While waiting at the pharmacy for my pain medication (a way to deal with fibromyalgia) a Hispanic man hobbled up with his three young children in tow. His feet were turned out as he walked and it appeared that his hip joints didn’t quite rotate correctly, so walking looked painful. His children, a young girl about eight, and two sons, around five and six, appeared well behaved, but curious. When the father was busy talking with the clerk at the counter, the middle boy saw the free blood pressure monitor in the corner and quickly grabbed the chair attached to the machine and slid his little arm inside the plastic sleeve. He never figured out he needed to press the button to make it work, but to him it didn’t seem to matter; just the experience of sitting in the chair with his arm inside the cuff was enough to make his eyes dance with delight.
Dad was busy talking with the woman at the counter, unaware of his children for short time. I wondered what he would say or do if he knew what his son was doing. My memory shot back to a similar episode I’d witnessed where a mother scolded her daughter and pulled her away from the machine as if somehow she would break it. When the boy saw that his dad was done at the counter he quickly pulled his arm out and sat quietly, making me think maybe dad would not have approved.
The man turned around and hobbled over to the chair next to me and with great difficulty, lowered his hips onto the seat – an action that turned his otherwise smooth forehead into a wrinkled mess of pain. As he exhaled the lines disappeared.
Then a very tall, straight-backed elderly man hobbled up with the aid of a cane. He looked proud and refused two offers to let him cut in line. To the first offer, he said, “oh no, I’m in no hurry, I’ll wait in line.” The second offer came from a woman who a few minutes earlier had seemed in a great hurry, but seeing the man struggling to walk even with a cane, brought out the best in her. But he refused her offer also, saying, “No, no, I’ll wait, I have all night. I’m sure you have to get home to fix dinner for your kids and other chores to do, but I have nowhere to go.” Then he carefully and proudly scooted around the others in line and took his place at the end.
My attention returned to the Hispanic man and his children. The oldest girl watched the old man with the cane intently. She looked him up and down, stared at his legs, looked at his face then glanced at her father. I wondered what she was thinking. Was she wondering why her dad didn’t use a cane, or if maybe she thought that only older people use such crutches and young men like her father needed to appear stronger and using a cane would make him look weak?
I wondered what this little family’s story was. He spoke to his children in Spanish, but he knew enough English to converse with the clerk without a problem. I overheard part of the conversation at the counter, and it appeared that he did have insurance to cover whatever prescription he was picking up – which made me happy. I could tell he was a firm, but loving man, who fought through all his pain so he could provide for his family. I imagined him as a migrant farm worker out in the fields bent over hour after hour, day after day, and probably year after year, picking crops to send to market so those of us who sit in our comfy homes, cubicles or offices can have fresh produce to strengthen our bones and nourish our bodies. I wondered if that’s what crippled him, or was it a congenital defect he was born with?
Suddenly I felt guilty about the pain medication I was picking up. I wondered if the achiness I feel all the time is because of my relatively sedentary lifestyle, and if I changed places with this young father, perhaps my need for pain relief would disappear. Briefly I imagined myself following him outside after our business at the pharmacy was done, and giving him my bottle and saying, ‘here you need this more than I do.’ Of course, I realized I couldn’t do that – it would be illegal giving a stranger a prescription that had been written specifically for me. Illegal, I thought. Then I wondered if he was here legally. I stopped myself. Why should it matter? Why did I even have to think that? His children were clean, well dressed in what may or may not have been hand-me-down clothes, and they were well behaved, curious, and respectful. By all appearances he was a hard worker and a good father. I wondered about the mother – was she in the picture?
A trip to the pharmacy ended up being a trip deeper into my soul. A journey which raised questions about my own life, my pain, both physical and emotional, and my judgments about those around me with different life experiences than my own. My own heart wanted to write this man’s story, and the story of the elderly man with the cane, who seemed to have nowhere to go and no one to get back home to. I wanted to think their lives outside this pharmacy were happy, healthy, and as nurturing as they seemed to be to others. I will never know for certain. But something inside me says that just like an iceberg, the tiny part of these men I got to witness, hides a much larger story deep below the surface. A young immigrant struggling against all odds to create a better life for his family despite a crippling disability, and a tall proud and semi crippled, elderly man, probably a veteran from one of the many wars our nation has fought, living parallel lives of pain, both seen and unseen.
I wonder what we can do to help ensure that despite physical hardships, their stories add to the collective joy of our society rather than the divide and heartache that comes with old age, pain and borders. Perhaps I’ll throw my pain medication away and see where the pain takes me. Empathy can activate our spirits and can be used as a powerful tool for understanding those whose life experience differs from our own. Without feeling our deeper spiritual connection to others, life will always remain an us-against-them experience.