To quote an over-quoted Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Holidays are always filled with hustle and bustle. While I usually refuse to settle into a hurried feeling of to-do lists and hoopla, this year I felt the anxiousness simmering, barely concealed beneath my skin. There were December birthdays to celebrate, gifts to buy, a house to decorate (I skipped making cookies this year. Who needs more sugar?), school concerts and church services and a few holiday parties to attend. Oh and there were two weeks of daily drives over mountain passes to finish up medical appointments for my son.
Somehow, in the midst of it all, I still managed to have fun, enjoy my family, a visit with my son’s delightful girlfriend, and the magic and meaning of the season. It was the best of times.
One day—the only day it snowed and obscured our drive on the way to the medical appointment...the same day I gripped the steering wheel so hard my fingers went numb...the same trip that took us almost an extra 40 minutes because I knew my little Toyota Corolla could skid like a hockey puck across the icy mountain roads if I wasn’t extra careful—we planned a shopping trip. It was just days before Christmas, and I hadn’t even bought anything for stockings yet, the one, real gift we give our kids.
After rolling a sticky-wheeled cart around Target for a couple of hours, I managed to fill it with videos, cans of nuts, candy, make-up for my daughter, flashlights and novelties for my son, socks, lip balms, and random little fillers I thought might be fun, I pushed my cart to the line and waited my turn. I knew how much I could spend, and as I stood in line I did a mental calculation of the items, plus what I would need to buy for Christmas dinner. Our budget was tight this year. Medical expenses and multiple tanks of gas had stretched it to the limit. But we’d be all right.
Finally it was my turn and I unloaded all the items, glancing through them. Did I get my son enough? Would my daughter like those earrings? I still needed to pick up a few more things for my husband’s stocking. The checkout clerk cheerfully scanned each item and gave me a total. I gulped. It just seemed like so much for such silly stuff. I slid my debit card through the little scanning machine. Rejected. What? I even checked the balance with my husband before I left. We had plenty! I sighed, feeling the heat of bodies lined up behind me waiting their turn.
“Let me try my charge card,” I said, totally embarrassed. Declined. That can’t be! I know that was paid up. The cashier looked at me patiently. “I don’t understand,” I muttered trying yet another charge card.
“I’m sorry,” she said, almost as uncomfortable by now as I was, “That card's expired.” Great. I hadn’t put in the new card.
Another cashier came up and took a few people from our line. I was so embarrassed. “Never mind,” I muttered. “I’m not sure what’s going on. Just…I’ll leave it. I’m sorry. But thank you.” I walked away from the bagged items, my face hot, not meeting any eyes.
It was the worst of times.
“Ma’am?” the clerk called me back.
“Yes?” I said wishing she’d just let me walk away.
“These people behind you just paid for your purchase. You can take your bags.”
I’ve read about things like this happening. I’ve even wished I had the money to pay it forward like this before, but I’ve never had it actually happen to me. I was… horrified. Embarrassed. Mortified. “No, no,” I protested to the couple, probably both close to my age, the lady, a pretty blonde in a long, full-length fur coat. I had seen them in the store earlier as I was cruising aisles. With big grins they were filling several carts with Christmas goodies.
“It’s all right,” the lady said. “We are happy to do it.”
But I couldn’t let it rest. “No, no really. We are okay. We have the money. I just need to transfer it or something. I’m not sure why the cards didn’t go through.” Maybe if they had paid for needed groceries, or we truly were hurting for money, but this was just for bags full of trinkets and doo-dads for stockings. I couldn’t let them pay. They insisted. I wish I could say I was gracious and graceful. Although I thanked them profusely, I felt horrible inside. I wanted to crawl under a rock.
All the way home, I felt sick about being in a position of accepting charity; for allowing someone to pay for our bags full of… stuff.
As the day wore on, the reality of what had occurred and my ungracious response continued to sicken me. Slowly I realized I had to stop and adjust my attitude. Someone had wanted to gift us, to help alleviate my stress. They didn’t know we’d had a rough year with my son’s battle with cancer. They didn’t know our budget was tight. It didn’t matter. They wanted to do this, and I almost denied them their joy by allowing--let’s name it for what it is--my pride to ruin their gifting.
By the time I wrapped each little trinket to place in a stocking, I had softened and allowed the gratefulness and awe of what had happened to penetrate my heart. Being grateful--receiving--is, in my opinion, far more difficult than giving. I learned a tough lesson in humility, graciousness and gratefulness that afternoon. I hope they are lessons that won’t go unharvested. Although I trust this experience will remind me to pay it forward when an opportunity allows, I also hope it will teach me to recognize and name my pride more readily, and just learn to say thank you. And truly mean it.
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