It was a busy evening during spring break and we were overwhelmed with customers. I’d been moving as fast as I could through my shift and I was tired during the last hour. I was bagging up the items for a mom and her young daughter when I heard the mother whisper something to her child. The little girl came around the counter and spoke to me:
“Mr. David, thank you for taking care of us.”
“Why… thank you, darlin’.” I pulled my mind from the fatigue to focus on her. “You’re very welcome. You just gave me the nicest moment of my evening.”
They waved goodbye.
It’s fairly well documented that I’m an emotional guy so it won’t surprise anyone that I my eyes filled up and my throat had a lump that wouldn’t let me talk to the next three customers.
It seems to me that the most significant moments with children happen when life is very busy. I missed a lot of them with my own kids when they were young. As an older guy, I know to watch for those moments but I can still overlook them.
One time, a boy, about 8 years old, struck up a conversation with me while I was trying to fix the self-checkout register.
“We are from South Carolina,” he said seriously.
“You are?” I said while I pushed various buttons on the uncooperative machine.
“Yes,” he said. “We’re staying at a hotel that has a pool.”
“Sounds pretty fun,” I said, although I was only half hearing him, and for some reason I was a little agitated with his slow speech while I was working furiously.
“We went to Universal today.”
“Uh huh. Did you like it?”
“Yes, we saw the Harry Potter exhibit.”
“That’s great,” I said as I resisted the urge to kick the machine..
“Have you seen it?” He asked.
“What? The Harry Potter exhibit? No, I haven’t.”
“Well… I won’t tell you about it. I don’t want to ruin it for you.”
I stopped. What an odd thing for a kid to say. I took a moment to really look at him. He was chunky with red hair, freckles and a solemn face. I glanced up and saw his dad, who was shaking his head, looking like he might be a little embarrassed.
“Okay, thanks,” I said. “I hope the rest of your vacation is great, too. Have a nice day.”
And then he was gone. I thought about him later that night when I got home and I realized that the chunky boy with the contemplative nature was me, right down to his freckles.
I wonder now… is he as lonely as I was at that age, with no one to talk to, where kids his own age laughed at him for the strange things he said? Was he hoping to have a scrap of a conversation with an adult, even a busy grocery clerk, who might take him seriously?
The most significant moments happen like this. When we’re busy and agitated, a quiet kid offers a piece of his heart to a stranger, and we nearly miss it. As I think about him, I vow again, like I’ve done a thousand times, to step away from annoying little tasks and instead pay attention to the quiet children with big feelings.
However, when I pay attention to the children, it can be hard to keep working.
Not long ago, a baby boy played peekaboo with me at the register. He was a delightful kid and he made me smile until I thought about how my two kids had been cute like that and how I miss them now. They’re grown but it seems like yesterday I was playing peekaboo with them. And then I started crying right there at the checkout counter. I struggled to pull it together enough to get to the end of my shift.
Before I went home, I sat for a moment at the table in the break room to get control of my feelings. My coworker, JoJo, breezed through, said hello, then stopped.
“You okay?” she asked.
I told her about the boy and admitted I was having a hard moment. I think she had seen me playing with the boy. Now I was crossing my arms and clenching my jaw, trying to hold myself together. She approached me from behind to give me a spontaneous hug, saying she was willing to listen if I wanted to talk. I didn’t and that was okay with her, too. She went on to work while I went home.
The best moments happen quickly when you’re not quite ready. Little girls bless us with gracious words, little boys show the depths of their hearts, and babies make grown men cry. And when you can’t hold yourself together, a friend helps you out by putting her arms around you.