I started grocery shopping before I could drive. At eleven or twelve I considered myself a trainee-in-progress, strolling through the Family Mart with my own cart behind my mother and younger sister. Mom had recently been diagnosed with something called Multiple Sclerosis, and what little I knew about it meant that she would eventually have a hard time walking long distances, balancing and lifting things. She didn’t use a walker or cane yet, but the grocery cart seemed to stabilize her. The only outwardly telltale sign that anything had changed was the clear plastic brace rising from beneath her right foot. It had a Velcro strap around her calf; the contraption was designed to more effectively lift her heel to prevent the right toes from dragging and tripping her.
Although the diagnosis came in 1994, she’d had symptoms since the early 80’s— before we were even born. In a rare moment of disclosure, she once told me about an incident at the Leather Bottle, a now-defunct bar I later came to find out was located about twenty miles west of our city of Allen Park. She was dancing in platform shoes and lost feeling in her right foot, sending her off balance and crashing down to the floor. This scenario was difficult for me to grasp on many levels. I’d never seen my mother touch a drink in her life, let alone wear heels (especially platforms!) or frequent a dodgy-sounding bar. There was so much I’d yet to learn about my mother, and so much I would never have the chance to.
Unrelated to the MS (as far as we know), Mom had severe food allergies that started around the time she was twenty. The list of things she could eat had dwindled down over the years to a paltry few: red apples, plain turkey deli meat, wheat bread, margarine, potatoes, chicken, some read meat, Club crackers and carrots. No dairy, no greens, no chocolate or alcohol. She stuck to this regime until her passing at age sixty-four, some twenty-five years later.
You might think this a miserable existence; I certainly did (and, in my sassy, back-talking, turbulent teen years, found opportunities to tell her so). I didn’t understand why she would choose to live this way, eating the same items day in and day out, drinking nothing but water. Have a beer!, I’d say, exasperated that an adult with access to alcohol had no interest in enjoying it. The only allergic reaction I’d ever witnessed was when she ate something with onions and got a case of the hives in her throat. She’d doubled over, clutching her throat—it was constricting, she couldn’t breathe, she gasped. My father ultimately calmed her anxiety and the situation passed. Part of me didn’t think she had any allergies at all—that maybe they were mental fabrications her mind had tricked her body into believing. But why would this be so? Why would she choose to be so incredibly obstinate and depraved with the diet? Who would choose to be that stubborn?
As soon as I hit sixteen I was off to the store on my own, happy to be free, my first foray into adulthood and the independence I had craved since toddlerhood. (My mother would always say “Shannon has been very independent from a young age”.) Month after month, year after year, the same items plunked down into my cart, items that would become forever linked in my mind with my dear Mom, items we would buy, unpack, stock and restock, food we would feed her, bite by bite, cutting carrots and apples and chicken into small bites she wouldn’t choke on.
New emotions arise during this level of closeness with the person who raised you. You have become their provider and protector, making sure they eat safely, drink enough liquids, toilet frequently and stay dry. You are familiar with the most intimate parts of their routine; you know exactly how they like their hair styled, which sweater to pick out when the first hint of autumn blows in, and how they like their covers situated. I suspect that more than a lot of things, it’s daily objects such as this that affect us most. We have annual events, sure—birthday parties, the fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and the holiday season. Many people struggle with this. But these little pieces of our lives—the toothpaste he liked, the lipstick shade she wore, the Yankee candle scent she loved—they just might be the hardest to face, all those years later.
This is the point where people break down, and what I’ve learned is simple: you can’t give up. You can’t not go to the grocery store, or the park you used to push her to, or the CVS where you’d pick up her list for the week. You can’t not use that toothpaste, or the mouthwash she loved, or the brand of toilet paper she preferred. You can’t not buy baby carrots at the grocery store because then what? No Club crackers either? No red apples? No meat? No going to the grocery store in the first place? No leaving the house? No remembering her at all? You can’t cancel out all of the things that remind you of them.
It's taken me the better part of four years to get through certain grocery aisles without tearing up. I progressed slowly over time, allowing myself to feel the feelings, to let the memories flood in, and to remind myself that she lived a good life with people she loved.
You can’t not buy baby carrots because they remind you of her. Little by little, I’m learning to accept that.