Maybe it only happens to me, but it seems like some of the most profound experiences happen in the grocery store. There was the day when judgment turned into compassion. The encounter with people who really do “have their hands full.”
And then, this.
Sunday afternoon at Aldi. The usual motley assortment of people: an older black woman with long hair extensions; the mixed-race couple with an adorable little girl in Target-size polka dots; the huge black guy calling home for instructions; me, the slobbily-dressed white woman. And a middle-aged hippy-esque white woman, admonishing, “This will take a lot less time if you’re nice,” echoing the sentiments I communicate every time I’m forced to grocery shop with my munchkins. Only she is talking to a person who is very obviously not a small child. A 4 ½-foot tall person with straight dark hair, like my daughter’s. A person who walks on the insides of her feet, just like my daughter.
My insides electrify. Trying not to stare, I work my way up the warehouse-stacked aisle, consult my list. Flour. Saltines. Olives. I pull even with the cart. The woman has disappeared around the corner, and the girl has her face buried in her hands, crying. Exactly like Julianna cries when she gets scolded. It’s all I can do not to throw my arms around her and rock her.
The mother comes back and fixes me with a fiercely protective glare. Hastily, I stop looking, open the glass door and pull out a jug of 2% milk. Behind me, the woman murmurs kind words, and her daughter stops crying.
Must not stare, I tell myself, and linger at the butter and yogurt while they continue on ahead.
I catch up to them again halfway up the next aisle. They are talking as I speed past without turning my head to look. Nothing profound. Just “do you want?” and “can I have?” Simple, everyday words. Such beauty: words. Out of the mouth of a girl who was once just like mine.
Stop staring. Tomato juice. Pepparoni stick. I must look like such a jerk to this mother. I want to stop and say, I’m not a creep. I have a daughter with Down’s. I want to take her by the elbow and say, “Tell me everything! Seeing you is like glimpsing my own future. I knew it would be good, but it’s so much more beautiful than I could have guessed!”
I’m sure she would melt instantly, open up and tell me more than I could possibly process in one encounter. That’s how I would react. Parents who share this experience are almost universally unable to shut up when we encounter each other. I’ve had profound conversations with complete strangers whose children look like mine at Kidz Court, at O’Hare International, and at Tampa International airports. (And I hardly ever fly.)
But today, my inhibitions stop me. Because this child is older—on the cusp of adulthood, even. And now her feelings must be consulted, too. We can no longer talk around her, speak for her. And I don’t know how to do that without talking down to her.
And yet, the glow of that near miss remains with me two days later, promising that my heart is poised to expand again. Coming as it does on the heels of reading some heartbreakingly callous comments online, I can only whisper inadequately: Thank you.
Visit On, In and Around Mondays for more snapshots of place and time.