I think we all suffer from preconceived notions of people and things in our lives and how we deal with it can be surprising and perhaps even illuminating. We’re all subject to stereotyping, consciously or subconsciously and depending on our life experiences, we overcome such notions and learn as we go.
That doesn’t mean that we all won’t experience a rude awakening or two.
Recently, as I waited for a prescription to be filled at my local CVS pharmacy, I had a profound moment. Not sure if “profound” is even the right term here. Unsettling? Maybe.
When I think of the elderly, I’ve this vision in my head of aging couples navigating their golden years together, chins up, arm in arm, of shared memories, joys and heartache that have bonded them against the ravages of time.
I think of that image, of the ideal grandparents doting on each other and their grandchildren and understanding smiles passed between them born on a foundation of love, tolerance and enduring respect.
But what do I know?
Waiting for my name to be called, I wandered the aisle, eyeing cold remedies I hoped I would not need, gazing at greeting cards that were either humorous, trite or absurd and shaking my head at Halloween items up for display, even though it was the beginning of August.
Turning a corner, my eyes fell on an elderly couple, likely in their early 80s: The husband was tall and lanky, his hair closely cropped and grey. He wore corduroys and a red flannel shirt, even though the day was particularly warm and muggy. His gate was slow and unsteady and he gripped a metal walker as he made his way. Behind horn-rimmed, squared-off glasses, there was a look of determination and I suspect that he was making the best of coping with a debilitating stroke. His wife, at his side, was well coiffed and using a cane, her hair gun-metal blue and recently styled. Together, they were the ideal picture, the principle characters from a Norman Rockwell magazine cover of Americana and the subtleties and poignancy of life.
I was about to pass them and offer a smile until I found myself in range of their exchange.
“Burt, do you think you can fucking pick up the pace a little here. I don’t want to spend the whole God-damned day in this place. I have a shitload of things to do and this isn’t helping any.” I stopped cold and may even have taken a few steps back.
Burt shuffled forward, a half-step at a time, and I wasn’t quite sure if the grimace on his face was from the effort of moving forward or the tongue-lashing from his wife.
“You’re a fucking cross, Burt, you always were and you’ll always be. I don’t know how or why I put up with it and shit on me, Burt, shit on me for having to live with it.”
He stopped, took in a deep breath and glanced down at his petulant mate.
“Agnes, I don’t know why … ” he began, but she cut him off with a wave of her cane.
“Don’t say a fucking word, Burt. Not a fucking word.” She stopped and took in a laundry detergent display, paying attention to the sale price.
“Let’s get your prescriptions and then we’re going to fucking leave.” She glance down at his pace. “Hopefully, some fucking time today.”
I backed off and turned, rounding the aisle corner, all the more overwhelmed by the pair. I think I’ve heard more tender exchanges between tattooed and tipsy couples at a biker bar. I couldn’t understand if Agnes was oblivious to those within earshot of if she just couldn’t have cared less. Was her tact tied to dementia with a dose of bitterness, resentment and frustration? I’d witnessed enough.
Later at home, I told my wife about the exchange and my thoughts, unnerving as they were. In our kitchen as she rinsed out a coffee cup, she was silent for a moment.
“I never want to get that old. And if I start losing it, just shoot me.”
“If we ever get that old, ” I replied, taking her damp hand in mine, “hopefully we’ll have something more to fall back on.”
“Yeah, I think.
“We won’t if you don’t let me finish the dishes. And you start dinner.”