Last Monday, after picking my son up from his first day of baseball camp, I noticed he was tired. I’d bought him new shoes for camp but that morning, he’d forgotten to use his new shoes and instead used his old shoes, which were pretty worn out. He said his feet hurt and I immediately felt a pang in my heart – both for his pain and for the pain of insecurity I felt in that moment as a mother. Why didn’t I double-check the shoes he was wearing that morning?
I’ve talked with a good number of other parents who feel insecure in moments like this. There seems to be an endless supply of moments in which we are given the opportunity to second-guess our decisions as we are continually learning to how to better parent our evolving offspring.
I let my own insecurities go for the time being and focused on what my son might be feeling after a long day. We had to go to the grocery store before going home and I thought, let’s get in, get a few things and get out. I’ll make dinner, he can watch a show and afterwards, we’ll read from this series we both love and, then, I’ll put him to bed.
As we’re perusing the aisles, I start to notice frustrations in other people. It felt like a case of the Mondays as I’ve heard some people call it. People who seemed tired, not wanting to be navigating aisles with a cart after a long first day of the week.
It also felt like a heaviness – a kind of fatigue mixed with a low rumbling anger. A “sick-of-this” feeling. Whether it was work, home, family or politics – people seemed passively angry.
I’ve faced a lot of anger, a lot of fatigue and a lot of heaviness in my life. I believe the way through it is to face it, because through facing it you learn more about yourself and you grow. And, I’ve learned in facing these things the best way through them is with compassion. Compassion is like the butter of the spirit. It helps it move.
Back in the store, we’re navigating through, trying to be mindful of the people around us. I’m also trying to keep a certain level of levity between my son and I because I can tell he can feel the fatigue, anger and heaviness, too. Since coming in, he’s quieter. He seems to be getting embarrassed a bit more easily. He’s not as easy-flowing as he normally is.
We get in one of the long lines to check out and realize that they all are extending into the aisles. Standing in line, people are quiet and their faces looked pained. Not smiling, but absent yet present – in a painful way. The lines are slow moving. Large carts are trying to get through, between the aisles and the counters. Holes in lines are form between counter and aisle which make it confusing as to who is in line and who might be just passing through.
A woman, older, in her early sixties maybe, steps in front of us. She’s carrying a box with food. She looks tired and overwhelmed. At first I don’t’ think she understands where the lines are, so I gently say, “Excuse me…ma’am? This line ends back here (pointing behind me).” She looks directly in my eyes and I realize, she’s tired of holding that box. I know how painful it can be to hold a heavy box. Maybe she has arthritis like me, or maybe her arms are just tired. Either way, I immediately offer to let her put her box in my cart.
As I’m asking this, I realize that she probably has a box because she didn’t have a quarter. We are at a grocery store chain that requires a quarter to be able to use a cart. You get the quarter back when you return the cart but you need a quarter to get one. She must not have had a quarter. Putting her box in my cart, I felt how heavy it was. She had a few gallons of liquid – juice and tea, some cans of vegetables and a bag of rice. I would have been tired, too!
She doesn’t speak much English but with her eyes says, thank you. We wait in line with her a bit behind us, not sure where to go, as she’s technically at the end of the line but her food is with us. I realize this after a few moments and invite her to go ahead of us. It’s not a big deal.
I notice the faces of the some of the people around me lighten. I remember this one woman, she looked like she was within five years of my age. When I first got in line, she had this city, stone-cold, don’t mess-with-me woman-look, which I understand and recognized. I’ve lived in cities for four years as a single woman. A smaller single woman at that. You’ve got to have a don’t mess with me face. It makes me sad that many of us feel like we have to wear that mask, but we all wear masks. It’s part of the world we live in. For now.
After the interaction with the older woman, the younger woman’s face softened. She wasn’t as cold. She had a small smile on her face when I looked in her direction. I shot a small smile back.
We moved through the line, from the aisle past the gap and closer to the counter. In the store, we stumbled across a football for a good price and I said we could get it. My son’s face is drained. He’s ready to eat and relax. We start talking about football and baseball to pass the time in line.
In a moment, I hear a loud man’s voice in the aisle next to us. I look over and he’s an older man with a cane, who looks like he’s trying to eclipse the cart of a young woman in her twenties to get ahead in line. She responds, fast and angry – speaking too fast for me to really understand what she’s saying, although, I’m quickly putting the pieces together.
The situation escalates into a very heated argument. They are both holding their ground. The older man is digging his cane into the ground, refusing to move. The younger woman is shocked - almost flabbergasted she’s so angry.
In her voice, I hear the voice of a woman who feels like she’s being taken for granted. Her voice is heated, hot like electric gas shooting from her mouth. The man is stagnant and defiant. Indignantly standing firm. The argument becomes very uncomfortable, for everyone around.
