I couldn’t hear the brand requested but the cashier did not have it at hand. She maneuvered her corpulence with ease around the counter and then into the stockroom.
“Is that a bicycle or scooter helmet?” I asked as I stood in front of the beef jerky display. For just a moment she searched for where my voice came from and smiled when she found my inquiring eyes.
“Bicycle,” she said with some effort, as if her body was trying to catch up with her thoughts.
“Oh,” I replied, “I was just curious, it looked like it could be for a scooter. You’re one of a very few saving the world then.”
A light chuckle escaped her thin lips before they curved downward into a delicate frown.
“No nothing like that. I’m not allowed to drive. When I was twenty-one I was diagnosed with a brain tumor.”
I was thrown, not knowing what to say as I tried to express something that resembled sympathy.
She slipped her thumb and forefinger through her chinstrap and with a sharp snap she unclasped it. Cautious fingers lifted her helmet from her head. The hair that flowed at the brim of her helmet was all she had. In its place—a gray scalp and a mature white-marbled scar that scored her crown from one ear to the other.
“They cut from here to here,” she said. “I was five months pregnant at the time. When I woke up. She was gone. I lost my vision in this eye, and in the other I only have partial sight. After the surgery I had to learn everything again. I didn’t know how to walk, speak or brush my teeth. All that we take for granted had vanished in a moment. The doctors tell you the risks, but you never believe it will be you until it actually happens.” A pensive smirk twisted her face. “I’m sorry I don’t mean to be foolish. I only meant it’s been a journey.”
“No you’re not…I…”
Words failed me.
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable if I did.” She chuckled again trying to ease my concern.
“Are you okay now?” I asked.
“I’m alive. That’s got to count for something.”
As I looked at her I no longer saw her fragility. Before me wasn’t a withered person dealt an unfair hand, but a young woman vibrant and beautiful as if the years had fallen away.
Perhaps when we understand part of someone’s story and their pain we are given permission to see them in their true light—their true beauty.
She slipped her helmet back on as the cashier popped out from the backroom with the cigarette pack in hand.
I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t smoke, but surviving a brain tumor and rehabilitating herself from “adult” infancy to mobility again, and suffering such a profound loss, it wasn’t my place. She’d earned those smokes.
We said our goodbyes and I watched as she left. I turned to the cashier who was oblivious to the plight of the woman she had just sold cigarettes, but I was forever changed.
I never asked her name, nor did she inquire about mine. Sometimes names are unimportant. Sometimes it’s the story that matters.
I hope she is still out there, somewhere cranking her bicycle pedals and living a life far from her past.
Although this story was written in a fictionalized style, it is a true story. I met this incredible person on June 26th, 2009. Lo these years, I still think of her.
I’ll see you between the pages.