I could see the judgment in her eyes; the sanctimonious smirk that is all too familiar in our west coast bastion of environmental fervour. Do you need a bag for your milk? The diapers? As if carrying 4 litres of milk by a tiny skinny handle is comfortable. And diapers? The package doesn’t even have a handle. Glance around the parking lot at any given midday moment and you’ll see a mom barely holding on to her toddler as a 10-pound rectangular block of plastic-wrapped poop catchers slides out from under her arm, along her leg, and inevitably to the ground. Yes, I do need a bag. Thanks so much.
I want to say: “I have some funky disease that is eroding the bones in my wrist, which, therefore, makes it difficult for me to grasp anything. Really. Especially your attitude.”
Of course that would be uncalled for. Fun, but uncalled for. What does she know…or care? She’s been trained to ask this question. To be environmentally and cost-conscious. I get it.
Each time this same dialogue takes place (twice a week, at my local Thrifty’s), I recall a painful and conscience-raising conversation I had two years ago with a wonderful gal pal from my high school days. A girl who could smile anybody’s pants off and whose SUV was run over by a dump truck. While she was driving it.
Two years in, having overcome paraplegia, morphine necessity, and a life that sucks ‘cause you’re raising two small children but you can’t raise your arm, my sweet dear friend finally made it to the grocery store one day (whether or not it was a Thrifty’s is unknown to my ironic self). The point is: she drove herself, she parked her car, she planted the wheat (kidding), she took the deepest of breaths, and then she launched herself, unaided, from the driver’s seat to the pavement, from the parking spot to the crosswalk, across which she carefully and painstakingly guided herself.
Some bastard honked. Actually honked. And ever-so-eloquently suggested she quicken her pace. Well, let’s pretend he was so polite and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you I cried when she told me this story. Her lesson from this experience, after she picked her sobbing self up from the produce floor at which she eventually arrived (and because she really needed another lesson, along with her lettuce) was, from that moment forward, to CARRY A CANE. She told me that she believed people would then recognize her challenges and, therefore, honour and respect them. In other words, not honk when she slowly crossed the street, or perhaps, egads, ask her if she needed help. The possibilities!
Yes, well, if my newly-casted arm is anything to go by, props seem to be more of a conversation piece than a deterrent to impatient co-existers. Hey, we’re all Oprah here. We’ve all got problems. Great story; wanna hear mine? But we’re not all O; I know a whole pile of people who keep their very painful problems to themselves. It is not because they’re emotionally stunted or repressed or well, incapacitated or anything. Stoically, sadly, they are just getting on with it. “It”: the pain and the struggle of mild to extreme physical injury and breakdown, from paralysis to blindness to depression, the invisible majority rules.
My mother-in-law is still suffering from shingles and at times can’t bear the feeling of cloth on her skin. My father-in-law can’t go out in strong winds because of a chronic and excruciating eye condition. You will NEVER hear either of them speak of their struggles. I have neighbours and friends who battle fibromyalgia, chronic and debilitating back pain, migraines, cancer, planter fasciitis, partial blindness, badly-behaved children, bad periods, and wayward husbands and, I swear, you could never tell by looking at them or even by engaging in everyday conversation with them.
Yet, however silently stoic and apparently carefree these wonderful, but not perfect, people may be, there are little clues to their pain. An automatic wince. A squint. A slowness. A sadness. A detachment. Perhaps something even less detectable, an avoidance of an activity or a minor motion, an avoidance of something that others do often, of something others take for granted. Surely without us becoming a world of moaners and public confessors, we can still sense when a fellow human is struggling in some way, be it physical or otherwise.
My fear is not the already horrible thought that we have become so completely self-
involved and de-sensitized via the O confessional that we don’t bother showing empathy for our fellow human sufferers, nor is it that marginally worse consideration that, well, frankly my dear, we don’t give a damn. The lead pit in the bottom of my stomach is the notion that we do not even consider that someone is troubled in a way that might may him or her less quick off the ball, less predictable, less convenient for us and our individual and “vital” schedules. No, some of us actually believe that it is a personal slight, that this other being is deliberately trying to delay us, annoy us, spite us. This is the worst conceit of all: choosing to believe that a 30-something woman limping across the road is trying to make us late for work and pushing aside the possibility that she might be taking the first and painful step to a new, scary future. Sometimes, it’s just not about you.