“You live and you learn. At any rate, you live.” -Douglas Adams
I stopped at the supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner. The elderly man in line ahead of me had a great many bags to put in his cart and he was, in the process of this, telling the cashier how most of his neighbors had moved away, gone on to other places.
No one stays put anymore, he said. Everybody’s got to be in motion.
I realized I was nodding in agreement. Yes, that does seem to be true. More and more lately it seems like the end of the world will not be a violent cataclysm but just a gradual, deafening silence. As the others, one by one, leave the room, stealthily, the way people sneak out of parties they really weren’t enjoying.
Well–hey, now! That’s not fair. You can’t *go*. I’m still here.
The old man turned to me and smiled. For a very old man, his face was not very lined. His skin was ruddy with vigorous scrubbing: waves of Ivory soap and some pure, astringent aftershave plumed in my direction when he turned toward me. The strong, clean fragrance (and the whiteness of his thin V-neck tee under his freshly ironed button-up shirt) reminded me strongly of my grandfathers, who were also button-up men.
“I am 89 years old,” he said.
“You don’t look 89,” I said, sincerely.
He tilted his forehead toward me, leaning in, and I understood that he had not caught that– I have a low voice, and I speak softly at first.
“You don’t look 89.”
He straightened his posture and looked out into the distance, studying something I could not myself see.
“Oh,” he said after a pause. “I feel it.”
“I’ve had my shoulder replaced, a hip replaced, both knees are gimpy…” he gestured toward himself, then glanced at me, not expecting me to understand. “I try to exercise, I try to keep up, but at the moment I find myself temporarily behind schedule.”
The cashier began loading his bags into the cart for him.
“I’ve been married 65 years,” he said.
“Sixty-five years. We got married when I was right out of the Army.”
I turned the handle around, thoughtfully, on my half-gallon of milk where it sat on the motionless counter. Biting my lip. Considering that.
“I can’t even remember what it’s like not to be married,” he said.
“No,” I said softly again. “I’d imagine not.”
He tilted his head toward me once more.
I said, more emphatically, “I’d imagine not.”
He turned away to grasp the now-full cart with both hands, and walked away with it, pushing it doggedly, determined. Something began to snag inside me as I watched him go, something that hung on and tore and began to bleed a little.
Out in the parking lot, the August sun seemed to beat down relentlessly, somehow. And yes, there he was, struggling with his groceries in two dozen flimsy plastic bags under a trunk hood that mysteriously seemed to keep sliding down on him. (And him with his replaced shoulder.) I threw my purse and bags in the front seat of my own car and strode over to his.
“Need a hand?” I called out cheerfully. Pretending he was one of my grandfathers, one of my own.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” he said formally. “I seem to be having difficulty with this trunk hood, it seems.”
I held up the hood and he adjusted his walking cane as a prop so I could swiftly transfer his bags into the trunk. I tried to align them, heavy liquid items closest to the back, the way my grandfathers would have liked them. I know what grandfathers prefer.
“I’ll take your cart back. I’m going back in anyway,” I said, not altogether honestly (I was done) so he didn’t have to ask.
He smiled at me and I saw my grandfathers again. Just for an instant. Just a glimpse. It was an expression, in the eyes. But it was enough. (They used to look at me, just like that. When you are a child, you imagine that kind of affection will always be there for you. What faith! The miracles of youth.)
We shook hands on it, and I walked away with the cart.
People come and people go. But sometimes they come back again in different forms. Maybe I just have to remember to look.