A Mother’s Secret

I ran into Annie today at the grocery store. Annie’s son is in the second grade with my daughter, so I know Annie superficially. I greeted her over our shopping carts. Both carts — mine with a manifest desire to go left and avoid Annie altogether — were loaded with milk, lunch meats, sliced bread and cereal. The generic essentials that will be in every mother’s cart. Impersonal contents, not one unique item nestled among the predictable to predict personality, mood, desires, fate.  

Naturally, once I’d overpowered my cart, we fell to discussing the quantity of food immature humans consume. How there is no law of physics or chemistry to account for such a high energy to mass ratio. That there is never a full gallon of milk in the refrigerator. Why kids loathe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches despite all marketing campaigns. Why salami costs three times as much as bologna and what sinister inferences can be thus drawn about the contents of those bologna packages.

I don’t know Annie. I know her through her son, casually acquainted would be a generous label. I don’t know, for example, if there’s a Mr. Annie. I don’t know what Annie does for a living. I have trouble remembering Annie’s last name, being content to refer to her in conversations with others, if any, as Max’s mom. As my daughter has only one Max in her universe, that seemed sufficient.

I noticed, as we chatted, that she seemed more withdrawn than she did when I talked to her in her more usual context waiting outside the classroom. I assumed I was intruding into a busy schedule with my prattling and almost said as much. Instead, prompted by that reserve of feminine instinct that is harbored within me to be drawn out at need quite often to my own surprise, what came out of my mouth was “Is there anything wrong?”

All it took was this inquiry from a near stranger to burst open the floodgates.  First, as the tears streamed down her face in direct denial to her claims, she tried to say nothing, as women will do. We do so like to appear strong. But as that was apparently not the case, she began an explanation over the grocery carts. Just began it.

“I’ve been fighting liver cancer for a while. I just found out it’s metastasized.”

Leaving me to draw the inevitable conclusion. The only logical conclusion based on all I know of those horrible words — cancer and metastasized. She would die, soon. Soon, there would be a motherless child in my daughter’s classroom.  Soon, Annie — Annie’s dreams for her child’s future, Annie’s desires for her own, Annie’s thoughts, Annie’s visions, Annie’s memories — soon, Annie would be no more. I tried to soothe her with empty words. And, with disgust at myself, I registered a growing embarrassment for Annie as she cried over our groceries. Soon, Annie would be no more, and I was worried that someone might see her tears, her weakness. Where did that come from?

All our evolution, all our art and artifice, all our science and wisdom, all our religion, our blind faith, our instinctual acumen — all these have taught us nothing about our eventual demise. When confronted with death, we still have nothing to say, no appropriate response, no desperately desired comfort to give.  I involuntarily looked again at the contents of the cart to see if there were anything that might indicate the horror that Annie must feel inside, to see if there were any clues toward what I should do next. But there was nothing, and there we stood in the grocery store. Annie crying, facing her death. Me confounded, facing her death. And not knowing how to do so.

I clumsily tried to comfort her, as I said. I hugged her, as if an embrace from a stranger would staunch the flow of tears. I put myself at her service and at the service of her family. In response to her request, I assured her I would say nothing and let her spread the news in her own time and manner. I watched mutely as she struggled to hide away her tears again.

No, I thought, Annie should proclaim her doom from the mountaintops. We all know we will die; here is a chance to face it. To live life as if we were all Annie. To embrace death by truly living our lives. And yet, Annie was prepared to shoulder this burden secretly as though she were the only mother to die and that was somehow an embarrassment. Was somehow her fault. But I was too unprepared to say such things to her at the time. We, humans, are always unprepared to say such things when they need to be said because we don’t recognize that need. We parted carts after the tears were brought back under control, hidden out of sight like vile habits. We went on with our respective shopping, resolutely burying her impending death under all the detritus of daily life. And I did not say all I should.

It’s not the anger at injustice and hard fate that burns so much as the inability to confront injustice, to acknowledge hard fate. We, humans, have not mastered that task in one million years of trying. Where were the words I should have said to Annie? Why the instinctual need to hide away death? What should we do when, unpredictably, death bursts out in a grocery store? Why does a grocery store seem an inappropriate venue for witnessing our human frailty?

I ran into Annie at the grocery store today. Probably, I will be more solicitous to her son, Max, from now on. Probably, I will put more effort into cultivating friendship with her for the time being. Time being. That phrase has never resonated so clearly. Probably, I will spend a considerable time reflecting on my own eventual demise. But what should I have done? What should I do? Now that I know her secret, will she have the courage to look me in the eyes? And why shouldn’t she!

I ran into Annie at the grocery store today. I now wonder how many more faces are hiding their inevitable fate behind closed expressions. I now wonder when we will have the strength to open them to scrutiny. I now wonder what a stranger will do when informed of my death. Will that stranger know the proper response?

If so, when will that stranger enlighten all these miserable human beings?

©Elizabeth Anker 2021