31: Secret Shopper

31: Secret Shopper

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Secret Shopper

Action is the antidote to despair.

~Joan Baez

Paul’s funeral was on Friday. By Saturday afternoon, everyone was gone and the house seemed so empty, so quiet. On Monday, I struggled to get myself back to work, not sure how to get through the day. I took some inspiration from Paul, who had so desperately wanted to work as much and as long as he could.

People at the office didn’t know what to say to me, nor I to them. There were more than a few awkward moments. Somehow, I made it through the day, and the week, even though I often excused myself to go sit in the bathroom and cry.

As soon as I drove out of the parking lot, I burst into tears and wailed all the way home. To keep the neighbors from calling the paramedics, I forced myself to be quiet as I walked into the house.

Inside, the paralysis set in. I could do little more than sit at the computer and play solitaire, trying to numb the pain. I repeatedly replayed the last weeks with Paul. Some small part of me still expected him to walk into the room, for us to somehow return to our former life, to wake up from the nightmare. I rehearsed conversations I planned to have with him, until I once again realized that there would be no more conversations. And I cried until my stomach ached.

I couldn’t find the energy to prepare anything that resembled dinner. Some nights I ate hardly anything besides the candy in the dish on the desk. I had never been much for candy before, but now I couldn’t seem to get my fill. Or maybe it was just because it was within reach. Chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream was the other staple of my new diet.

One reason I didn’t eat better was that I hadn’t gone to the grocery store since before Paul’s death. That was one of several places I just couldn’t face without him. Trips to the store with Paul were an adventure, which is one reason we nearly always went together. We started at the deli counter, where he ordered a “proper” selection of meats and cheeses for “nice” sandwiches. “Nice” was Paul’s highest praise for a sandwich. From there we went on to the breads and condiments.

In the produce section, he maintained that bins were left open precisely so that customers could take samples. As he explained these things to me, he smiled and winked impishly.

Coffee cakes, sweet rolls, and donuts often “appeared” in our shopping cart when I wasn’t looking. After feigning surprise, Paul explained that “that little gray-haired lady over there” must have gotten confused and accidentally put the items in our cart. Then he explained that it would be rude to return the items to the shelf, so we should do the honorable thing and keep them.

I demonstrated to him how I had played “racy car driver” with the shopping cart when my children were young, pretending to speed and rev the cart’s “engine.” He caught on to that game quickly, and soon incorporated the “race cart” into our shopping routine. What fun we had just going food shopping!

A further complication to returning to the store was that we had gotten to know the store manager, who would surely ask about Paul if I went in without him. I just couldn’t handle that yet.

The day I got the call that Paul’s ashes were ready to be picked up, I knew I wanted my friend Judy to go with me. I was nervous—this was another trip I didn’t want to face alone. I hoped that Judy’s company would make me braver—and it did. Having her by my side made it easier to reach out and accept the cube-shaped carton containing Paul’s ashes. There had been no need to buy an urn because Paul wanted his ashes scattered right away—on the lake where he spent his summers as a child.

I signed a few forms and we went to the car. I sat the box on my lap and took a deep breath, not sure what I was feeling. After a silent moment, Judy said, “What do you want to do now, Bet?”

I thought for a moment and said, “I need you to go with me to the grocery store. I haven’t had the courage to go since Paul died. But I need food.”

“Sure, we can do that. But you don’t need to go without Paul. We’ll just take him with us.”

I looked at her blankly for a moment before it sank in. Of course, we would take Paul with us. As I was beginning to comprehend, Judy reminded me, “Paul would want you to have fun again. He’d see the humor in this.” She was right, of course. “We’ll let him ride in the cart with us. That way, we can talk to him while we shop, and you won’t be going without him.”

“Okay, I’m ready.” One look at Judy and I started to laugh. At first, it felt strange. I’d nearly forgotten what it was like. But it felt good, too, and I knew Paul wouldn’t want me to cry for the rest of my life. He’d be the first one making jokes. I realized that’s why I now needed Judy with me—to help me find humor in the situation.

We drove to the store, took the box in with us, and sat it in the child seat. We told him we were back in the store and asked him what we should buy.

I pretended to answer him. “All right, I’ll start at the deli.”

We then proceeded to produce, where I explained to Judy about the samples.

I even bought a coffee cake for him. We played “race cart” down deserted aisles, and giggled as we made car sounds.

“Watch me take this corner, Paul. What’s that? No, I can’t go any faster.”

Judy asked, “Paul, do you need coffee?”

I asked. “Which brand of paper towels did we decide we like best?”

As we were checking out, now with a lighter heart, I kept the tears away when the store manager came over and asked how Paul was doing. That marked the first time I managed to tell someone that Paul had passed away without breaking down completely. I didn’t tell the manager that I had Paul right there, that he was in the box I was taking out of the cart while we were speaking. After Judy and I were outside, we burst into laughter at the absurdity of the scene.

With Judy’s humor and Paul’s ashes, I got through that first trip back to the store. It was several months before going to the grocery alone wasn’t so poignant—and before I stopped reaching for Paul’s favorite items. But each time was made easier when I remembered the day I took Paul with me—carton and all.

~Bettie Wailes

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