Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Sporting Goods Store Woman

May 22, 2008
Subject: Sporting Good’s Store woman

We went to a sporting goods store a few weeks ago to buy some baseball gear, some pants and a jersey, for Reo. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve set foot into this kind of store being the jock that I am. As I piled the kids out of the car to head inside, I took notice that this was probably the first of many such trips and I found myself rolling my eyes and sighing. This store is in a conventional strip mall, which made me fantasize that I was in any number of towns across our nation. A sad mundane feeling flushed over me quickly as I entered the unoriginal vastness of this place. I was focused and determined to buy only what we needed and waste not a single precious moment. We found a simple grey pair of pants and a white baseball jersey with black sleeves. Reo was thrilled and I was in overdrive to get out! I don’t have a sense of panic when I’m in these corporate boxes, which have evolved so successfully into mind-numbing, rapidly dividing eye sores gobbling up neighborhood mom and pop shops and resources. No, it isn’t panic. I’m simply uninspired.

As we were vrrrooom-vvvroooooming to the check-out lane, the woman at the counter took great notice of Aria. She asked, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” This was inspiring and different. I loved her immediately! “I don’t mind in the least!” I enthusiastically replied. She stammered and paused, “Umm, uhhh, Wh-wh-why does your daughter have such short hair?” “Peculiar question,” I thought. “She has leukemia.” I said consciously aware of not wanting to sound too cheerful or too woeful. The woman shot her arms up into the air as if to shout at the top of her lungs, “TOUCHDOWN!” I think I took a step back I was so stunned. She said, “YES! I just knew it! The moment you walked into the store, I knew she had leukemia. ALL right?” Was this happening? Was I making some kind of kooky connection in the middle of this humdrum bit of American sameness? I couldn’t believe it! It was wonderful and suddenly my surroundings completely vanished and all I could see was this woman.
“Wow,” stammer, sputter, sputter, “How is it you know so much about leukemia?” I asked.
“My daughter is a 2 time survivor,” she replied.
“A 2 time survivor?” I’m trying to wrap my head around that idea. “Well, what happened? How’s she doing now? How was your treatment experience? Were you at Sacred Heart? Who was your doctor?” I’m sure I asked more questions before taking a breath. She told me that her daughter had been diagnosed with ALL when she was 2 years old among other health complications. She went through treatment for 2 ½ years and when she was 5 years old, she had a recurrence. They opted for a bone marrow transplant, which she endured 3 years ago this past March. I was speechless. She went on to tell me more about their experience, all of which was powerful and positive. I noticed she was becoming self-conscious of the fact that another customer was standing behind me. I looked at him holding only a sport’s drink and said, “You’re alright.” He furrowed his brow and gave me a crooked smile. I turned my back to him not wanting him to steal a moment of this connection. A manager showed up and she asked him to help this other customer. I was grateful and with quick wit, pulled out a handful of store coupons I’d been given and asked if any of them applied. This bought us at least another 5 minutes or so. Mind you, this ‘personal’ conversation was all of 5 minutes, so any impatience I was beginning to sense, I quickly repelled.

I asked her how her daughter was doing. Her response was perky and optimistic. She asked if I was in touch with some of the support groups she found very helpful. I told her that I knew of them peripherally but wasn’t yet fully involved. She asked where we were in the process. “Aria was diagnosed 3 ½ months ago.” I told her. Her face fell and if I wasn’t so startled by her reaction, I’m certain I would have heard a dainty thud has her jaw hit the counter. “Oh!” she began. “You’re only just starting the process.” She looked tired all of sudden. “Yes” I said meekly swallowing the bitter pill once more. “It is quite a journey,” she commented, looking up and away presumably wandering to her archived memories. “It is….” I replied, my voice fading.

We looked at each other for only a bit of acknowledgment. There was little else to say. I asked again not being able to help myself, “So how’s your daughter doing? I mean really doing?” “No…she’s great. It’s been 3 years and she’s holding steady.” She said. It grabbed my attention that her comment began with ‘no’. I wondered, “Was she reading my mind? Was she able to sense that I was seeking definitive responses? Assurances like “She is positively cured. Nothing else will happen to her. This whole thing is well behind us now. I never have to experience the anxiety of the ground beneath my feet leaving me. You will also experience cure. Everything will be fine.” Intellectually, I am well aware that these kinds of assurances are ridiculous and not based in reality. Emotionally, however, I want to hear them and I, unfortunately, seek them periodically. It isn’t a sustainable thing and doesn’t help me accept the process as it is, but I do it nevertheless. I simply cannot help myself. Her ‘no’ reminded me that no one can make promises. She doesn’t know and that remains the struggle, which is everyday, waking up facing a more tangible unknown than most people have to consider. “So, she’s gonna be o.k, right?” I spit out almost as if I was choking. I knew immediately I had gone too far. I pushed it and I knew I had made an innocent mistake. She looked me squarely in the eye, “I just don’t know but I hope so.” “I’m sorry” I began, “I just want someone to tell me there’s an end in sight and that everything will be fine but you’re right, there are no guarantees and we just don’t know.” We both sighed. I said, “thank you for your question and I wish you and your family continued health and success.” “Yeah, you too.” She told me as we left the building.

In the dullness of this strip mall, I had a brilliant moment with a stranger that sparkled like a precious jewel. As I left the parking lot to enter the busy current of traffic, I said to myself, “Right. It’s rarely the place. It’s always the people that matter most and affect us so deeply.” The thought was divine and filled me contentment. I drove away. I drove forward, looking around, relishing the moment. “I have hope. I have today. I have right now.” I smiled. ~j

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