Tantrums & Grief in the Grocery: More Than Meets the Eye


“Can't always have what you, mate, that's life. Now, I'll tell you what -- do you think you can be a good boy for mum and help her with her shopping, and when you get to the register I’ll have a lollipop waiting for you and your sister?”

My little man nods and shakes the managers hand, looking in the eyes the way his daddy taught to him to, and that makes me proud.

Mr Store Manager smiles at me, reminds Chop to be a good boy again, and leaves us to it, my son mostly placated but still taking great shaking sniffs every few step, his shoulders shaking as he breaths out, wiping the back of one across an already snotty face.

And me...? I have spent the last half hour purposely avoiding any type of connection with the other people here, pushing ugly grey metal cages around a too-bright, too-cold store; simply in order to regain my composure.

That interaction, while placating my son, seemed to serve to transfer his distress to me. Big, heavy tears roll silently down my cheeks and, once unbottled, refuse to stop. I begin grabbing the last few items we need, navigating through a wet mess of cloudy saline that is burning and balming my eyes both at once. I'm not even sure how I feel -- if I'm pissed off with this manager for stepping in and offering my child a reward when the whole purpose of the exercise was me attempting to reiterate that "no" means "no"; or if I'm so grateful for his intervention that I could worship his very existence. All I really know is that I want out of here, and soon. This one is a write-off, and again I curse myself for such a rookie mistake -- little kids plus afternoons plus supermarkets must, at the very least, quadruple the potential for humiliation of said children's parents.

We make it to the checkout with what's left of our respective dignities in tact. The Chop’s sobs have slowed to the point where there is only the tiniest pull as he draws in a breath, and I remember with a pang in my soul how he used to do that as a newborn baby; he would cry himself inconsolable, unable to drift off to sleep no matter how he was held or rocked or fed. When he finally fell into an exhausted slumber he would take a sighing gasp on every second or third breath, his diaphragm still catching up with the oxygen levels in his blood.

I begin stacking things on the checkout belt, Tetris–style, when the manager spots us. He asks the Chop to grab two lollipops, and, naturally, the child doesn't need to be told that twice. Mr Store Manager is again at my children's level, squatting onto the toes of his expensive black dress shoes, unwrapping their lollipops and chatting away to them. I catch his eye and smile, and it's at that moment that he asks, all innocence and meaning nothing at all, “So, what are you doing with Daddy for Father’s Day?”

Those hot salty tears well again immediately and I actually catch his eye, hold up my hands, mouth "No, no!" but it's a bit too late for that. My son and daughter respond so promptly and in such seriousness that it's almost comical. I think, for a moment there, Mr Manager is waiting for me to reveal the hidden cameras and the store speakers to bleat canned laughter.

"My Daddy died," says the Chop.

"My Daddy’s in Heaven," lisps my Bumpy thing, the cutest, saddest sentence you'll ever heard a three-year-old fairy say.

It feels as though the entire building pauses for a beat, every person within earshot holding their breath for just the slightest of seconds. Mr Manager’s eyes connect with mine again, and if he could have demanded the floor of his own store simply quicksand him down into the foundations, he would have gone quietly and without complaint.

"Shit." He says softly. All I can do is nod, unable to speak because if I do, I will start sobbing the same way my boy was just minutes before -- noisy, messy, uncontrollable. Acceptable in a four-year-old, but so much in a grown woman.

I can't help but feel sorry for him, this well-meaning manager come almost farcically undone by his own good deeds. He quietly asks his staff to help me pack my shopping, and my tears are flowing so thick and fast, I can barely see the brightly-lit keys on the eftpos pinpad. As I pay, Mr Manager quietly and without a fuss instructs my son to run and grab a huge box of chocolates from one of the front displays. "And you give them to Mummy when you get home, OK, and tell her you love her very much."

That's about the end of me, right there. This kind of unexpected kindness shatters the hard, high walls I work so diligently to cultivate and my tears continue, my eyes swelling with every step I take toward the blessed electronic exit doors.

Mr Store Manager follows me, of course, chatters with my kidlets, helps me pack my shopping into the rear of the car and I discover once I'm home that he's sat the cat litter oddly against one side of the boot and there's a huge tear in the bag and I'm eternally grateful neither of us noticed while I was still in the car park because I didn't need anything else to fuck up on me this afternoon and I don't think this bloke did, really, either.

"It must be hard, doing it by yourself." Again, I feel nothing but sorry for him; he is a genuinely nice guy. "I've got three boys at home, and two of us and we’re still run off our feet."

I shrug. What do I say to that, what is there to say to that? "We do OK, just the three of us." I'm reassuring myself as much as him. "We do OK."

I drive home. Unpack shopping, tape up cat litter. The Chop has reverted to his usual happy self and is marveling slightly at the "nice man who gave us chocolates," and I'm too tired to even think about what kind of message all this is sending. Right now, I don't care.

I feed, bath, book and bed my kids; then I lay down on my bed. I'm not sure whether to laugh, or to cry.

I stare at the ceiling instead.

We're just fine, just the three of us. We do OK.


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