The whole thing lasted no more than ten seconds. I’d stopped at the supermarket for a few necessities before rushing home for an important client call. Throwing my groceries on the counter, I paced back and forth, almost hopping, sandwiched between the customers behind and ahead of me.
The cashier, with only time to consume until she could punch out, waited for each of my items on the conveyer belt to reach her and scanned them with perfect lethargy. When the customer ahead of me left, I stepped to the end of the counter, grabbed two plastic bags and started packing, hopefully telegraphing to the cashier to hurry it up. Finally paying, I flung my bags into the cart and started to the exit.
That’s when I saw her. Near the end of the checkout counter, her aide mumbling and fussing with a sweater behind her, she sat in her wheelchair. She looked to be about my age, with faded brown hair in haphazard curls around her face, her skin gray and drawn. Her left arm lay crumpled and awkward against her side. Her legs, obviously useless, were hidden under a cloth blanket.
Our eyes met.
Her look riveted me. What did it telegraph? Yearning, disdain, sorrow, anger, envy . . . . I imagined her life.
Here she was, having to be pushed everywhere, barely able to lift anything with her good arm. Here I was, swinging my bags like children’s empty backpacks and briskly pushing my cart.
Here she was, having to rely on someone else—a dark-skinned stranger hard to understand—for the basic necessity of getting food. Here I was, having whirled through five sections to restock my staples.
Here she was, at the big outing of the month, in which she could hardly participate (it didn’t seem like she could talk). Here I was, only wanting to get rid of this errand to get on to bigger things.
Here she was, nowhere else to go except the bathroom when she had to, and in that act needing painstaking and embarrassed help. Here I was, almost running as I steered my cart toward the door, busy, directed, taking my vigor for granted.
What else did she transmit? Regret? Jealousy? Weeping, later (if her tear ducts even worked)? When we looked at each other, I saw the layers of a lifetime that had brought her to this moment—in this store in this wheelchair locking eyes with this embodiment of what she might have once been and so much wished to be again.
Out the door, careening my cart toward the parking lot, her face still in my mind’s eye, I felt suffused with gratitude. For my life instead of hers, for my health, for my profession of writing and editing and passion to always improve, for my hard-won habits of diet and exercise.
Does it all come down to choices? How to care for yourself, pursuing what you love, deciding on what attitudes you reject and take in about age and aging? I’ll never know her answers or conclusions, or whether her choices in such matters brought her to her wheelchair. For myself, though, these choices that serve me are key.
I opened the car door, placed the bags on the seat next to me, and got in. No longer hurrying, I held the wheel with both hands. This was the moment to feel fully, the moment to choose, the moment to be grateful for. Driving home, I kept seeing the face and eyes of the woman in the wheelchair. And sent her love.
Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, among others. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. Website: www.trustyourlifenow.com