The ringtone on the phones at work is one of the least pleasant sounds on the planet. Its shrill, wheedling beedle-eedle-eedle sits somewhere just below Cyndi Lauper’s voice and firmly above a barking Chihuahua on the scale of sounds that make me flinch. Even when I stop by the place on my day off and I hear someone else’s phone go off my heart sinks for a moment before my brain can register that the demanding and/or complaining voice on the other end isn’t calling to demand and/or complain at me.
That’s how I feel when the produce phone goes off in my pocket, except in this case my heart stays sunk because I know that the complain-and/or-demander is looking for me.
I release an involuntary sigh and press the green button.
“Produce, this is Tim.”
There’s a long pause, then a tired, brusque woman’s voice meanders through the earpiece. “Hello, yes, I came in to your store sometime last week… I don’t get down there often, you know. I have to have someone to drive me down and help me get into the little Amigo cart and I can only do so much once I get there…”
I stand by the desk waiting for her to get to the point, although I have a nagging feeling that that might take a while. “… I’m eighty-five years old, you know, and I can’t do those sort of things for myself anymore…” A long, long while.
“Is there anything I can help you with, ma’am?”
“Well I bought some onions when I was there last time, and I took them home and set them on my table, and don’t you know it within a couple of days the darned things started sprouting on me. They all just started sprouting and now I can’t use ‘em. I bought a couple of bags because I only get down to the store once in a while and I need enough to last me.”
“I’m very sorry that that happened.”
“My son, he’d rather be partying with his friends than driving me to the store…”
“Um, I’m very sorry to hear that, too, ma’am.” I’m suddenly very grateful that she can’t see my face, because it’s definitely got “awkward” written all over it. Hopefully it doesn’t show in my voice, too. “So… did you want a refund or a replacement on the onions?”
“Oh, I just want my money back. I don’t need to get more onions that are just gonna sprout on me.” Then, out of nowhere, she says, “You know, your mother’s going to be eighty-five one day.”
The silence is like a thousand eyes staring at me, waiting for me to figure out how to continue the conversation without saying something completely stupid. I give up. “Um, yes, she probably will.”
“Well, you take care of her.” And just like that, she’s back to the onions. “So when I come back to the store, do I talk to you about getting a refund or do I go to the front desk?”
It takes me a moment to formulate my response. I’m still trapped in that moment, those words that she said so unexpectedly, so matter-of-factly. I pull myself back to the present. “You’ll probably want to talk to the folks at the service desk, they handle all of the actual transactions. Do you still have your receipt?”
“No, I don’t know where it is. I always hand the money to my son from where I’m sitting on that Amigo cart and he pays and takes the receipt but I don’t know what he does with it.”
“Okay, well I’m sure that if you talk to them they could help you out.”
“Well, thank you for being so helpful, young man. What did you say your name was?”
I let a little of the tension out of my shoulders, lean my elbows on the desk. Maybe I’ll get out of this roundabout conversation sooner than I’d thought. “My name is Tim, ma’am.”
“Well Tim, I’m going to ask you a stupid question.”
Oh, boy. “I’d be happy to answer it if I can.”
“Is your mother still alive?”
I pause briefly. That was definitely not the kind of question I was expecting.
“Yes, she’s still alive.”
“And do you see her still?”
“Alright, will you promise to do something for me?”
Something is changing in her voice, something almost imperceptible. Everything she’s said this far has been so blunt, even impersonal, but now there’s a sort of softness to it. Maybe even sadness. This is something that matters to her. “Absolutely, ma’am.”
“The next time you see her, you stop by a McDonald’s or a Burger King and you get her a strawberry milkshake.” I’m about to agree, to promise that I’ll bring Mom a milkshake tonight, but she isn’t finished and the words keep tumbling out of the phone. “When I was a girl, back when I went to school in Grand Rapids, I would take the city bus to see my mother every weekend. There was a store at the corner by one of the bus stops and I would buy her a bouquet of flowers.” She names the streets that meet to form that corner, and as much as I want to remember them, to go to that bus stop and see the store and smell the flowers, I know that they’ll slip from my mind in mere moments. Perhaps the store isn’t even there anymore. Maybe it’s a bakery now, or a Walgreens, or maybe just an empty storefront. Time has a way of erasing things.
“Every weekend I brought her flowers,” she says, and the sadness isn’t hiding anymore. It’s there behind every word, less a memory of how she once showed her love to her mother and more another reminder that no one comes home with flowers for her. Then, just as quickly as it went, her flat, informative tone returns. “Now I know flowers are expensive these days,” she tells me. “So I’m just asking you to bring her a strawberry milkshake, or chocolate, whatever she likes. You just get her something nice and you bring it to her next time you see her. Will you do that for me?”
I want nothing more in that moment than to truly do that for her. Not to bring my mom something nice in her honor, but to find her and bring her a strawberry milkshake, bring her the flowers that her son never gave her, take her to the store and buy her some fresh onions. I want to go back in time, to undo all of the wrongs and do all of the neglected rights that brought her to where she is, alone in her house, asking a boy she doesn’t even know not to make the same mistakes her son did, not to let his mother turn eighty-five without even giving her so much as a three dollar milkshake. But that’s the thing about time – when it’s gone, there’s no getting it back. I can’t give this woman back the time and the love that she’s missed, but I can make her this promise, and give my mom the time and the love that she deserves while I still can. The past is untouchable, but the future – the future isn’t gone yet. And in this moment, at least, I know exactly what to do with it.
“I’ll bring it to her,” I tell the lady on the phone. “I promise.”
“Thank you. Goodbye, now.”
And with that, she’s gone. But when I walk in the door later with a chocolate milkshake in one hand and eight purple carnations in the other, when I give them to my mom and hug her and tell her the story, when I see the look on her face, I pray that I never forget what she said. Because one day, it will be too late to let the people I love know how much they mean to me. I don’t know when that day will be, only that right now, in this moment, it’s not too late yet. Right now, there’s still time. Right now, I can choose to go out of my way to love, and that’s what matters.