Target is busier than I've probably ever seen it (I tend to avoid the Black Friday crowds) but I need food, dish soap and probably a new cardigan, so I charge on. I get yelled at in the baking aisle because I left my cart four inches away from the side of the aisle as I stepped away from it to snag some raisins. But I deserved it, my Target etiquette is better than that - thank you, dear friend, for reminding me of my manners.
An hour later I'm finally walking out when I see her. Sitting in one of the job application chairs in the customer service center, face in her hands, shoulders shaking, sobbing. I do a double take, I had just conquered the longest Target list ever, I was tired and she was probably just a drama queen and couldn't get her Cartwheel to work.
Mike and I used to watch that show, "What Would You Do?" and we'd always try to figure out what we ourselves would do in a similar situation as the people on the show. Ever since I saw a few episodes of it, I started getting afraid that I would be on that show in real life and I would be the one stealing the parking spot from the handicapped person or letting a baby suffocate in a car while the mom goes into get coffee. When I saw that woman - who looked about the same age as me - I remembered that show, so I sighed and lumbered my red cart over to where she was sitting.
I ask the woman if she's okay, if she needs anything and she waves me away, telling me she's fine, but I see the tears well up further so I press, offering her my phone to make a call or to give her a ride somewhere, telling her I'd like to help. She tells me she'll be alright, she's just having a bad day and locked her keys out of her car (with her phone inside) and was waiting for a Target rep to open up a trashcan nearby so she can see if she accidentally threw them away. She keeps going, and soon I find out her mom has been recently diagnosed with Leukemia; she was getting a bone marrow transplant today, an appointment the girl was now late for because she locked herself out of her car. I offer my phone again to make a call and she leaves a voicemail for her dad, who isn't answering - probably because he's in the appointment. More tears tumble out and so do the words. I learn her name is Sarah, she's just flown in from D.C. and is thinking of quitting her job so she can be with her mom or at the very least try to work remotely from the Twin Cities. The doctors are telling Sarah her mom doesn't have long. She is also applying to grad school and the deadlines are tomorrow. She doesn't have time to finish them properly and doesn't know what the future holds.
I tell her I understand, my father-in-law passed away from colon cancer a couple years ago. We didn't have a lot of time with him either, and it's so hard to see someone you love suffer. I tell her she's in the thick of it, and that's a lot for one person's shoulders to carry. I begin to cry with her, soaking up her tears like a sponge, and wringing them out of me right there in the middle of Target's customer service center. I tell her that it will be okay, I'm on the other side and can say that, but I know right now it seems bleak and hopeless and that there's so much to figure out but how do you figure out something that you don't feel like there is any answer to? I tell her to hold on, to have hope. That no matter what, somehow, someday no matter the outcome you will feel okay again. My father-in-law passing is not what we would have chosen, but it is what it is, and it is okay.
We are both sobbing, blubbering really. I feel it, the tug, the pull. I fight it, I don't want to. Not here with all these people watching. Our Target carts are way further out from the wall than just four inches. People not only have to get around our carts, but around two crying strangers - and crying and strangers always make people uncomfortable. I see the Target reps craning their necks over the crowds to look at us. The long line of customers staring and whispering, but I know I need to do it. I ask her if I can pray for her and to my surprise, she gobbles up my offer and before I know it my hand is on her knee and I am praying for healing, for comfort, for peace and for her keys to be found.
I stand and she thanks me and I offer my phone or a ride again and she tells me she'll wait for her dad to pick her up. She tells me her day is better now, she'll be okay and thanks me again. I wave goodbye, tell her I'll continue praying for her, the stranger I met at Target.
Growing up, the holidays were never "hard" for me. I did not yet intimately know true hardship, sickness, or death and all told, my life was fairly easy. In Mike and I's first year of marriage, together we lost three family members in eight months, one of them his dad. And ever since, I've known what it means, for holidays to be "hard."
This year, I've been thinking about it more, maybe because I'm a mom, but I think more because I know too many friends and family who have suffered loss and sickness this year. Miscarriages, cancer, disease and death, it seems there is no one who is left untouched these days. So next time you're out picking up presents for Christmas, eating at a restaurant, going to a holiday event, or even just out on a routine Target run, remind yourself that whatever place you are in, it is full of hurting people. Have extra grace for the huffy, impatient and gruff, and do a double take with those that look like they could use a little extra encouragement.
Remember, it's usually not about losing car keys. Their stories are deep, the problems are big, the answers nonexistent, the feelings confusing and at times uncontrollable. I know what usually hinders me is not knowing what to say, or worrying that I'll say the wrong thing, but I would guess that saying something is much better than nothing, because saying something says you care enough to try - and usually, that's all a person needs. Keep an eye out, and don't fight the urge to stop and check; you might be surprised at how you can relate with a complete stranger, leaving you both a feeling just a little bit better going into the holidays.