He was bent nearly halfway over, leaning heavily from one piece of stationary furniture or shelf to the next for balance. But unlike me (in my impatient youth), he didn't seem bothered one bit by the necessity of taking his time. He stopped finally in front of the greeting cards, and stood there for a long while. He'd pick one up, turn it in his hands, and read it with his eyes slanted downward through his thick bifocals, eyebrows knitted together. Occasionally, one would make him chuckle...or look perplexed...or shake his head at a poorly rhymed message. But finally, he held one in his hands that made him smile a deep, warm smile. And a few seconds later, he was slowly maneuvering himself over to the register where I stood.
"That'll be $1.50," said the pallid, red-headed Emily who works there too. She's been volunteering there for a long time, and it seems to the task to her has become more matter-of-fact: a business transaction: a social duty. For me, working here is magic...I learn something new about life every day simply by breathing the same linoleum-carpet air as these people.
And this difference may have played a part in her refusal, a moment later, to let the man take the card without paying.
"I left my money in my room," he said. And I could tell from the desperate look on his face that he was telling the truth, his eyes betraying the angst he felt toward making another long, lumbering trip back through long hallways and up trying staircases.
"I'm sorry," she said as gently as possible, yet still sounding too cool somehow. "We can't let anyone take items from the store without paying. But we'll hold it here for you while you get your money, and it'll be here when you get back."
The old man thought for a moment. "But I need to address it. And I'll have to make a trip to get my money, then a trip to address it, then a trip back down here to mail it," he said.
I stepped in with a meager excuse for a suggestion. "How about you write down the address when you're upstairs, and bring it with you and your money when you come back. That's just one trip and you can get it all done." I smiled, trying to sell the 'convenience' of the idea. Sure enough, he nodded, set the card on the counter, and ambled out the door and back down the hallway.
Two hours later, the old man had not come back to purchase his card. When I brought this to Emily's attention, she said, "Oh..yeah. He has Alzheimer's, so he probably forgot about it." And even though to most people that wouldn't be a heartbreaking statement...forgetting to buy a greeting card...I felt near tears. Because my Grandfather had had Alzheimer's and it's a mean disease that takes the nearest and dearest things to your heart away from you first...your memories, your efforts to reach out to your family, your nostalgia, your "moments." I was sad because I knew the old man hadn't just forgotten about the card for a couple of hours, but that he wouldn't remember to come back and get it, ever. Not the next day, or the next. He had had one fleeting moment to decide to get that card and get it before he forgot, and we had taken it from him.
Emily told me to put it back, so I made my way over to the rack, where I intended to put it right in front...just in case he came back the next day and part of him recognized wanting to get this card. But before I could tuck the card neatly back among the others, I read it.
"Thinking about you is natural.
Thinking about you is fun.
Thinking about you is wonderful...
I've been thinking about you a ton."
Maybe it was for his son or daughter. Maybe it was for a lady down the hall he'd taken on a walk through the garden, in whom he'd found friendship...or a friend who'd fallen ill.
But my heart ached. Because if he was anything like Grandpa, he had wanted to get it for his wife and his best friend. Perhaps he'd intended to prop it up next to her crocheting needles, or stick it next to the coffee pot, or lay it beneath a perfume she used everyday...a brush fuzzy with strands of her gray hair. And perhaps, even, those hiding places were all that remained of his companion in the empty apartment. Perhaps that card would have sat there for days, weeks, months...and he'd be ever-waiting for her to find it, read it, and come grinning around the corner into the room where he was reading the paper to give him a kiss.
"I've been thinking about you a ton."
And we'd taken his moment.
(Photo by FinnTasia, via Flickr)