“Let me take care of this for you,” says the saleswoman. Then, mercifully, she walks away to a counter at the far end of the shoe department. I search my coat pocket for tissues.
It’s the post-holiday rush in department stores all over the United States. But here in Chicago, at the end of 2010, it’s particularly busy. I have my 10- and six-year-old sons at Von Maur, shopping for suits. The older couple walking by us smile as my boys paw at each other rambunctiously. They assume we are shopping for holiday finery. But we’re not. We’re shopping for funeral suits.
My mother has declared she is done with surgeries and interventions. We know she will pass away within the next couple of months. And it could be as soon as the next couple of days. Thus, here we are, shopping for funeral attire so when the call comes, we can head to the town that still feels like home to me—the one in which I grew up.
We’ve ended up in the ladies’ shoes department and I’ve held it together up to this point. I’ve let the boys ride the Santa train in the middle of the mall and waved, smiling, as they chug by me. My eldest has outgrown this train but he rides for his little brother. I bought them the obligatory chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate that are our tradition after riding the train. And now I’m just trying to take care of the final bit—shoes that will match my clothes for my mother’s wake and funeral.
In Von Maur’s enormous shoe department, I can find just one pair that will both match and allow me to stand for the hours it will take to properly memorialize my mother. She was well known in her work circles and there will be many mourners who will pay their respects. So, comfort is key. But I’m enough of my mother’s daughter to balk at shoes that look comfortable without style. I’ve found the one pair that meets my needs. Yet, when the saleswoman comes out of the back room, she tells me they don’t have a size six.
I don’t cry in public. At least I try not to. That, too, is an inheritance from my stoic Germanic mother. The older I get, the more I channel my sentimental dad but I am sometimes horrified when the tears roll down my cheeks. Not because he wasn’t a decent man. I just don’t like to bleed vulnerability in public.
My eyes well up as she says matter-of-factly, “No can do. We’re out of that size.” I explain why I need them and she softens. “Let me take care of this for you.”
She comes back after I’ve wiped my tears and kept the boys from knocking over the nearest shoe display with their antics. “You’ll have them in a day or two. They’ll be coming from Kansas,” she says. “And—I’m sorry.”
Her kindness—walking away to let me compose myself, making the extra calls to find what I needed—I will never forget. I am not sure I wouldn’t have just blubbered right there in Ladies’ Shoes had she not been so human. I was at the end of a very long, taut metaphorical rope. But my fellow human came through for me.
It’s 2002, maybe 2003. I am groggy, soon to succumb to an anesthesia-induced sleep so a surgeon can biopsy my liver. I am on a gurney in a hallway and the tears roll down my cheeks. The nurse leans down and says, “What is the matter?” I swallow hard and say, “My son. He’s so little. What if . . .” She stops me. “You’re going to be fine,” she says. “I just know it. And at this hospital, we pray. I’ve said a prayer for you. Believe, honey. Believe it is all going to work out.”
It seems only seconds later, I am waking up in that hallway. As I try to open my eyes, they flutter weakly instead. “Hey, you. Hi. You’re back,” my husband says in his gentlest voice. “We missed you. It’s all over.” I open my eyes to his concerned face flooding with relief. And he takes my hand as they wheel me down the hall. I don’t ever see the same nurse again. But I remember her well, even to this day. Not her face, but her voice. Sweet comfort.
2011. I’m in an ambulance on my way to the hospital. The paramedic is telling me about how he is going to propose to his girlfriend that week. “Details,” I squeak out between gasps. He tells me of how her family is in on the surprise. And by the end of his tale, the Toradol has taken effect and I can speak in full sentences again. “Oh, I love it,” I say. “The perfect way to make her feel special.” He smiles as he wheels me into the emergency room and waves on his way out.
The bossy middle-aged nurse barks questions at me but every time I try to answer, she talks to the other people in the room. I finally snap, “Are these rhetorical questions? Or do they actually require answers?”
The male nurse in the room, Nic, tells her he will handle it from there. As she huffs her way out the door, he turns to me and smiles conspiratorially. “Enough to make a tough day worse, eh?”
The ER doctor bounces into the room—a real-life Tigger, and a gorgeous one at that—and laughs at what Nic has just said. “We’ve got you, Kristine. You have the A-team right here.”
Three hours later, I’m ready to go home. This dynamic duo took me from scary scenario to giggling at their antics. As I walk into the restroom, I let out a little scream. They chuckle. “Yeah, we were waiting for that,” Nic admits. My hair is sticking straight up, the victim of my flailing from the pain.
As I wait for my paperwork, the doctor tells me to remember that my body is “effing amazing. Your kidney stone traveled in 90 minutes what takes some a week to travel. Isn’t that phenomenal?” He is truly excited. I guess he can be, but I have just been through the equivalent of having a third child without the benefit of any drugs. I glare at him for a moment and then burst out laughing. “Effing amazing” is right.
Sometimes it’s a phone call, sometimes a prayer, sometimes it’s comedic relief. Kindness takes so many forms. Sometimes it doesn’t speak, but just quietly pays the shortage in what is owed for groceries for the person at the head of the checkout line.
This last example is top of mind for me, particularly because my son is working retail for the holiday season. He was cashiering a couple of weeks ago, checking out a woman who was paying with money from an envelope. As he totaled her items, she realized she had to return some. “Mom, it was basics,” he said. “Underwear, pajamas–stuff like that.” He said how hard it was to watch her have to do this, especially in front of her fellow customers who were waiting in line. “I tried to be super nice, super chill,” he said. “To make it no big deal.” In his own small way, a kindness was shown. I hope it made it easier for her.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving in my country this week, in the middle of a pandemic that rages on here, the kindness of strangers matters all the more. Wishing you the right phone call, prayer, laugh, or helping hand. Or, here’s hoping that you are able to provide it, if your own tanks are full.
Happy Thanksgiving, all.