She was slowly wandering through the pharmacy section at Walmart. Her expression was blank. Not sad, not angry, not anything. Just tired.
It’s hard to say how old she was. Maybe 65, maybe 70? Who knows? It was about 50 degrees outside, but she was bundled as though it was below freezing. She seemed lost in her own little world.
Was she sick? Was she lonely? I couldn’t tell as we scanned the same shelves.
“They sure make it confusing to find what you’re looking for in here, don’t they?” I said, not sure whether she wanted to be friendly. She didn’t respond for a long moment.
“Yes, they do,” she said. She paused. “I don’t even remember what I’m here for now. I just don’t want to go home yet.”
She told me she lives alone. She has one daughter, but the daughter lives in California. She divorced years ago and has lived alone ever since. Her friends are dying and the ones left are in poor health.
She didn’t tell me any of this with a tone of self-pity. It was more like she was reciting her history. She was resigned to being alone. She had no laughter or life left in her.
Her heart seemed lonely.
I soon had nothing to say. I felt silly trying to continue to make small talk with her. She didn’t expect company or friendship or anything else. She just wanted to wander around in a store to avoid going home to an empty home.
I found what I was looking for and turned to leave. I told her to have a good night and I started walking away. I was halfway down the aisle when I heard her voice.
“Young man!” she called out.
I looked around and saw she was talking to me.
“Thank you for talking to me,” she said. She walked closer so she wouldn’t have to speak so loudly. “You might think I’m a silly old lady for saying that, but people don’t talk to me anymore. When I was young and pretty, men always talked to me. Now everyone just ignores me. You were sweet to me and I thank you.”
As I walked away, my mind played the chorus of a very old John Prine song called “Hello In There“:
Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
I also found myself thinking of a letter that was among my father’s papers when he died six months ago. It was a letter from my mother — maybe 15 years ago — after she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I have finally become resolved to this,” she wrote, “but my friends here refuse to believe I have Alzheimer’s. It feels as if small men are walking in my brain, but with God’s help, I’ll be all right.”
She knew that she was going to get worse and she knew it would take away her ability to know herself and the people around her.
“I have wished to see you and David before my brain gets to the vacant, staring look that comes toward the end,” she wrote.
My mother knew she was quickly losing who she was. She knew what was coming. I never did see her — or know what was going on. I didn’t even know she had died two years ago until six or eight months ago.
I’m not sure why seeing this woman — why didn’t I get her name? — made me think about my mother. Maybe this woman was a stand-in of sorts for my own mother. At least my mother had my two sisters in her life as her life reached the end, as far as I know, while this woman has no one. Something about my encounter with this woman makes me wish I could have seen my mother and talked to her before she reached the point she didn’t know anybody.
How is it that we can have people all around us, but we’re still lonely? Why are we more cut off from one another than ever?
I wish we were more willing to see a lonely stranger and say, “Hello in there. I’d like to talk with you.”
Note: My encounter with the woman tonight also reminded me of this song called “We All Get Lonely” from the Minnesota-based alternative/folk group Trampled By Turtles. I’ll include it below.