My grocery cart isn't nearly full enough today, but my heart is another story.
I've put off grocery shopping for about a week and a half now. A little over a year ago, I had no choice. When my mother was low on food, I had to replenish. There is no longer any urgency. My family can endure a few days of doing without. That's why God invented pizza.
Our weekly trips to the grocery store became central to my mother's existence. I'd pick her up for her doctor appointments—sometimes they would run late into the day—and her first question after the exams and whatever tests were over was always, "Can we go out for dinner?"
"We can go anywhere you'd like," I said, time and time again in the last year of her illness.
She'd give me her wish list and we'd head out for ice cream, or chili, sometimes hot dogs, and I savored every bite of those last meals.
During the weekend, I'd shop for my family, no big deal, but I always looked forward to the special day out with my mother. Grocery outings were really more of an event for her rather than a necessity. She was in an assisted living facility, and her room was just big enough for a bed, chair and television. Her personal refrigerator had two small shelves with a thin space for a freezer. At this stage in her life, food was all about keeping what little weight she had left on her bones—the fattier and more decadent the food, the better. She always had a childlike twinkle in her eyes when her doctor said, "Eat anything you want, Leonor."
And so we did. My mother and I shared a sweet tooth, so our first stop at the grocery would always be the bakery department. I'd slowly push her wheelchair past the counter, where we'd dutifully examine the baked goods on display. She'd point and marvel at the skilled handiwork like we were examining a tray of diamonds at a jewelry store. She was sitting at the perfect eye level to be tempted by the eclairs, apple fritters and caramel pie. Whenever she got excited and pointed to some delectable or another, I thought of when my children were little and we'd give them $10 to spend it on anything their hearts desired.
"Can I have the pie this time?" she'd ask me, as if she really didn't know the answer.
"Yes, mama," I said. "The doctor said you can have anything you want."
"The little cupcakes? How many of those can I have?"
"Let's try three. See how you like them."
"Will you eat them with me?" she'd ask. " With coffee?"
"Let's stop on the way home for cake and coffee, good?"
"I would love it!"
She always preferred the grocery store in my suburban neighborhood rather than the one near her facility. The cashiers used to joke about the number of jobs my husband and I must have to pay for our nonstop shopping runs. And I always imagined my grocery cart overflowing—with food and love.
I no longer have my mother to shop for. The shopping cart, only half full, rattles with the same emptiness that is in my heart. I hurry past the bakery section now, avoiding looking at the displays of decorated cookies and small cake squares. I'm sure they wouldn't taste the same.
The carts in my checkout line are spilling over with items for those at home waiting for the shopper's return. I hear my mother's fragile voice in my ear, telling me that we spent too much money on her. I hear myself tell her that it's a pleasure, that I can't think of anything more wonderful than being able to care for her. I remind her about our coffee stop on the way home. She pats my hand and thanks me, telling me I am so good and that she is so lucky.
I think of those days when I'd mentally plan out how long it would take to get my mother back home, how long for coffee, how long until she'd grow tired from the afternoon. At the end of the day, she'd always invite me to come back in and share a piece of pie.
My grocery receipt today won't be one the cashiers will be talking about. This shopping run won't take very long and I'll be on my way home soon. I feel a lump in my throat until I remember that I am the lucky one who had the means—and the honor—to care for the one who I loved and once cared for me.