It was incredibly busy at the store on Christmas Eve, and I’d been having an awful day. I missed my kids and felt a lot of grief from past years. And the store’s holiday music rankled me. In our final hour, the crowd was at its largest, and the atmosphere was getting more frantic.
Long lines had formed at every register. A woman and a teenage boy brought their fully laden cart to the self-checkout. She was a little older, and I wondered if she was the boy’s grandmother. She struggled with the register, then looked up, alarmed. With a dozen people waiting behind her, she realized she’d forgotten something.
She turned to me, “I forgot the sugar,” she said. “Can you get some for me?”
“Ma’am, I would, but I can’t leave my station.”
This didn’t seem like much of a problem. Either she or the boy could simply go get it.
“I don’t want to leave him alone,” she said, looking desperate. I looked at the boy more closely. He was the size of a thirteen-year-old, but his face seemed younger.
“You’re going to have to go get it,” she said to him.
He nodded, eager to take off.
“Listen!” she said. She held his face to look him in the eye, and she talked as if he were much younger. “Go straight there and come straight back. Don’t talk to or follow anyone. Make sure you get sugar and nothing else!”
He took off, while she watched.
“He really needs help, doesn’t he?” I said.
She nodded, distressed.
“He has autism,” she said.
I called to my supervisor, “Can you cover for me?”
“Of course,” she said.
I waded through the crowd and caught up with him. He was about to pick up some flour rather than sugar.
“Hi,” I said. “That looks the same, but the sugar is further down here, see?”
He picked up the sugar, and I walked with him back to his mom, who smiled gratefully.
“I didn’t understand what was going on, ma’am. I’m always happy to help.”
Helping that boy became the day’s most important moment, and it made my sadness go away. My own children may have been far away, but I could help this one.
When they were safely out the door, I cried briefly, and then went back to work.