I cried at the grocery store yesterday. It wasn’t an unprecedented occurrence — anyone whose life partner has been claimed by death knows the triggers lurking in those well-lit aisles — but in this case, the tears had nothing to do with me.
I was standing at the protein bar section, picking out a couple of Lara bars when a younger woman approached and asked if I knew which ones would help her gain weight. Apparently, her family and friends think she looks like a drug addict, and she thought if she gained ten or twenty pounds, they’d leave her alone. I looked her up and down, and shrugged. I said she looked fine to me. She was very thin, but mostly because she had a delicate (though not frail) frame. She wasn’t emaciated, and in fact had average to good muscular development. And her eyes were clear and bright with intelligence.
I said, “Tell your family I said you looked great.”
She replied, “I’ll say you were a perfect stranger.”
“I am perfect,” I said, and we smiled at each other.
That moment of connection opened her up, because next thing I knew, she was telling me her story. She had been a drug addict, but that very day was her third anniversary of being clean. Those seven lost years had changed her metabolism, and now she couldn’t gain weight.
She went on to tell me that ten years ago her three-year old daughter had been run over and killed, and the next day, her husband went out into the desert and shot himself because he couldn’t handle the pain. That, of course, was when my tears came, and I hugged her. The death of a child or a partner is excruciating, but to have to deal with both at once? Oh, my. The poor woman. No wonder she shrouded herself in drug-induced numbness. Now that she’s clean, she has to learn to cope with her grief as if it was still new.
Even worse, she is fighting not to be racist. The guy who ran over her child was of a minority, and the judge who let him off was of the same minority. And last week, two fourth-graders of that same minority choked her six-year-old son in the school bathroom. (I hesitate to mention the races of both her and her various adversaries because in today’s climate, even that could be considered racist.) She doesn’t want to hate, so she is fighting that feeling, too.
It amazed me that instead of seeing this woman’s honor, strength, and courage, her friends and family saw someone with a weight problem. Admittedly, they were probably worried about her, and afraid that she had picked up her old ways, but still, we are much more than the weight we carry, whether too much or too little.
I hugged her again and wished her happiness, then we went our separate ways.
But her story haunts me, and now whenever I am in that particular grocery store aisle, I will think of her and hope she is still okay.
Pat Bertram is the author of four other suspense novels: Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.