Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Woman in RED

I’ve stopped writing about my gecko because a while ago something happened that I wanted to write about but I wasn’t really sure how. What happened with the gecko was this:

I had been on a year-long tear trying to get rid of him. (Spot is his name.) And I chronicled that effort here, in a series of posts called The Gecko Chronicles. After trying to pawn him off on the Science teacher, I decided to take a new approach. I made a commitment to talk to anyone I saw at the pet store cricket counter and ask if they would be interested in adopting my gecko.

The first woman I tried this out on ended up being the last. She was about my age and wore one of those red Gap T-shirts with the word RED written on it. She had a shopping cart full of pet supplies and when I saw the cricket guy hand her a bag of crickets I asked her what kind of lizard she had. She, too, had a leopard gecko – two actually – and when I asked if she’d be interested in a third she said she’d be happy to take him.

That seemed so easy, right? And it was. I can’t remember how we got from that painless, positive exchange to her crying and telling me that her son was going to die and it was all her fault, but I’ll tell you this: it happened in a moment. In the blink of an eye. One minute she’d agreed to take my gecko and the next she had tears running down her face.

I didn’t know what to do or what to say, so I just nodded in an understanding way and muttered something like, “I’m so sorry,” and then we both made our way up to the register to pay for our items.

While she was checking out, she wrote out her address and phone number on a small slip of paper she took from her purse. I could call her, she said, or I could just bring the gecko to her home and leave him on her porch. She’d take good care of him, she assured me. He’d be no trouble; she had to buy crickets anyway.

I put her number in my pocket, paid for my crickets and made my way out to the parking lot after her. She was walking just ahead of me and as I got close to her I watched myself reach out and tap her shoulder. I didn’t really want to be tapping her shoulder, but I’d been recently thinking a lot about how we (and when I say we, I guess I mean I) don’t really connect with each other anymore. How all of our interactions are electronic and perfunctory and lacking in real caring for our fellow human beings. So it was that thought that impelled me to tap her, and then when she turned, for me to ask outright a question that was none of my business, which was, “Is your son ok?”

Obviously a son who is “dying” is not ok. But the mother said it was all her fault and it is just not in me to walk away from a statement like that. I would literally spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how this woman could have been killing her son. So I had to ask. And there in the parking lot, in the bright midday sun, she told me.

I am not going to tell you what she was doing to kill her son, in part because I don’t remember exactly her son’s problem, but mostly because I’m pretty sure he was not actually dying. He had some bad reaction once, years ago, to some behavioral medication she had given him and he had some residual physiological problems as a result. It became clear almost immediately that her son’s death was not imminent or even likely, but rather that she was having a very bad day.

I understand those days. I have wept in front of strangers. The big difference between me and the woman in RED is that unlike me, she does not feel the need to disappear once that weeping has taken place. So she told me more things.

She told me about all of her kids, all of their psychological issues, all of the medication they were on (names and dosage) and even the names of some of their mental health professionals. She shared with me some of her own diagnoses, her meds, her docs. She told me where her kids went to school, what schools they’d been kicked out of, what infractions had caused their dismissals. She told me a bit about her husband, including what he did for a living and how much money he’d made last year. Maybe she even told me a few other things that have faded over time.

After an hour, I excused myself. I left her with an empathetic pat on the shoulder and a wish for “good luck.” I drove home with my crickets. My back ached from standing for so long. I told my husband about her and he said, “There is no way we’re giving her the gecko.”

My husband is not definitive about much, but I could tell by the look on his face that this was not negotiable.

So I ripped up her number and fed Spot his crickets and wondered how I would explain my change of heart to her if I ever ran into her again.

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