Yesterday I met a stranger I’ll never forget. Her name was Wendy.
I was plodding down the aisles of Whole Foods. Before cancer, I only went there for meat and an occasional take-out lunch. My stupid cancer means eating healthy which means now I need to venture into the deep, inner sanctum of Whole Foods with aisles and aisles of things I’ve never heard of before.
It felt like I was a first-time tourist on the Vegas strip. I probably spent thirty minutes in the produce section. Just deciding whether to use brown paper bags or plastic bags for my fruit took me pathetically long. I quickly felt like I was failing the test for organic wannabes.
Then I made my way towards the baking aisle. The experienced Whole Foodies wheeled their carts around me as I stared in awe of a wall of flour packages. I snapped out of my stupor when I noticed a woman patiently waiting for me to move. I apologized and stepped back, somewhat embarrassed that it was taking me forever to find coconut flour. She replied she was looking for flour to make cookies. That’s when I looked up and saw she had cancer too.
It was like looking in the mirror except she was taller and wasn’t wearing a hat. We both had that lovely cancer look— clearly missing hair and a bit sick and tired looking.
Her head was covered in about a half inch of very fine, salt and pepper hair. My hair is making a slow comeback but my head gets so cold that I rarely take off my hat.
I know she knew the answer but she asked, “Are you in treatment?” Yes, breast cancer.
“Me too. This is my second time. It metastasized to my brain.”
We had tears in our eyes but we were both smiling. I told her how sorry I was that she’s going through it again. People say they don’t know what to say to someone with cancer. Well, even when you have it yourself, you don’t always know the words— especially when someone has it a lot worse than you.
“A month ago I didn’t think I’d be here shopping. I even drove by myself.” I know. Me too.
She was a stranger yet I knew her. I knew what she has gone through to be able to be there at that moment. We were the most grateful shoppers in Whole Foods that day. For everyone else it was another errand to cross off their list but for us, it was an amazingly wonderful experience to be grocery shopping.
We chatted a little more and then wished each other good luck as we hugged.
Before we parted she asked, “What’s your name?” Jennifer.
“My name is Wendy.”
We said goodbye and she pushed her cart away. I stood there, wiping tears from my eyes. Then I found the coconut flour.
I can’t get Wendy out of my head. Going through cancer again is unimaginable. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her about her prognosis. Can she be cured? I didn’t want her to have to go there, to think about it and it felt too intrusive despite our cancer connection.
If only I had thought to ask for her contact information or suggest we grab a snack and chat. She was smiling but there was sadness in her eyes. Maybe she needed someone to talk to. It was hard to just let it end.
I hope I meet Wendy again on another shopping adventure. But if I don’t, I’ll always remember her. We were two strangers sharing how incredibly happy we were to be alive.