Years ago, I found myself in a Walgreens parking lot. My kids were still little, so I’m sure I was picking up liquid Tylenol, or maybe I was shopping for cards and Oreos because everyone was finally asleep. It was a mundane night. I don’t remember why I was there.
And yet, I will never forget that night for as long as I live. It is seared into my life experience, and it changed me. While I was perusing under the unforgiving lights, I heard a man and woman discussing ice cream. He wanted something, or she wanted something else. Again, I don’t recall. Their voices were loud against the white-linoleum quiet.
I remember there were very few people in the store. I remember the woman who checked me out had a rose tattoo next to her thumb. I remember I only had one bag. I paid, clicked open my car, and rounded the front to go home.
A woman screamed as she ran into the parking lot. A large man was behind, chasing after her, and yelling too.
I threw my bag into the car and watched as he grabbed her hair and pulled her into his chest. She threw something into the street and tried to pull free. He bellowed back and pulled her hair tighter.
My heart was pounding. I grabbed my phone to call 911. I was so angry. Who the hell did this guy think he was? He can’t do this. I was ready to stick up for this woman. Get in this man’s face if need be.
When I looked up again, he backhanded the woman, and she flew onto the parking lot pavement. I might have gasped because he met my eyes.
“Do you have a fucking problem?” he said, taking a few steps toward me.
I dropped my phone on the pavement. My hands were shaking. I said nothing, scrambled for my phone, and got into my car. Two people were now outside the Walgreens, one of them on their phone.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I glanced in my rearview mirror. The woman was still on the ground, but she was now sitting with her face in her hands.
I started to cry. I did nothing. I drove away.
Why? Because it wasn’t a movie. Because the guy could easily crush me. Because I was scared.
We incessantly talk about courage and confrontation in the United States. We’ll put a boot in your ass. Our politicians fluff their feathers and proudly promise from behind polished podiums. We idolize men and women who are “badasses” on the big screen or animated in combat video games.
Not so much when it comes to fear. Pure, terrifying, and often deadly without a reset button, is rarely discussed.
Monday is Memorial Day.
It is a day of mourning and remembrance for the people who either couldn’t or didn’t turn away. They lost their lives fighting a war, a conflict, a cause. I’m sure some were brave, but I’m more confident they were all scared.
And not because nearly peeing my pants in some Walgreen’s parking lot makes me an expert on fear, but because despite all the glossy propaganda, and motivational speak, being scared is human. It’s normal.
Battlefield, big house, or parking lot.
No matter how many times a person hits the gym, straps on a weapon or charges into the unknown. That sweaty-palm, thundering-chest moment is laced with fear. No one wants to get hurt. No one wants to die.
Maybe we should think about that when we pound our chests, make decisions or lump individual lives under catchy phrases about people who “gave all.”
At the very least, fear deserves mention in one of those songs we like to blast at barbecues.
To the families who have lost a person at their table, a warm hug, or the sound of laughter, may you find peace in your memories and love with your friends and family. To the men and women currently in harm’s way, Godspeed, and be safe.
My thoughts from the laundry room. Nightlight.