(Originally published in 2017.)
“Merry Christmas” she said, cheerfully wrapping my package. “Are you having a good Christmas?”
“Yes,” I replied without looking up, pretending to dig in my purse for something or other.
Despite my monosyllabic response, the saleslady continued talking to me about how much she loves Christmas, how excited her children are about Santa, and that they planned to spend Christmas day with her family in Tyler.
“So what are you doing for Christmas?” she asked.
I finally looked up. Her eyes were shining, youthful, and she appeared to be sincere and genuinely interested in hearing my thoughts. I briefly considered telling her the truth–about how I’m back in Texas to help my aging parents; how my father is losing more of himself daily and how devastating it is to watch; how I’m in constant pain, battling Multiple Sclerosis while trying to hide it from my parents because they wouldn’t understand and I don’t want to worry them; or how I’m in the midst of making some of the most difficult, life-changing decisions imaginable, and it feels like I’m drowning in responsibility. You know, all that “poor pitiful me” stuff I despise.
Instead I said, “Nothing much, just spending time with my sister and parents.” I was grateful for the silence that followed my answer.
Ringing me up she asked to see my ID. As I handed her my California driver’s license she exclaimed, “Look at that, you’re from California! I’ve always wanted to go there! What’s it like?”
“Yes, I live in California,” I answered, and knowing she would continue trying to engage me in conversation anyway I added, “but I’m moving here to help take care of my parents.”
“Oh no, why?” she asked. “Are they sick?”
Unable to avoid the personal conversation I had now already shared, I said, “No, they aren’t exactly sick but they need much more help than my sister can give….”
And that’s when the floodgates opened. Completely unexpectedly–and not without a mental fight–I poured out my life to the woman. I told her how my entire world is changing, having recently left my beautiful home and family in California to move into an apartment in Longview, Texas. I told her I was to become a full-time caregiver to my parents, who both have Alzheimer’s. And I told her about my own health concerns, how unsure I am that I’m even physically capable of handling this immense task before me…
So there I was in the middle of a department store, having verbally unclothed myself, showing parts of my soul I’d been clinging to so tightly, and to a complete stranger–a saleswoman who, in most cases, would have been making small talk as simply a part of her job.
How could she have known there was anything wrong? I thought I was hiding it all so well, keeping it properly tamped down, wearing my usual L.A. public “mask” of large sunglasses and an air of distance around me. But this woman saw through it all.
Tears in her eyes, she grabbed my hands (which I hadn’t noticed were clenched into tight fists). “May I pray with you?” she asked. And we did, right there in the middle of the busy, noisy, chaotic store.
No one in the now-long line that had formed behind us said a word; no one complained. When I turned around, I received smiles and hugs from complete strangers who said they would be praying for my family and me, too…
Having grown up in East Texas, I know things like this happen all the time. So many of the beautiful, caring people of Texas would never allow someone they believe is hurting to pass by without a kind word, or an offer of prayer. The sense of love and community here is overwhelming, and I am trying to readjust my thinking to this new life I will soon be entering into again–a life I left for the bright lights of Hollywood when I was barely 20-years old. And although I was originally coming back to Texas reluctantly, out of familial necessity, I now realize this is something I may need to do just as much for myself as for my parents and sister.
Because of this wonderful woman today, who acted on her instincts to gently peel away some of my layers and pray with me, I am already feeling much stronger.
My prayer for all of you this Christmas season is that you’ll have the courage to look up and face your struggles–not try to hide from them, bury them, deny them–and that you’ll allow others to reach out a hand for you when you need it. I pray you will open yourselves up to small kindnesses, and a prayer or two.
Today was a reminder that there are definitely people out there–even strangers–who genuinely care and can help guide you out of whatever darkness you may be in.
Merry Christmas to all of you.
(2021 UPDATE from Ann-Marie: I originally wrote this in 2017. The loving sentiment is the same but things are so much better for me now. My father died in 2020, but my mother is happy and healthy and living with my sister and me now. So Merry Christmas, y’all! And if you see someone, male or female, walking around a public place–store or church–wearing sunglasses, seeming like they are snobby or unfriendly, please make an extra effort to be kind to them. You just never know what’s happening behind their ‘mask’. Sometimes the strongest-looking people are the loneliest, the most lost…)