I hate shopping. Not so much the act of buying things, but the amount of people at the local shops (which is what you get when you live in an enormous city, I guess). See, I get panic attacks — and, boy, do they like showing up when there are too many people and too much noise.
Last Friday, however, when going to the local supermarket, I saw a woman who must be in her seventies, walk down one of the isles. Tinted sunglasses hid half her face. Her crutch was balanced in the shopping trolley, her hands shaking slightly as she slowly walked towards me.
I got out of the way to let her pass, hearing a soft ‘thanks, dear’ as she moved past me. She went to pay at the till next to the one I’d chosen. As usual, I chose the queue that took way longer than it should have, and ended up looking at her again. Memories of my grandfather flooded back into my mind.
I remembered well his shaking and trembling as Parkinson’s slowly took hold of his body and the Alzheimer’s emptied his mind of all memories of his family and the world around him.
After paying, I was behind the woman to go into the lift; squeezing in beside her almost-empty trolley with its silver crutch.
She stared at the buttons next to her as if she’d never been in a lift, before pressing the button to go down.
“I just want to go down,” she said to me, unshed tears behind her tinted sunglasses making her voice tremble.
“You’ve got the right floor there,” I said. “And facing the right direction for when the doors open,” I assured her, remembering well how it had been to help care for my ailing grandparent during my teen years.
She started shaking, looking down at the trolley’s contents.
“No. No, actually I’m not.”
“Panic attack?” I asked, reaching out my hand, but not quite touching her shoulder — I never want someone to touch me during an attack.
She shook her head. “I lost my daughter a few weeks ago,” she blurted out then. “I just… I just…”
“I am so sorry,” I said, feeling like a fool for causing her to break down.
I swear we had twice as long in that lift as you usually do. It was just one floor down.
“I just needed to get some things, you know. Without her.” her voice trailed off again.
By now the sobs she tried to hide shook her body anyway.
The doors opened and she started pushing her trolley out.
“Do you want to sit down with a cup of tea?” It was as if my voice had bypassed my brain and came directly from my aching heart. Tea does help a broken heart at least a little, in my opinion.
“No, I just want to go home,” she murmured.
I barely registered the angry people trying to get into the lift that we were blocking.
“But thank you,” she said again, her voice as soft as it was in the shop earlier.
“I really am so sorry.” It was said as a goodbye as she walked, slowly and trembling, away from me to the exit and the parking lot.
I stood for a moment, making sure that she didn’t pass out or something on her way to her car. Only when I walked away to my exit, did I realise that I, too, was shaking.
I wish I could say that I stopped thinking about her as you so often do when you meet a random stranger in passing. But she wouldn’t leave my mind.
I ended up buying fast food for dinner even though I felt sick to my stomach.
Thoughts of her and her daughter tangled with memories of my late mother and grandparents. I walked on shaking legs, barely noticing the people milling about around me as they went on with their lives, oblivious to what had just happened.
“Tea?” I thought, for a moment pointing my trolley in the direction of a favourite coffee shop.
“No,” I thought, “I just want to go home.”