Senior Shopping in a Pandemic

I drive slowly from my home toward the exit of our retirement community, observing the 15 mile an hour speed limit.  For a fleeting moment after pulling out of the garage, I consider keeping my headlights turned off, thinking that I might make a secret escape.  The management has asked us not to leave campus to minimize the likelihood that we will return carrying the coronavirus.  Though I am committed to following their request (no, their plea) in the future, I’m risking one last trip to the grocery store to get a few things that yesterday’s delivery service could not provide.

It’s 5:45 a.m. The supermarket opens from 6-7 a.m. for senior citizens to do their shopping in what everyone hopes will be a less contaminated atmosphere.  The drive takes 10 minutes, so I arrive at the parking lot at 5:55. It’s already almost half full.  I notice as I drive past the entry looking for a parking spot, that there is a line of grey-haired figures in front of the door.  A queue at 5:55 a.m.!

By the time I approach the entry, the line has disappeared into the store, but there is a police car parked nearby. (Are they expecting a senior riot?) Two supermarket managers, with name tags and big smiles, bid me a good morning.  It’s still pitch dark.  Inside I find a cart, place my one reusable shopping bag in it, and grip its handle, with gloved hands. I have a short list which I should have organized by shopping aisle as I usually do because I am immediately flustered. The shelf that should hold the first item on my list is almost bare.  I get down on my knees to pull out the last one from the very back of the bottom shelf. When I stand back up, I notice that the shoppers around me are giving me a very wide berth.

Indeed, no one is looking anyone else in the eye.  The variety of face coverings is impressive.  Shoppers have fashioned makeshift face masks from everything imaginable.  Some are the standard blue cup-like masks, but others are pieces of white cloth with ribbons attached to hold them in place.  Some folks are wearing scarves covering their mouths and noses.  Oddly enough, I notice that I have my mouth clamped shut and am hardly breathing.  We whisk past each other, eyes diverted as if we were embarrassed to be in the store.  I am ashamed when I see another member of my retirement community heading down the aisle toward me.  We both say a quick hello, but don’t linger to talk.

Even though I zigzag back and forth between aisles to pick up my dozen items, it takes me less than 15 minutes to get everything on my list. Of course, some of the things I am seeking (like toilet paper) are completely sold out. The shelves that usually hold a plethora of tissue brands have a few boxes of the store-brand.  A sign says, “Only two per customer per day.” I take one, thinking if I run out of toilet paper, I can use these instead.

I head toward the check-out counters.  Every check-out station is open.  This, like the pandemic itself, is a first in my lifetime.  I have never before found all the check-outs open in any store.  A grocery cashier stands before her aisle with a big smile on her face and bids me enter. It takes less than a minute to ring up my purchases.  When the moment comes for me to place my debit card in the machine, I hesitate.  I must remove my gloves to do so, and I have to touch the keys to enter my PIN.  Fear makes me pause.  Will I be touching a contaminated surface?  I’ve heard that the management has hired extra workers to clean and disinfect the store, so perhaps not, since I am the first to use this keypad.  Taking a deep breath, I punch in the numbers.  The cashier pulls out the receipt, puts it in a small plastic container, and holds it out to me.  I say a warm thank you with a big toothy smile, grab my cart, and run. 

Outside, I head to the car with a sigh of relief, opening my mouth and breathing deeply of the uncontaminated air.  Opening the car door to stow my purchases, I momentarily consider whether to put them on the backseat or the floor.  They might be carrying viral germs, so I choose the floor. 

Dawn is slowly breaking when I pull into my garage. The surrounding cottages are dark, so I imagine that my clandestine expedition has gone unnoticed.  Video cameras capture the comings and goings around the main lodge, but I don’t think there are any in the cottage neighborhoods. Not yet.

I unload the groceries from the car and bring them into the kitchen.  The bag stays on the floor while I place each item on the counter.  Before the fear of infection reached its peak, we were able to procure one small plastic container of Lysol Disinfecting Wipes.  We use them sparingly because it is unlikely that we will find another. I pull one out of the package and carefully wipe the surfaces of each purchase. I drop my grocery bag in the garage to air out for the required three days and add these new items to our food stash, before disinfecting the counter and every doorknob I have touched.  Then, into the bathroom for a long and thorough hand wash.

Phew!  I breathe easily and make myself a cup of decaf.  From now on, we will use a food delivery service until it is safe to shop freely again.  I hope the other retirement community member I met in the store won’t rat on me.  I certainly won’t rat on him.

Amid the Most At Risk

Yesterday was Sunday.  It is always tranquil in our retirement community on Sunday mornings. Outside, the silence is only interrupted by the whoosh of environmentally conscious hybrid vehicles gliding through the 15 mile an hour speed limit. They pick up our residents for church and later return them for Sunday brunch, a weekly dining highlight. 

Yesterday was unusually quiet.  Local churches canceled services as part of the attempt at “social distancing” to prevent contagion by COVID-19.  As I took the dog for our morning walk, I noticed birdsong piercing the hush and our local brook gurgling and clamoring around its stones – sounds that are customarily muted by distant traffic rumblings, even on Sundays.

Digby and I met an older man whom I recognized as a resident, but whose name I didn’t know.  He scuffed laboriously along the drive, holding tightly to the handles of his walker.   As we neared each other, he smiled broadly.  Digby did not bark and seemed at ease, so we crossed the road and approached the man.  His face sported a couple of days-worth of grey stubble.  His smile revealed a set of perfect dentures, his countenance glowed.  “What a beautiful day!”  he remarked.  I agreed. “The winter hasn’t been too hard this year. I haven’t minded it too much.”  Again, I agreed.  Digby stood unusually silent and still beside me. “Spring is more than just a hope,” he continued. “Yes!” I replied.  We beamed at each other then proceeded on our separate ways.  He, with tiny careful steps, and I tugged forward by an enthusiastic pup.

Later, near the end of Digby’s morning rounds in his little princedom, I saw a neighbor leaving her cottage.  We waved and called out greetings.  It was clear she wanted to chat, so the dog and I approached.  Again, Digby was uncharacteristically quiet.  “Isn’t it weird, the quiet,” she said.  “I think the recommended social distancing is very isolating.”  “Do you feel isolated?” I asked.  “Yes.”  We stood more than the recommended six feet apart.  “You are going to the store?”  She was carrying an armful of reusable grocery bags. “Yes, I don’t know what I will find.”  “Probably not toilet paper.”  I joked.  We made a few more comments on how odd and unreal it seemed to be in the middle of a viral pandemic and then wished each other well for the day.  I proceeded home with Digby, and she drove off at 15 miles an hour. 

Something about the contrast in my two encounters tugged at my mind.  The man, at peace, seemingly oblivious of the imminent threat, exulting in the joy of a sun-drenched stroll.  The woman, ill-at-ease, wishing for a different set of circumstances but standing in the fresh air, chatting with a neighbor about her perplexity.

How differently we react to the Coronavirus threat – to the news that we must reconsider and revise our ways of being in the world; we, the elderly in years, who hear repeated warnings that we are most at risk to contract this disease and perhaps die from it.  Behind some old eyes live brains that still think we’re young and strong. Inside some old chests, our hearts contract with caution or fear; in others, they expand with peace and joy, exulting in the precious gift of now: the birds, the brook, the sun.  Grateful for the slow, weak legs that carry us unsteadily through all this beauty. The smile, the friendly greeting, the “small talk” that binds us in our mutual concerns. The joy of noticing and honoring one another for who we are, exactly as we are.

Namaste – the light in me honors the light in you!