My friend needed a ride. I had a car. She was just out of the hospital. I had just left church. She needed groceries. I needed a moment of quiet. It was an errand of mercy—as it turns out, more for my benefit than hers.
While she shopped, I waited contentedly in the parking lot. The slight breeze coming through open car windows provided the perfect counterpoint to the enthusiastic effort of the sun. I checked emails on my phone. I planned my week. I had a front row seat to a constantly moving parade of humanity.
From this vantage point, I saw the motorized shopping cart the moment it emerged through the automatic doors. It moved ever so slowly across the driveway toward handicapped parking. I opened my door, ready to spring into action should a speedy driver fail to see the cart in time to stop. (Years of hanging out with children have made me hyper-vigilant in areas shared by cars and shorter than hood-height humans.) My relief at seeing the cart come to rest by a car was interrupted by my dismay over the challenges facing the woman who drove it.
Perhaps she had a plan. Perhaps she knew how to get multiple bags of groceries and two 12-pack cartons of drinks from the cart into her car, but it was not apparent to me. At the risk of insulting her independence, I met her at the car and asked if I could help. She hesitated. She had a plan, and I wasn’t it. Her plan was to yell loudly and ask the cell-phone talking stranger leaning against his truck in the next row to help her. I assured her I was strong enough for the task at hand.
She pulled her cane from the back of the cart and stood as tall as a body resembling a lower case ‘c’ allowed. Her movements appeared painful and agonizingly slow. I finished loading the car several minutes before she was able to lower herself into the driver’s seat.
From the comfort of seated security, she began, “I wasn’t always like this, you know. I used to be so strong. I could do anything.” To make sure I understood, she recounted details of those former years. I heard this as no mere lament but as a plea to see her as more than she now appeared. For one brief moment my heart joined hers in the backward glance. I saw her as the blushing bride and eager first time mom. I saw her in the tennis skirt and as the faithful wife and as the soccer mom.
This woman, who could no longer walk, was at heart all these things and more. Time had changed what she could do. It had not altered who she was. In her own way, she asked, “See me! See me for who I am and not what I can do. Know that I am more than what my body has become.” I was instantly convicted of my too quick tendency to brand people by the packaging in which they are wrapped—of my propensity to mete out pity or praise based on momentary observation.
In that moment, her self-disclosure of a richer, fuller life now lost reminded me that identity exists beyond the transitory circumstances of our temporal lives. It cannot be defined by the innocence of childhood, the vigor of youth, or the surprising frailty of an aging body. It resides deeper and rises higher than the events we use to mark our steady progress to an eternal destiny. Identity is determined not by default, but by the declaration of a heavenly Father.
Her face brightened, as if she suddenly remembered who she was. “There is one thing I am really grateful for,” she said. “I can still get to my church on Sunday morning.” She put up her window. Our encounter was over; the truth remains.