It was one of those unusual days that turned into an unusual night.
Work was hectic. I was getting geared up to travel in a few days. I was attending an in-town conference that included networking dinners.
And the grocery shopping still needed to happen.
So there I am at Kroger at 9:30 on a Friday night, nodding my head to “Name” by the Goo Goo Dolls, which I find oddly comforting. It takes me back to a world where my chief concerns were learning how to write a thesis statement and whether or not that boy in geometry would ever want to talk to me about more than just my homework answers.
Then, I groan as I put it all together. I’ve entered the phase of my life when I’m part of the most heavily marketed demographic for advertisers: young mothers.
I load the cart with the fruit collection (apples, pears, oranges, bananas, and berries of all kinds), the veggie collection (broccoli, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes), a bunch of food from the “hippie section” because my husband is allergic to X, Y, and Z, then I swing by the health and beauty section to pick up travel size contact solution.
I’m tired. I’ve been getting up at 5:00 a.m. so I can work out before the day begins rather than coming home luxuriously at 3:00 p.m. to exercise before I pick up my daughter from daycare. My FitBit reads 11, 534, 11,355, 11, 536.
As I draw near the checkout lanes, a lady turns her register’s light on and beckons me. Her short hair tapers and ends against her neck, just barely brushing her collar. She adjusts her dark-rimmed glasses and starts sorting my groceries. Even though it’s late, she still rapidly types in the codes of all my produce–from memory of course.
“And are you having a fantastic night?” she chirps.
I roll my eyes. “I mean, where else would I rather be?” I joke.
She laughs. “Well, at least it will be over soon.”
“I can’t wait. This day just keeps going and going…”
We laugh together, but then I instantly feel the need to dial back my complaining. I wonder how many hours she has been on her feet today. I remember how hard all those hours of cashiering at Target were on me–and I had a teenage body during those years.
“What about you?” I ask. “When do you get off?”
“I’m off at 11:00,” she smiles, “And then I’ll get a good six hours before I get up and go to the nursing home.”
She tells me that she has been volunteering at a nursing home in downtown Dayton for the last twenty years, mostly as a companion. She even brings her daughter, who is now in high school.
“It’s hard sometimes, you know…” she says, “When you get to know the residents, all about their lives and their families. Nothing really prepares you for when they transition.”
I nod along as she talks, until she gets to that word, transition.
I know what she means, of course, but I’m struck by the word. I’ve never heard of someone refer to death in this way. But she keeps on going as if what she has just said is completely mainstream. She talks a little more, but I’m still stuck on how she has framed the concept of death.
We say good-bye to each other and I look down at her name tag.
It says Sway.
After four days at the TESOL 2016 Convention in Baltimore, Maryland, I’m sitting in the airport with three of my colleagues, all of us eager to get back to our normal lives.
As I’m sitting at the gate waiting for my plane, I flip through four days of notes and start to make lists of things to do, things to read, and things to consider. A complete distillation of what I’ve learned in the past four days–at least as much as I can manage before my memories fade too much.
But then I hear applause.
And then more applause.
And then more applause.
I stand up to see if I can figure out what’s going on. I see a few American flags and I think, Oh, some soldiers are coming home. That’s sweet.
I go back to my notes. But then there’s more applause. And more. And more.
A crowd gathers.
“What is going on over there?” I ask my colleague, Olena.
“Just go and see, if you want.”
As I draw near the gathering crowd, I see that a few hundred people have gathered around a gate and a line of formally attired soldiers are each shaking hands with an old man who is being pushed in a wheelchair.
I think I understand, but I want to make sure. I ask a stranger next to me.
“It’s an honor flight,” she says. “For World War II veterans.”
One by one, about forty veterans travel down this corridor of applause, as these young soldiers reach out to shake their hands. People cheer and applaud. They take video and pictures. One of the veterans buries his head in his hands and the audience responds with even more cheers.
It takes time and a lot of corralling, but the lead organizer of the honor flight manages to take a group picture.
Photo taken by Nathan Erhardt
Sunday afternoon. Back at the grocery store. Since we only need to get a few small items, I let my daughter push the just-right-for-her-size kid’s cart through the maze of Sunday afternoon shoppers. I leave a hand on the edge of the cart to make sure she doesn’t plow over someone else’s foot by accident.
When we finally approach the registers, I fall into a line that is three customers deep, which seems to be typical for this time of day.
The line advances. And that’s when I see Sway.
She smiles when she sees me. I tell her that I just got back from my trip and she asks how it went. I tell her about the honor flight and the World War II veterans and her face lights up.
“It’s funny,” I say. “I was hoping that I could tell you about it and here you are.”
“Well, it makes sense,” she says. “It’s all connected.”
I turn this idea over and over again on the way home.