run down myself probably from taking care of too many other people and things for too long and perhaps, I wondered, I had neglected my kids who were bringing in peanut butter sandwiches in for school lunch made with the end pieces of bread no less and expired, stale bags of pretzels.

When I got to check out and the friendly face of the woman bagging my groceries smiled at me and asked me how I was,  I let it out — all of it — maybe 15 plus years of it? I cried so hard, I couldn’t speak. I tried to wipe away tears with my fingers but it did no good. I wiped away my drippy nose with the sleeve of my fleece jacket. I think I told her I would be okay. I think I told her with my scratchy barely audible voice that my dad was in the hospital. She looked at me with her caring eyes and warm smile, and then she stopped the conveyer belt in front of her filled with my ginger ale, organic berries, fresh bread and peanut butter. She started to walk around the belt making her way over to me. I held out my hands as if to say stop, and then I know I told her that I was sick and that she should stay away from me.  That didn’t seem to bother her.

She held me in her arms and gave me a long giant hug that felt better than anything I had experienced in the last two days.

“It’s okay, honey,” she said and for a moment, I believed her.

I cried some more in her arms, thanked her, made my way back to my cart and finished bagging with her assistance.  I told her that I’d be back next week and that I’d be smiling although I didn’t know if I would. I prided myself on always having a smile on my face no matter what the situation. My mother used to do the same.

My father is okay. The IV antibiotics worked. The infection cleared in his blood and in his body and he came home to wonderful care from nurses and physical therapists after only a week in the hospital. He is expected to make a full recovery.  When I first came to see him at his house, he sat up in bed and asked me how I was feeling. My person was back.

I am back to my regular shopping at the supermarket. I’ve been shopping more than usual as I find myself picking up extra items of food and treats for my father. I still worry, and I still probably take care of too many other people and things (full disclosure – this is not a humble brag. I am happy to do it. It is a part of who I am, and I feel lucky that I can do it.) But I am also trying to take better care of myself too.

At the end of the holiday break, my kids told me that they didn’t care about the ski trip they had missed. They were just glad that that my dad was better. I almost melted. I guess the proof was in the pudding. Maybe this pudding turned out pretty okay despite me not being the mom I once imagined I would be.

A good friend of mine from college called me the other day to see how everyone was doing. I told her that I had gone to the supermarket and didn’t cry to anyone there. We laughed.

I hung up the phone with her and went back to living my life in my reality which just then felt good. And I didn’t look down at the phone again. I took a breath. I had no pit in my stomach. I am not waiting for that other phone call anymore. And that feels pretty damn good.