I had to pick up a few groceries yesterday at Kroger. I wanted to find a wedge of a kind of cheese that my son introduced me to that I couldn’t remember the name of. A woman who looked younger than me, maybe in her late 30s, tall and pretty, was happily looking through all the cheeses on offer. “Look at my cart, it’s nothing but plants and cheese.” She had about 8 coleus and a few other plants I didn’t recognize.
We both had on our masks. The store was crowded and noisy. The woman asked me if my wheelchair belonged to me. It did. Medicare? Yes. She was trying to get on disability and wondered if she should get a lawyer. I said I got on it without a lawyer, but I was first rejected, and it took 11 months for me to get my appeal approved.
She started talking about her disability. I couldn’t hear her well, but the word cancer pierced through the mask and the noise. It is in her spine, lymph nodes, breast and other parts of her body. She had a lot of neuropathy and her legs hurt all the time. She said she usually ordered her groceries online but her mother took her out today. I noticed an iodine stain peaking out from the cap sleeve of her dress and smeared on her upper arm.
She asked me a few more questions about getting on disability. She said she gets confused by all the processes because it’s in her brain, too. Then she said she heard that there was an expedited process for people with stage 4 cancer.
She was dying. This healthy (looking) woman was dying and worried about getting benefits to help her through the remainder of her life. I asked if her doctor could help, she said he was cold. “You know, how some doctors just intimidate you. I wish I could get another doctor.” She shook her head, quickly back and forth, as if she was trying to dislodge a thought from her head. Then I saw her eyes crinkle from a smile behind the mask.
I told her I had a thinning spinal cord and she said she’d just read about that, since her spine is weakening. We talked about pain and the cocktail of drugs we are on. Even at Stage 4, she worried about the amount of drugs she is taking. I told her I don’t worry, if they work, I’m happy.
I told her about my porch garden and how we should try to enjoy the beautiful things in life. She agreed. The conversation bounced around, and I thought she probably doesn’t get to talk to many people. At one point she pulled open her dress collar a bit and showed me the swollen skin on her breast bone. It wasn’t like a bruise, the skin was mottled, the veins a pale blue mapping an area about the size of the palm of her hand.
I saw a woman waiting patiently a few feet away and asked her if she needed to get to the cheese counter and she said, no. The woman I was talking to said the other woman was her mother. We all introduced ourselves. Her mother was small and thin and looked tired.
The woman excitedly told her mother about the cheeses she had picked out. Then they looked over a list of things they needed while I rolled away to finish my shopping.
I took a long way home, strolling through neighborhoods I like for their gardens. I thought of all the noise of the world, all the troubles. And all the unnecessary ways we hurt each other, when life is so precious and fragile, so hard to hang on to.
People fight small and deadly battles, live lives of pain and financial worry. How hard would it be to just give dying people the things they need? Why do we have to fight so hard to get a wheelchair?
We’ve watched people die over racial injustice; we’ve watched them die from corona virus. We make and take sides over things that we could all be working together on. Then maybe we could find the energy and funding to make both living and dying a richer experience in this mysterious and often beautiful world.
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