Category Archives: Aging

33rd day of Lent. Why I’m Grateful I’m Not the Only One Paying Attention.

I did some shopping today at my local Trader Joe’s. I went in to pick up a couple of items. Odds and ends that I buy at there, as much because it’s a place where I know I’m likely to run into a friend and neighbor, as for the food itself. When I say “run into” I mean what I’m saying. Last week, moments after I spotted a friend, we collided. No one was harmed in the process. My friend was momentarily startled, until he saw me, at which point what happened made perfect sense.

I found the items I was looking for and made my way to one of the registers. What I saw there took me by surprise. The shopper in front of me was a mom with two elementary school-aged children, who looked to be about eight and ten. The kids weren’t standing with their mom. No. They were standing with the employee–who I’ll call Val–who was checking them out. Except, Val wasn’t checking them out. The kids were doing the much of that work. I watched as the younger boy handed his sister a bunch of banana’s. Val hit a button on the register and turned to the girl saying, “See the number on the banana’s? It’s 4011. Enter that number here.” “Can’t I scan them?” she’s asked. “We have to count them. Enter that number. Ok. How many are there?” “Six” the girl said. “Ok. That’s what you’re going to put in next.”

For me, there were multiple areas of wonder here. There were kids standing in Val’s space. This wasn’t a toddler seated in the buggy, these were kids who could easily get in the way. And yet the way Val integrated the kids into the process, it was as if it was something she does every day. I didn’t catch even the slightest hint that the children were distracting or bothering Val with their presence. She was fully present, and engaged in the reality she was experiencing. What’s more, it didn’t for a moment feel as if they were slowing down the line. I was witnessing some of the best customer service I’d ever seen.

I stepped out of line and caught the attention of one of the managers. “I have to tell you. What’s happening at the register over there”–and I described Val–“is what Starbucks calls Legendary Service. Your employee is involving her customers kids, is smiling, and isn’t missing a beat. She’s outstanding.” “Isn’t she?” The manager said. “The service she gives is consistently great. She’s someone I want new employees to learn from. Would you mind if I told her what you said?” “Please do.” We chatted for a few moments longer and then I got back in line, but at another register closer to where I was now standing. On my way out I noticed that Val had just finished checking out another customer. I could thank her myself. “Excuse me,” I said. “I just wanted to say, I watched the way you embraced your other customer and her kids. You were fantastic. The top of the bar for excellent customer service is about here.” I held my hand at my eye level. “What you were doing is way up here.” I reached my hand up as high as I could. The customer she’d just finished ringing up, smiled and nodded in agreement. “Thank you” Val said.

Leaving the store, I found myself behind an elderly woman slowly pushing her cart towards the exit. I saw no need to rush her, and walked patiently behind her. At a certain point, another woman pushed past me, and walked around the woman’s cart. She looked back at the woman, and asked her, “would it help if I pulled the cart for you?” “Oh yes,” she said. “Thank you.” As we passed through the outer door, she again asked, “If you want, I can walk you to your car?” “No thanks. A friend is waiting for me, but thank you.” The other woman smiled and left.

There are moments you catch other’s in. There are moments you seize. There are moments you miss completely. I’d just done all three. I let the miss with the elderly woman bother me for a short moment. I realized there isn’t any way I could have known that she needed help. My mother walks slowly. When I’m with my mom, I’m used to adjusting my pace. Still, what happened is a reminder that I only notice what I see, and what I see is only part of the picture. That’s why I’m grateful I’m not the only one paying attention.

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Everything Happens. A Thanksgiving Day Reflection.

Sh*t happens. Everything happens for a reason. These are two popular phrases that many use, and few combine. When anyone tries, the outrage is reflexive. Disease? Disaster? Death? Happening for X reason? That’s language of blame. We’re sensitive to blame, and the way it reveals our refusal to own the result of our actions.

It’s much easier for us to say that good things happen for a reason. There’s no outrage. We accept the relationship between the terms, and happily extend them. We say, “everything” while we mean only “good” things. There’s no blame, so there’s less resistance. Some folks like to say that a good result was “meant to be.” Good fortune is then gifted by God, or the kindness of another. I suppose that can be true. Still, along the way, I think we miss that when we say things like this, we’re absolving ourselves of the good fortune which can also result from our actions. Instead we’re giving it to a someone else, or higher power who has a “plan.” I wonder, why are we so unwilling to accept that we have the ability to make good choices ourselves?

My Dad is in the hospital. Last week he had an emergency quadruple bypass. He’d been at a used book sale, and found himself slumping and without energy. My mom, from her corner of the room they were in, saw that he was supporting himself by holding on to a post. He was sweating. He didn’t know what was going on. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening” he said later. He’d been feeling a dull pain in his chest for weeks. We’ve learned since that his arteries were 90% clogged. I shook my head when he told us he was trying to “figure out what was happening.” Of course he was. It’s his, there’s-an-over-the-counter-medicine-for-this, way that he has of problem solving health issues. It’s a way that he doesn’t make good decisions. Choices. A person makes hundreds each day. Most of them don’t make any difference in our lives or that of others. It’s not something we think about because there isn’t any need to. It’s simply part of living.

At the book sale, a volunteer staff person saw my dad slumping, and asked him if he wanted a glass of water. He accepted the offer. My parents were grateful for the moment of kindness. I’m not sure if anyone tried to help them after that. Further kindness at the book sale is not part of the story they’re telling. At this point, additional kindnesses are as likely to be details hidden behind the larger moments leading to his surgery, as they are of something which did not happen. It can be a challenge to offer help. We don’t want to offend. We’re convinced that we don’t know how. We are afraid that we’ll do the wrong thing. We think things like it’s not really our business to get involved, because who knows what the real situation is… The way those questions play in our mind? They’re the dark side of the wide Libertarian streak we’ve embraced. It’s not just government we don’t trust. We don’t know how to trust each other, or ourselves. These same things also make it difficult to ask for help when we need it.

Last night a friend said, “Bypass? I went through that with my dad in January.” Another, “my dad had a new ticker installed five years ago.” And, “mine had this done ten years ago.” In the last week, I’ve been amazed at the sheer number of people who have joined in, saying “me, and us, too.” As a friend put it on Facebook, “It’s not so much that we ‘like’ this status, as we ‘understand.'” For me, the chorus of these messages is another reminder that while we have a terrible habit of thinking that no one understands what we’re going through, we all move through the same kinds of things in life. Often these events, are exactly the same.

After drinking some water, my parents returned home. The next day they called my sister, who lives a few short blocks away from them. She called their doctor, and made sure he would see them on Monday. Monday’s visit to their GP led to a return on Tuesday for tests with a cardiologist. That doctor drove them to the hospital in his own car. In retrospect that may not have been the best choice–an ambulance being able to provide more support–but in the moment it was a decision that spoke to the urgency the situation required. From my sister, to my parents doctors, here were good decisions. We make them, too.

Today is Thanksgiving. The family is dining today in the hospital cafeteria. I’m a little anxious about that. It’s different. It’s also something that people do every year. We won’t be alone. Not in this, either. Another friend said, “Thanksgiving in a hospital with a sick relative? Been there. Done that.” For a brief moment I thought of asking, “Yes, but, how was the stuffing?” Then I remembered the most obvious thing. This day isn’t about the what of the meal. The work of service by those preparing and providing the food, will still take place. It’s not about the where of the meal either. Home isn’t about walls and a roof. Home is where ever you happen to be, with people you love. Today is a day for being together. A family gathers, and give thanks. In this, a life where everything happens.