Christmas Eve, and I was stuck in my car at the traffic light with a bunch of other crabby last minute shoppers, all of us likely frenetic and pissed we hadn’t checked off the last items on our list like those rare ultra-organized people who do their Christmas shopping in March. I heard the car horns begin to beep the second the traffic light turned green, and that’s when I saw her. Crossing against the light was an elderly lady who was hunched over with her head down, carrying two heavy grocery bags in either hand.
To give the other motorists credit, all the cars waited patiently despite the fact the light turned from green to red by the time the lady got to safety.
I hit the gas and jockeyed for a position in the passing lane when something tugged at my gut. The universe planted a cliché right across my path, a little old lady crossing the street, and while everyone was polite enough to wait for her to get to the other side of the road, no one bothered to help her the rest of the way, including myself.
I realized my guilt wouldn’t ease if I didn’t turn around, so I made a U-turn in her direction. After two more red lights and an equal amount of clogged traffic, I turned onto the residential road where I saw the woman last. Despite looking frail and stooped, she had forged on and was nearly at the end of the road when I spotted her. The woman’s head was down, and she was walking in the center of the street still lugging the grocery bags.
I slowed to a stop, rolled down my window and asked if I could give her a ride. She politely declined, and I wondered if she had warned her own children to never take a ride from a stranger. I wanted to prove I wasn’t some nut trying to steal her purse, so I got out of my car and offered to carry her bags and walk her the rest of the way if she preferred not to take a ride.
As I got closer, I could see the woman was probably in her eighties, but despite her age, she looked confident and suspicious of the stranger approaching her. She explained she gave up driving because of her failing vision, and the trek to the grocery store was her regular routine. No matter how many times I offered to help, she declined.
I looked back at the woman, who was proud and determined and wouldn’t let her age or her body limit her independence or her journey. As the two of us stood there in the center of the road, I realized something about myself. My attempted act of kindness was in part a way to make up for my own failures.
I was surprised when I heard myself tell the stranger my mother had died two years earlier, and how I had worried in my mother’s last years that no one would stop to help her if she needed it when she still lived independently. The older woman looked at me patiently as I played through the memories in my own mind of my frustration and silent anger I often carried toward my mother as her caregiver in the early days when she transitioned from the lovely, gentle person I knew to a confused, addled woman with Alzheimer’s and how my mother died before my plane landed in my failed attempt to see her one last time.
The elderly woman broke the silence and assured me many people probably helped my mother when I wasn’t there for her.
“I’m fine now to walk the rest of the way by myself,” she said. “Your asking to help me was as good as doing. Merry Christmas.”
The elderly woman picked up her grocery bags and continued toward her home, still walking in the middle of the street, sure of her destination, and firm in her belief she could make it all by herself.
I got back in my car and watched the woman until she got to her doorway. I knew she had given me much more than I had hoped to give her.