I stopped by Walgreens recently for a bottle of water and found myself in the toy section. I always end up there, even if I’m not shopping for toys. I can spend hours looking at toys, turning on toys that make noise and bouncing balls. I’m a kid at heart, no doubt. While I pushed my cart with one lone bottle of water in it down the aisle, I noticed an elderly couple also looking at toys.
The gentleman was wearing brown pants like my dad used to wear, the kind that look like they should be part of a uniform. He must have been close to 85 years old, with an almost-bald head and little swatches of white hair keeping the tops of his ears warm.
He was pushing a lady in a wheelchair, and she looked to be in her mid-80s as well. She had short, curly white hair and wore the kind of glasses that make your eyes look huge. On her lap was a warm, flannel blanket.
The old man was showing her various toys and demonstrating how they worked or reading the description to her. No matter what he picked up to show her, her expression didn’t change. She stared blankly at him and said nothing. That didn’t stop him from pushing her down the aisle and stopping along the way to show her toys and talk to her in his gentle voice. It occurred to me that she probably has Alzheimer’s or some sort of dementia.
I felt so drawn to this couple. I am missing my own mom and dad so much, just like I always do this time of year. I swear it took everything I had to stop myself from walking up and giving them both a hug. Of course, I didn’t, because you know, I didn’t want to spend New Year’s in jail. I did stalk them a bit though. I stayed behind them in the toy section and watched them while I pretended to look at toys.
I noticed the man touch his wife’s shoulder and pat her hand from time to time. I watched his face as he talked to her. The mixture of love and sadness in his eyes reached in, squeezed my heart and brought tears to my eyes.
I watched as he showed her cars, games and little stuffed animals. She looked at them and looked at him, but still her expression didn’t change and she said nothing.
Suddenly everything changed when he picked up a baby doll and showed it to the sweet, little grandma.
Her face immediately lit up, and she smiled. She lifted up one feeble, thin hand and he handed her the baby. It was one of those little newborn baby dolls with a sweet baby face and a little blue hat on his head. The lady gently took the doll and held it close to her, rocking it a few times. She lovingly touched the baby’s face and straightened the hat with her arthritic fingers.
She pulled up the blanket on her lap and gathered it around the baby doll, as if to make sure it wasn’t cold. I know that she thought the baby was real. As I glanced at the man, I saw him looking at her tenderly and smiling sadly. It was enough to shatter my heart into a million pieces.
I thought about my own mom and how helpless and sad I felt when she succumbed to dementia at the end of her life. I remember looking into her blank eyes and wishing there was some way to reach her.
I thought about the night a few days before she died. My son and I went to visit her in the nursing home, and I was struggling so much trying to deal with it all. Tears slid down my cheeks as I touched my mom’s hand. I begged her to come back to me.
“Mommy, please just tell me everything is going to be OK. Please, please, Mommy,” I said through my tears.
I looked up over my mom’s head into my son’s eyes, and I felt so helpless. As I turned my gaze back to my mom, her expression changed, and her eyes became clear.
“Everything will be OK, Sissy,” she said.
As quickly as she came, she left again, but I have thanked God for that moment, many, many times.
I stayed with the old couple, pushing my cart a little distance behind them, until they were done with their shopping. The lady cradled the baby doll the whole time, looking lovingly at it in her arms. The gentleman chose a few toys and held them in one arm as he pushed his wife’s wheelchair toward the checkout with the other.
I caught his eye at one point. I smiled my best smile of support and understanding. He nodded his head and smiled back.
Linell Hoffmann of Chowchilla is an account executive at KMJ Radio in Fresno. She can be reached on Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.