It was a routine Friday--early morning prayer group, followed by the grocery gauntlet. Coupons in hand, I headed out to several stores, finally winding up at Wal-Mart. The thought of crossing my Friday finish line in record time quickened my pace. I cruised past the detergent and the fabric softener, but ran into a traffic jam across from the paper towels.
An elderly woman blocked shoppers in both directions. With a prosthetic foot, she inched along in a wheelchair, mumbling apologies. Her right hand nudged the wheel, while her left hand trapped toiletry items in her lap. Surely someone must be here to help her, I thought, glancing at my list and then my watch. The crowd thinned. I turned the corner and reached for cereal on Aisle 8B.
You go and help her. An audible command couldn’t have been more compelling, but this one came from my heart. I never imagined that this could be an answer to a prayer—my own.
Retracing my steps, I parked my shopping cart next to a display of potato chips. There she was, all alone, looking bewildered and disoriented. I gently grasped the handlebars of the wheelchair and bent over to meet her gaze.
“Here, let me help you,” I said, and it warmed my heart as if I’d been the one in need. “Is there someone here with you?”
“Yes,” she stammered, “but I don’t know where she’s gone.”
“Is there a place where you are to meet?”
“Take me to the checkout and maybe I’ll see her at the front.”
As we rolled along, I introduced myself and learned her name was Ellie. She thanked me profusely and I told her I was happy to do it, and I was. The smell of her hair reminded me of my grandmother. Once we got through checkout, we looked in both directions, but her friend was not there.
“Honey, I have to go to the restroom. Can you wheel me inside?”
“Sure, I’d be happy to.”
Like the words to an old song, a once-familiar routine came back to me. I pushed the wheelchair into the handicapped stall and locked the brakes. Supporting her under the arms, I helped Ellie stand and turn around.
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry you have to do this. And me, a total stranger.”
“It’s OK Ellie. I took care of my grandmother for ten years.”
But my grandmother never wore a diaper. Not a problem…the strange enablement continued, even as her bowels moved at an untimely moment. The floor was badly soiled and so was the one and only diaper. Still, the strange peace persisted. I managed to seat Ellie without either of us stepping in the mess all over the floor. Humiliated, her shoulders began to heave as tears flowed.
“I can’t believe you have to do this,” she sobbed, shaking her head. “I’m so sorry.”
I put my arm around her shoulders and words came: “Maybe someone will do this for me someday. Jesus cleans up my messes every day.”
And the gift of that thought gave me the grace to joyfully tackle the mess around us with toilet paper. I couldn’t let her slip in it and fall. Never could I have pictured the women’s restroom in Wal-Mart, just before Easter, as holy ground. But in that moment it was a privilege to be there and humbly serve. As I worked, my heart overflowed with supernatural peace and joy.
Somehow I salvaged the diaper and helped Ellie back into her chair. “There now, we did it,” I spoke as if nothing had happened, but we both knew better. A sacred serenity lingered in the air as we washed our hands at the sink.
I rolled Ellie out of that dark concrete cubicle and we exited the building into a bright spring day. An attendant from her assisted care center came running up to greet us. She thanked me and I gave my new friend a final farewell hug.
“Happy Easter, Ellie.”
“You too, dear.”
That’s when the prayer I prayed that morning came back to my mind: Help me help someone else today in Your name. Help me do something I’m afraid to try, by relying on Your strength alone.
As I walked back to the potato chip display, tears were streaming down my face. My shopping cart was right where I’d left it, but I was in a different place--where finish lines don’t matter.