Panic in the produce aisle: dealing with loss at the holidays

I think it was mostly about the way the collar of her denim shirt was flipped up all wonky on one side. I couldn't stop staring at the woman in the Whole Foods. I watched her shuffle along, pushing one of those tiny carts with just a few lemons and a box of salad in it.

Her hair was thin and silvery and it flipped in at her jawline in a way that thin hair doesn't do naturally. She must use those pink plastic foamy rollers. I would find those little rollers randomly strewn around my house after my grandmother would visit - they'd be sitting on the side table, stacked up on the Kleenex box, lost under the guest bed.

This woman reminded me so much of my Gramma that it took my breath away.

Literally.

I have a panic disorder, so when something startles me - like thinking I see my grandmother, who died in ten months ago, contemplating avocados - I tend to hyperventilate. My husband was putting red peppers in a bag when I grabbed his arm and managed to say something about stepping outside.

"Are you okay? What happened?"

"Fine. I'm. Outside."

I don't tend to get my words right when I have anxiety.

I almost slammed into the sliding door as I stumbled outside. The December air felt good on my flushed face. I hid behind a pile of locally made Christmas wreathes.

Tears poured from under my sunglasses as I continued to gasp like a fish. I've had these attacks since I was eleven years old, so I know the drill. I started with my breathing exercises. I counted my inhale for four counts. Hold for two. Out for four. I propped myself up against a pile of scented pinecones and felt the pleasant burn of the cinnamon in my nostrils. My breathing started to normalize, but my hands were still numb. I moved on to my grounding exercises. I counted my fingers. Pressing each one to the opposite palm. One. Two. Three...

My Gramma loved Christmas, so this holiday season - my first one without her - is feeling thorny for me. Over the past few years, she has given me many of her favorite Christmas things. The little nativity set she and my Poppa got in Europe back in the 1960s. The hand-made gold spray-pained angel that now sits on my bookshelf year round. Various tree ornaments with sentimental meaning to her - the details of which I've now forgotten and they are precious just because they were hers. As I unwrap each one from the plastic storage box, I'm hit with memories that are both sweet and feel like an ice pick to the chest.

But it was the unexpected sight of a flipped up collar that had me undone. I was always flipping the collar of Gramma's denim shirt down. I don't know how many denim shirts she had, or why the collars were so troublesome, but it seemed to be my eternal karmic job. If I wasn't flipping her collar, I was twisting her necklace around so the clasp was at the back. And she'd do the same for me. She would attempt to smooth down my hair - mermaid hair - she called it. We had a lot of similarities, but my thick, wild curls are one of the few traits I clearly didn't get from her. I will never be in need of those pink plastic curlers.

In the most simple of ways, we took care of each other.

I walked back into the store and found my husband, who gently rubbed my back. Knowing I needed a distraction, he asked me if we needed bananas.

I didn't accost the woman and fix her collar. I didn't sob into her denim shirt and tell her that she reminded me of someone I still can't believe isn't here. I didn't tell her that the holidays are nice and all but sometimes they are really really hard. Instead, I let her finish her shopping.

And because the Universe finds things like this to be hysterically funny, we ended up in the check out line right next to the denim shirt woman. And I saw her trying to snap closed that familiar elderly lady wallet - stuffed full of receipts and coupons and newspaper clippings.

In the middle of my sadness I found a chewy center of joy - memories of the tiny acts of love that live on forever. What a wonderful thing, to know that kind of love exists - that someone has smoothed our frazzled hair, fixed our collar, rubbed our back in the produce section. They tried, in some simple way, to make something better for us. Those seemingly tiny gestures live on and reaffirm love at every moment. And my pain dissolved, as it always does, in the face of gratitude.

What a stunning act of love it is, to say:

"C'mere. Let me fix that for you."

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