I look at Una. He’s feeling it all, just like me. I look into his eyes and see, from a place deep down, him asking me to comfort him. He’d never admit this. In fact, in my experience, when children are scared and want comfort, they don’t ask for it. They push you away, eyeing you the whole time to see if you’ll really deliver. My situation with my son – sharing him between with a different household in a different state for much of his life – has fostered many opportunities to really deliver the things my son needs from me. Sometimes, he needs to know that I’m there, which is why we have talked nearly every day he was not with me. Sometimes, he needs to know that I hear him, which is why I listen, most especially when he tells me he’s in pain or sad. Sometimes, he just needs me to hold him, for the times he wanted me to and I wasn’t there. Every time, I meet him. Because meeting his needs is everything to me.
I know he’s hungry. And, I know he knows I’m going to try to comfort him. We’re having tacos for dinner – something he’s been excited about. I look over the ingredients we have in the cart. I’ve made tacos for him before and knew he liked simple tacos the best. Meat, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese. But, to distract him, I ask him in a quiet voice, encouraging him to pay attention, what he wants on his tacos. We start talking about dinner, and what show he might watch when he gets home.
The argument in the line over gets louder but instead of trying to pretend it’s not happening, I stop talking. It’s loud, you can’t deny it. My son tenses up, I tense up. I look around and people are tensing up around us.
I’m disheartened in that moment.
My son just moved from half-way across the country to live with me for his 6th grade school year. I’ve been working towards this for years. I moved to D.C. specifically to be able to support him for this move.
Facing this anger, this fatigue, this conflict – I thought, what if he says he doesn’t want to live here in this city? He’s seeing the anger – the same anger I felt when I first moved here. Then I thought, why do I want to live here?
But then, I caught myself. I said, wait a minute Aaluk, it’s not just here. It’s everywhere. People all over America are frustrated and tired. What you’re seeing here, is everywhere. It’s a lack of understanding in emotional awareness and intelligence. We don’t live in a society that teaches children, and adults, how to handle this kind of thing. We used to. But now, most people just avoid conflict, anger and fear. And as a result, when difficult things present themselves, people react without practice. Without wisdom. It scares them because they don’t understand it. It scares me sometimes, too.
I heard the man say, “You’re acting like you haven’t eaten today – you definitely haven’t eaten.” This comment drips with sexism in a way everyone hears. In a moment, everything is more tense. I slowly look around the room at the faces of the people closest to me. They look tight, tired and frustrated. I could feel the collective groan as people realized that by standing in line for their groceries they were forced into facing these very things: conflict, anger and fear.
I look back at my son, catch his eyes and give him a special smile – one he knows means I love you. His face softens, he knows I’m here.
In that smile, I realize not only that I can’t shield him from this, I can’t shield myself from this. The world is full of uncomfortable situations. Of anger, fatigue, sadness and conflict. No one wants to see it more than we have to and certainly not in a grocery store after a long day. We also don’t have control over what happens around us. But, we do have control over how we react.
The argument continues. I worry someone might say something and make it worse.
But, people hold steady.
They are pissed, they are tired, but no one erupts. I’m surprised, in a good way. It galvanizes something I inherently believe: that if encouraged to face our demons, we will always choose strength, compassion, courage and love. Even in moments where all that takes, is to hold steady until a challenging moment passes.
I’ve always said my son is my best teacher. Because he inspires me to grow in the ways he needs me to. These ways are always more patient. Always more compassionate. Always with more wisdom.
As a mother, what he needs is my highest priority. What he needs is my biggest calling, my most important endeavor. He is a part of me in the most fundamental ways.
Yet, I am also my own person. And, through learning to be, grow and live as the person he needs me to be, I have become who I’m meant to be.
The argument subsided as quickly as it started and we went home. On the way home I told him we needed to talk about what happened in the grocery store – either now or later. He said now. I had so much to say about what happened but remembered, he was tired and that was a tiring event itself.
I simply said, “Sometimes people get upset and they don’t know how to deal with their emotions. You will likely encounter this in life. That’s why it’s important to face your fears, your anger and your sadness. Because when you face those parts of you, when they are triggered, like they might have been in that grocery store, you know how best to respond and comfort yourself. The world isn’t an easy place but you can create a place within yourself that is happy, that is safe.” He didn’t say anything but I felt like he heard me.
The rest of the night was good. He watched a show while I cooked tacos. We read from our book and he went to bed.
Falling asleep that night, I smiled. Recognizing the perfection in what the universe put before me that day. I’m not sure I would have responded in the ways I did if my son, my best teacher (and student), wasn’t there to ask those responses of me.
We are all many things. My son, brings out the best in me. He reminds me that nothing is separate. That we are all connected. He asks of me, through his very existence, to show him how best to navigate, learn from and grow in this world. And for that, I am eternally grateful.