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The Grocery Clerk

July 15, 2019

In my previous post, I mentioned an encounter with a grocery clerk that helped me cope with my Parkinson’s diagnosis.  I was going to link the post I had previously written about the clerk, but then a search through my archives revealed something surprising–I had never written about her before!  I think I had told the story so many times, I had assumed I had written about it here.  But I hadn’t, so this post will rectify that oversight.

One of the hallmark’s of a Parkinson’s diagnosis is the tendency to feel sorry for oneself.  The diagnosis is usually a manifestation of some action that was once easy, and no longer is:  holding your hand steady, walking without the risk of falling, having control over basic motor skills without some limb freezing, being able to have a good night’s sleep.  All of this is difficult enough; however, the diagnosis is usually accompanied by the understanding that these changes will only get worse, not better.  The pity party that accompanies this realization can be quite the shindig.  Even today, this feeling can creep into me when I drop something–even though neurotypical people drop things all the time, I have to make a conscious effort to banish that thought before it gets a hold of me once again.

Whilst raving it up at a pity party, it can become difficult to have perspective on what you are enduring.  This is understandable, and to a degree, forgivable–most of us don’t have the experience to help us effectively manage such a circumstance, and most of our friends and loved ones are equally at a loss.  That’s why sometimes what you need is a total stranger to give you that perspective.

The Stop and Shop grocery store near my house used to be open 24 hours. In graduate school, I kept what would charitably be described as “Night Owl Hours.”  Thus, being able to purchase lettuce at 3a.m. was an appreciated convenience.  It was never an uninteresting visit; I used to refer to it as “outpatient night.”  The combination of insomniacs, graveyard workers, stock piled carelessly in the aisle ways, and the other customers who just seemed…well, unusual always made for an entertaining people watching experience.  It was also good for your motor skills; if you weren’t careful, you could turn a corner and walk right into a palette of Tide. After I became a full time teacher, those visits became severely curtailed.  There were times, however, I would stop in on the way to work because grocery shopping that early was quick and easy.

On one of those visits, I approached the cashier (there was always only one open this early in the morning) with my basket of cleaning supplies, canned goods, and a box or two of Barilla pasta.  She nodded at me, and begin scanning my purchases.  I noticed she took a bit longer than usual, but given the time of the morning, I was in no hurry.  Plus, she lacked any interest in engaging me with mindless small talk, and for that I was grateful.

After giving me my total, I reached into my wallet to pull out a couple of twenty dollar bills, but my tremors were acute that morning, so it was quite a struggle.  After an irritating couple of moments, I succeeded in finally clasping the money in my hands, and handed it to the cashier. I knew my hands were trembling, but not so much the cashier wouldn’t be able to collect them from my shaky grip.

It turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong about this.  She had just as much trouble collecting the money–because her hands were trembling as well.

At the moment, our eyes met, and we both had a simultaneous realization:  you, too?  After some effort, and the money finally extracted from my hand, and an equally tedious undertaking for me to collect my change, we began to talk about our malady.  When you get two people with Parkinson’s together, you can start counting.  By the time you get to ten, one of them will inevitably have asked the other about their medication.  She asked me about mine, and I gave her the rundown: the unpronounceable name, the dosage, the side effects.  When I asked about hers, she gave me a surprising response:

“I don’t take any.”

You don’t, I asked. Why not?

“Our medical insurance isn’t very good.  Only the first $1000 in drug expenses are covered.  After that, I have to pay full price.  I hit that amount in February.  So I do without.”

I’m so sorry, I replied.  That must be really hard.

She shrugged as best she could, and then told me “that’s why I work graveyard.  I don’t sleep anyway, and there’s so few customers, most aren’t going to complain if I’m a little slow.”

I nodded, silently wondering how many do complain. But before I could entertain that thought, she added:

“Plus…that’s a lot fewer people…well, staring at me.  Staring at my hands.  They don’t think I notice, but I do.”

At this point, she slid my bagged groceries over to me.

I checked her green vest for a name tag, but she didn’t wear one.  I stared at her, desperate to respond, but all I could muster was a weak, “I’m sorry.”  By then, though, she had turned her back to me, and began fiddling with her register.  I stood there another moment, convinced I should do something, or say something else, but I had no idea what.  Finally, I just picked up my groceries and left.

When I got back out to my car, I sat for a moment before starting the engine.  It was then that I decided to make a promise to myself:  I need to be more grateful.  I have a job that I love, with great health insurance, and people who care about me.  I feel alone, but I’m not.  I need to have more gratitude.

That thought took a while to take hold in my psyche.  It turned out it was very difficult to remember that, and there were some days where it felt easier to conjure Amelia Earhart out of thin air than remembering to be grateful  After a while, though, the aircraft carrier finally began to turn.  And the epiphany that came courtesy of that grocery store clerk was the beginning.

The sad thing is I never saw her again.  I would stop at the store early in the morning for some stress free shopping, but I was really hoping to see her.  But she was never there.  I even stopped in during regular hours to ask the customer service desk if she was still around, and how she was doing.  No one knew who I was talking about, nor recognized her description.  And, of course, I never found out her name.

So I am putting this out to there, knowing it is extremely unlikely she will ever read this.  But on the smallest of chances she does, I want to thank her, and let her know that I think of her often, and I worry about how things are going for her.

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