The burdens of leadership

The burdens of leadership

We hear a lot about leadership today, particularly in the political arena, which is about halfway between bull fighting and the feeding of humans to lions. I wish these leaders would tone it down a little.

Surprisingly, I’ve begun to fancy myself something of a leader.

A week after Hurricane Irene ripped through my mother-in-law’s town on the edge of Long Island, N.Y., we paid her a visit. At 97, she’s pretty independent.

The nearby B & B where we stay serves a glorious breakfast totaling enough calories for a full work week. For a longshoreman. We head to my MIL’s at 11:30, ready to eat again. I can’t explain it. Just go with it.

Snooping around her kitchen, I realize something is terribly wrong. I come right to the point.

“Where are your English muffins?”

“Gone. Nothing to cook ’em in. Toaster thing is broken.”

The toaster oven, eerily blank where those hyphenated red numbers usually are, is plugged in, impersonating a toaster oven.

“It’s broken,” I say, after a full 12-second inspection.

“Broken,” she agrees.

“Let’s go get you a new one,” I say. It’s more than I can stand to think that she wouldn’t be able to fix an English muffin when she wants one. That’s just not OK.

Now, my MIL had a little fall not long ago. So, taking charge, I pile her and her lightweight walker into my car. Destination: the nearest big-box store, an hour away. We’re giggling and planning an afternoon ice cream. She tells me how to drive. I drive anyway.

The handicapped spot’s a quarter mile from the super-mart’s doors. Asking passing employees for help gets me random pointing and indecipherable half-phrases. I scan for wheelchairs.

“I can walk,” she announces. And she can, with her walker. Until we’re inside, well past the “greeter,” whose job is to ignore us after “welcome…”

I call, “Excuse me. Is there a wheelchair?”

Greeter points back outside.

Me: “Can you get us one?”

Nothing.

Me (loud whisper): “Not very steady – can’t leave her.”

Nothing.

Me: “I really need –”

She sighs and returns with a contraption the size of a school bus, labeled “for adults and children.”

Seriously? My petite MIL can barely sit in it, knees turned sideways to fit between the seat and Sesame Street handrail. Fold walker; insert into basket. Thus continues our adventure, me leading the way like the Wonder Woman of Retail, my MIL calling “watch out!” at every display and aisle intersection.

Ah, the perfect toaster-oven at the right price. But they are out (“No, ma’am, we cannot sell the display item”) and it’s futile asking them to break this ridiculous rule (“No, ma’am, the department manager is busy”).

Leaders must be patient. Onward into the car, to the next store.

MIL: “Watch out! Stop sign!”

Deep breath.

Me: “Yes. Got it.”

She: “There! Right there!”

Darn. I did almost miss it.

Another asphalt parking lot, like the Great Plains. I secure a motorized cart for her, leaving her walker at Customer Service (oh, ha, ha.) This leadership thing is a pain in the – well, anyway.

Halfway through the store, the cart stops. Just like that.

I like to play guessing games, don’t you? Guess how long it takes to a.) get help from the teen workers, discussing weekend plans; b.) get another electric wheelchair for my now-tired MIL; c.) locate a decent toaster-oven on sale without help from anyone because again, weekend plans; and d.) wait while the conscientious cashier wraps 48 cereal bowls for the customer ahead of us.

Thirty minutes later, it’s our turn. We’re happy.

“$54.95,” she smiles.

Hmmm. Toaster-oven, $24.95, plus three candy bars, one for her, two for me for good behavior. $54.95?

We get the manager, who calls the stock boy from his teen circle. My MIL sits in her replacement cart. The cashier takes other customers.

Finally: “We’re out of the ones on sale.”

I stare him down. It occurs to me I could have ordered one online. And saved all this fun.

He: “Ten bucks off.”

“Sold.”

Meanwhile, a woman walks around my MIL to pay for her stuff. Glaring at me, she says – no, screeches: “You could at least have moved her outta the way.”

Her? I look at my good MIL, who only recently has had to succumb to assistance to get around.

I’m learning that leaders have to use their basic instinct. Gently.

I turn to her, this “rhymes-with-witch,” and look into her eyes, and say, in my kindest voice: “You must be so happy that you are able to walk.”

Silence.

I love that sound sometimes.

On the way home, we resume giggling, she declines ice cream, and tells me how to drive.

Kathy Eliscu is a nurse and freelance writer who lives in Westbrook. She credits her way of looking at the light side of life to her mother, the late Marge Eliscu, whose “Coffee Break” humor column ran for two decades in the Maine Sunday Telegram

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