I noticed the items in the limping man’s cart – six boxes of Haagen-Daz ice cream, three bags of kitty litter. I nodded to Tim. “Good choices, heh?” Tim smiled. The man wore a scuffed up veteran’s hat, an oversize pair of cords, and a Carthart jacket.
“So the beautiful young lady thinks I’m moving too slow?” he said, looking directly at me.
“No, sir, not at all,” I replied. “Although I appreciate the young and beautiful remarks.”
“My wife says I’m moving too slow,” he said.
I searched his hands, his ears, looking for something to connect him to his wife – a phone, earbuds? Nothing.
He stacked the ice cream boxes on the belt, pulled out his wallet and took out a card.
“How many cats do you have?” I asked.
“Three,” he said. “And a Terrier, about yay big.” He dropped his card as he attempted to show me how big his dog was. It was clear from the limp that he likely had some form of neuropathy, a common ailment of Vietnam veterans due to the diabetes, often the result of Agent Orange.
“My wife is telling me I’m clumsy,” he said bending over slowly to pick up the card he’d dropped in front of his cart. It was in that moment that I realized the wife he was speaking about must already be dead. She clearly wasn’t present except to anyone but him. His constant referrals reflected a love that surpassed time and place, as all the best sort of love does, of course. I wondered had she died recently or had it been a long while.
I thought of my friends who have lost children. How they all remark about how one of the hardest things about the death of a child is how nobody ever says their names any more. The phone doesn’t ring for their sons, their daughters. People stop sharing the memories, the stories of when they grew up, the funny things they said, or did. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, close friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, all begin to grow increasingly silent in the wake of such deaths.
“It hurts to tell stories of my dad,” a young boy whose father was slain in Iraq once told me.
Yes. But eventually the silence hurts more. The inability to speak the names of the dead. Swapping stories is what we do, day in and day out. We can’t wait to tell so and so about such and such thing that happened. Friendships fade when we fail to make new memories, have new things to laugh over or moan about.
My mother’s voicemail remains on my iPhone. “Where are you?” she asks. “You’re a little late and I got a little worried about you.”
By the time my mother left that message, she was already in the throes of dying. The cancer had taken over her lungs, leaving the woman I used to call Dragon Lady for the sheer stern command of her voice, raspy, breathless. I miss having a mother around to worry about me. I miss having a mother around to worry about. I have missed her even more this past year as Sister Tater dealt with a different form of cancer. Sister Tater is the one person in my life who remembers the Mama stories best and who is never, ever reluctant to swap Mama stories. It’s like a secret language between siblings – this ability to tell the stories of our parents long passed. And to even project the things that our mother might say or do if this or that thing happened. In the absence of our mother, we imagine her presence.
Like the man at the grocery store.
Why should we stop talking about the dead as though they are no longer with us?
Perhaps, they are with us in ways more real and more present than a voicemail captured long ago.
“I think I got everything now,” the veteran said, placing yet another bag of litter upon his cart. “My wife says I got too small of a cart. She’s right.” He tipped his hat as he shuffled away.
I wanted to tell him that Mama would appreciate his choice in ice cream – it was her favorite – but he was too busy escorting his wife out the door.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND : A Novel (Mercer University Press).