A stupid teddy bear nearly ruined my morning. Sitting front and center inside the doors of Old Navy, it proudly flaunted its blue scarf and beckoned to be cuddled. It was at least as big as my 2-year-old son so, naturally, he just had to have it.
“Honey, we aren’t getting a teddy bear today,” I feebly replied to his pleas. “We are just here to get you new mittens.”
But my son was relentless, like most 3-year-olds are, and I was freaking tired. Not just bone-tired, but soul-tired. That kind of tired that you feel down down in your core. Our family was feeling the weight of financial stress and job insecurities. I had just suffered my third miscarriage in six months too. I was angry at just about everyone and everything.
I was tired, I was angry, and I was beaten down.
So I caved.
“OK, fine,” I said, reasoning that I would just let him carry the bear around the store for a few minutes while I searched for the mittens, and then we would place it back on the shelf. With careful planning and clever psychological maneuvering, I rationalized that I could save the tantrum for our exit from the store and not our entry.
My son grabbed one of the bears and we headed to the back of the store, where I quickly found a cute pair of red fleece mittens in just the right size along with a matching hat. We made our way to the front of the store to pay for our purchases, all the while my son proudly and gleefully carrying that damn white teddy bear behind him.
I confidently strode up to the checkout aisle, patting myself on the back for our quick tantrum-free shopping excursion. I set the mittens and hat on the counter and gently pried the bear from my son’s tiny hands so that I could give it to the clerk, politely telling her that we had changed our mind about the bear. But when I picked it up, I realized that its round bottom was now a dingy black.
I let out an audible groan and asked the clerk how much the bear cost, knowing that because we had ruined it, we would now be buying it.
“Twenty dollars,” responded the young woman.
I let out another, louder groan. Dammit! I did not want to spend $20. I did not want my son to think that he could get whatever he wanted, and I did not want this huge teddy bear taking up more space in our already cramped home.
“Okay,” I sighed. “I guess we’ll be buying that as well.”
The kind checkout clerk said I didn’t need to buy the bear, but I insisted. You break it, you buy it. Or in this case, you dirty it, you buy it.
As I was pulling out my wallet and trying to keep my grabby-hands son from making any more unintended purchases, I heard a voice nearby chide, “That’s what you get.”
I looked around and quickly realized that the voice was coming from a woman behind me. And she wasn’t stopping with her string of “advice.” She continued to tell him how I should have known better, how I should have done better, how I should have been better. She went on and on and on.
White hot rage boiled up inside me. I wanted to scream. I wanted to break something. And I wanted to curl up in a ball and sob.
But I took a breath, summoned every ounce of strength I could find, and turned to this silver-haired prune of a woman.
“Are you a mother?” I asked.
“Yes, of course I am.”
“Perhaps then you might understand just how hard it is,” I squeaked.
“I would never have let my kids drag a teddy bear around the store,” she retorted. “You need to set limits.”
Is she for real?, I thought. What had I done to deserve this? I was just trying to buy pair of mittens.
A quickly spiraled into a whirl of anger and self-pity. What the hell is wrong with people? Is it that hard to be kind, or at a minimum to just mind their own business?
But even more than that, what had I done to deserve any of it—the miscarriages, the infertility problems, the financial stress, the loneliness? Why did the world seem to be so cold and heartless? And why did everything have to be so freaking hard?
And then something cracked and I just… gave up. I had no fight left in me.
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate your advice. Thank you very much.”
I turned back to the clerk and handed her my credit card. After signing the receipt, I grabbed my purchases, took my son’s hand as he clutched that giant white (well, white-ish) teddy bear and shuffled out of the store.
Feeling the tears springing to my eyes, I tried to hustle my son to our car so that I could have my emotional breakdown in private, but when you’re dealing with a toddler, everything takes longer than you would like. We weren’t more than a few steps out of the store when a red sedan pulled up and its passenger window went down. A round-faced man, who looked to be in his early 40s, leaned over across the seat.
Crap, I thought. What now?
“Excuse me,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that I saw what happened in the store. I was humbled and amazed. You handled that situation beautifully, and I am inspired. You have inspired me. I will carry that with me the rest of the day as I try to be a better person. Thank you.”
And just like that, the red sedan drove off. I stood there on the curb for a few moments, stunned and marveling at the profound impact that this odd group of strangers all had on each other. Afterward, I sat in the car for what felt like hours, but was probably just a few minutes. While I clutched that white teddy bear, a few tears rolled down my cheeks.
And then I smiled the tiniest of smiles.
I needn’t have wondered about the hostility of the universe or the cruelty of humanity. Because you know what? People can suck and the world can be a cold, heartless place sometimes. But most people are mostly good most of the time, and the world can also fill your heart when you least expect. And sometimes your life can be changed in the most unassuming ways.
Sometimes kindness shows up in an Old Navy parking lot dressed as a round-faced man driving a red sedan.