In the days that immediately followed my 10-year-old son’s death, perhaps there was nowhere more terrifying than the grocery store – the place I had spent countless shopping excursions begging my son and his little sister to stop running.
Begging them to be polite and think of the other people in the store who were trying to shop and not to consider the store a playground. My son always got it and tried to rein his sister in, but she’d needle him a little, and before the second hand had gone full circle, they’d both be doing what I asked them not to.
He knew I’d be annoyed, and it always made him feel bad, but they had a special bond these two. He was the protector, he knew what would make my wife and I mad and what wouldn’t, and most of the time he knew where the line was they shouldn’t cross.
I noticed in the days after his death, his sister had to learn where “the line” was. It wasn’t where it used to be, and it was not where it would be in a month, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years. But those battles of wills and rules were the good memories of shopping.
The truth was they were great kids, usually helpful, always full of life, who, even if they didn’t always follow them, knew the rules. We had taught them that.
No, the terror of the supermarket wasn’t the memories so much; it was all those other people. The ones shopping who would make eye contact.
Did they know? Did they know that the one of the most special people in the world to me had been taken away? Did they know I was one fleeting memory away from flowing tears and crippling grief? Were they trying to put the face with the newspaper article they read, or were they one of the thousands at his vigil? Did their kid play football too, or had, or wanted to? Had they seen us around school? Church? The theater? Baseball? Softball? Work? Had they lost a child? A spouse? Parent? Sibling? Dog? Hamster?
And when that tiny wave of recognition clicks on their face, what then? Were they going to say something? Oh God, I hoped they wouldn’t say something, but if they had to, please make it short and sweet.
Or maybe worse yet, they didn’t know. How dare them? How dare they stand there and not throw their arms out and wrap me up? No matter how much it made my skin crawl to hug someone again at that exact moment, how dare they not know, and not try? Didn’t you read the newspaper? Watch the TV news?
The greatest little boy that ever walked the face of this planet has died. My little boy. How dare they not know that!?!
And that was just the other customers. The employees all knew my son. He always said “Hi.” He was one of those polite kids who came to the bakery, asked for a cookie, and said thank you when he got one. When I saw the lady in the bakery and she asked how I was I couldn’t tell if she knew or not. I wanted to tell her. But I figured I was finally past the “Let me tell you what happened and make you feel bad because I really feel like dying and I can think of nothing I want more right now than to make you feel like dying too” stage.
I just nodded and replied with “Hanging in there.” She nodded. But, behind me I knew, only 20 feet from where I stood, was the sweet lady who worked in the pre-packaged meat and cheese aisle. She rotated the stock and gabbed with anyone who wanted to talk, and basically made shopping in that store a friendly experience.
Over the years she had become a friend. She was very proud of her children. And she loved my kids. I had walked in the week before, knowing that she may not have heard. There in front of shiny packages of Oscar Meyer Bologna, and Ball Park Franks, she greeted me with her usual smile.
I started to tear-up, realizing she hadn’t heard. She sat down on the edge of the deli case and wept. Then she took my hand and we went outside and both wept. Again I was reminded that it wasn’t just us that had lost my son. She came to the memorial. But every time I went back into that store, there she was stocking meats and cheeses. I’d pass, exchange a meaningful hand grasp, and move forward. There was nothing else to do.
As I’d continue, every face presented the same questions.
I started using a list, I had to, otherwise I would endlessly wander the aisles, looking at everything I had ever bought, thinking of my son. “Tuna,” he used to reach down and hand me the cans. Hot Pockets, he loved them for breakfast with his preference in taste leaning towards the sausage, not bacon.
I’d see something he loved which we didn’t usually buy, and into the cart it would go, I had to have one for him. Before I know it I had a cart full of Cheetos, Garlic bread and Pringles.
So I’d get in line. Which checker was on duty? Oh no, not the manager. He had purchased the winning football raffle ticket from my son last year. He had played on the same football field 30 years ago when he was growing up that my boy died on. He loved my boy. I couldn’t face him again. He’d understand.
I would also avoid the checker with the weathered face and gentle eyes. She always asked about the kids and I didn’t want to go through it again. I’m mean really, what was the appropriate thing to say to “Where are the kids today?” “Oh thanks for asking, my girl is in school, and my son is in an urn on top of the piano. How are you?”
I’d find a cashier on the end I didn’t know. Longest lines, but who cared.
I’d punch in my member number (the boy loved doing that for me). I’d open my wallet and absentmindedly pull out the credit card with the picture of the kids at the beach. My son was buried up to his neck in the sand, and his sister was grinning ear to ear, holding the shovel and pail. A great picture taken when we were camping that year. Inevitably the checker would notice.
Eventually, that credit card would start to bring a smile to my face, helping me remember the good times. But at first it was the last reminder on the way out of the store … my boy was dead, my life had changed forever, and at least for the near future, the supermarket sucked.
Thanks to guest author Bart Sumner for sharing his story. Bart’s daughter has attended two Comfort Zone Camps and says they “gave her some great support to see her through the nightmare of losing her brother.”