The conversation happened on an average evening. I wasn’t feeling any which way in particular, wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. It was just a day, in the middle of another long week, towards the end of a complicated year.
I was taking my time wandering around the multiple level Whole Foods, rolling the cart as slowly as I wanted, perusing aisles that I had never entered, enjoying the temporary taste of aloneness that usually doesn’t exist under these conditions. Normally I’m running between wine racks and around food displays, chasing my two year old, who genuinely believes Whole Foods was created for hide and go seek. A simple visit for shampoo and milk can sometimes take more than an hour with her cheeky company. But not tonight.
As the clock ticks towards closing time, I wheel my cart in the direction of the check out lane to pay for my evening of solitary indulgence. An older woman greets me kindly.
Hello, she says.
And that was that, as the story goes.
And then this kid appears. This teenager, with scrappy hair and pale skin, just shows up out of nowhere to bag my groceries. He’s wearing a plaid shirt, baggy jeans and a sincere smile. He looks relaxed and eager almost simultaneously. And he smells like the middle class.
Hey man, he asks with measured enthusiasm. How’s it going?
I have learned how to dismiss these conversations with relative ease over the months since my baby died. In the beginning, when the dizzying shock was all there was, I’m not even sure I heard these kind of questions. I can hardly remember a single conversation with anyone in those first few weeks and months, let alone one with a complete stranger in a check out line. But as the months marched on, this kind of common social courtesy began ringing in my ear like a clanging drum. A friendly and casual how’s it going? from a stranger became a jovial sucker punch: HOW’S IT GOING!?!? ARE YOU HAVING AN AWESOME DAY!?!? I wanted to choke on the nicety. So I learned to ignore, or to respond with a muttered answer, or to simply avoid any situation where this kind of question might surface.
But tonight this sprightly chump has me, before I can even think one way or another. I just answer.
I’m good. How are you?
Pretty good man, he says, pretty good.
You’re putting a lot of items to the side, I note with a smile, remembering my own days in the bagging trenches. You trying to get them all in one bag?
Yes, he replies with an innocent grin.
I know that game. My first long term job was bagging groceries. I spent two years of my life playing tetris with food items, trying to find the perfect fit for each paper bag.
Yeah, he says through a chuckle. Cold stuff goes together, fragile stuff on top.
Exactly. The plastic bag people weren’t any fun though. You can’t organize anything in those bags. I guess you don’t have that problem here, eh? I’m surprised you guys even allow paper bags.
He laughs nervously and the checkout woman flashes me a smile, as if we’ve shared a little dig on her company. And there I am, laughing right along with them, like I enjoy these silly little chats.
And then with a hint of pride, as if he’s showing a veteran his immense talent, he hands me one individual paper bag, filled perfectly to the top with my produce and toothpaste and chips and everything else.
The magazine is down the side, he says with eyebrows raised, not wanting me to miss this little packing gem.
Nice one! I add excitedly.
It wasn’t until I walked out to my car that I even realized what had just taken place. Who was that in there, I thought to myself in a state of perplexity. Having conversations, laughing, using exclamation points - was that me? Did I really just say, nice one!? As I recalled the brief interchange, I could hardly believe it was real, as if I was watching someone else going through the motions of every day people.
I’ll tell you something though. The interaction felt like a minor fucking miracle. A brief sign that maybe this grief, which sometimes feels like a two-thousand pound bear sitting on my chest, is evolving, even in the slightest of ways. Because it’s not as if I forgot my baby was still dead in that moment. It’s not like I magically returned to my former self before my daughter died. She was there. My grief was there. As they always are, tucked and folded in to my very fabric. The truth is, we were all there together, having a pointless conversation about groceries. And it felt pretty okay.
How has your grief evolved over the months and years? Were there any signs that tipped you off to this evolution?