On my last trip abroad I tried an experiment. I’d read an article about how face masks can reduce jet-lag. Breathing moist air means staying more hydrated, and I’m less likely to feel terrible after travel. So on this 13-hour flight I wore my mask pretty much the entire time. Whether it was the excitement of landing in a new country, or the mask actually working, I was perky after only a day and a half of feeling rough. Amazing. The second half of my experiment? Not wearing the mask on the flight back home. Big mistake. And four days later, when I was still feeling groggy, grumpy and grody, a quick trip for supplies nearly tipped me over the edge of my sanity-cliff. Some people seem to head to grocery store food isles for companionship, conversation and even love. I’m not one of those.

At the top of my to-buy list was any kind of pick me up ‘shot’ or immune booster. (What I eventually settled-on was an eye-watering, nose-running, cough-spluttering combo of really hot fresh ginger, turmeric, black pepper. With exotic berries I’d never heard of.) As I struggled to read the tiny print on the tiny Alice in Wonderland bottles (psychedelic labels being part of the appeal, for sure), I felt a person edging into my space. I instinctively scooted out of her path, just as the woman began talking. To my back.

Her words flowed fast; her vibe was anxious. She was for-sure unaware of my zero-capacity to process speech. But that took just too much effort to explain to her. So I turned, smiled, nodded, and tried to move on. But she kept talking, and some of what she was babbling (hurtful, I know) began to pierce my mental fog. This gal seemed to to know a lot about those little super-shots and had tried most of them. I engaged. But as soon as I did, the convo. leap-frogged to her relationships and emotional trauma related to several major life-events. Which led her to, she said, a complete mental and physical breakdown. Oh. My. God in Heaven.

For some reason — it doesn’t feel worthwhile to analyze why — this happens to me a lot. I’m in a store. Any store. Someone wants to know, “Does this melon smell ripe to you?” “Does this dress look good on me?” “Do you know anything about the benefits of celery juice?” This last query came from grocery-store-woman yesterday. But instead of feeling my normal urge to get away before I’m sucked-in, I felt lulled by the woman’s sad story; almost like an ASMR experience. Her words just kept spooling out as I kept reading tiny bottle labels. Choose me! they all seemed to say.

In the last five years, this woman endured… flying 2,000 miles to support a niece through rehab for her addictions (the niece then OD’d anyway); providing care to her mother-in-law as she was dying from breast cancer; taking-in her brother and his wife when he lost his job; losing another brother to alcoholism; and coping with the death of an aunt who meant more to her (she said) than her own mother. During the grief and recovery process, she’d been on more meds than sounded humanly possible, or humanely healthy. She was determined to kick the pills and start juicing. I felt ready to start day-drinking. Seriously. No wonder this poor soul had had a breakdown.

Now it really was time for me to try to edge – gently and tactfully – away from this encounter. I wished her luck and grabbed my little bottle. Walking away I almost immediately flashed-back to care-providing for my father. How it wore me down to a similar physical, mental, emotional and spiritual nub. I really couldn’t imagine going through a succession of caregiving demands. Love is strong. Love is the greatest power on earth;  but we are fragile systems, often unaware and unable to realize when our breaking point is near. Love allows us to endure unimaginable hardship without a thought for our own welfare; love blinds us to any and all things that are not a part of our impulse to care, to sacrifice, to find strength when strength is gone.

I was glad, suddenly, that I was there yesterday in that store isle. The woman who’d unburdened herself to me didn’t know I had a minimally-functioning brain. It didn’t matter. She talked. I listened. She needed connection; I happened to be there. Intimate strangers? An oddly powerful sensation. I drove home thinking about her strength, her bravery, and about the things we do for Love.

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