That damn 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 tired. I was so very tired. Not just bone-tired, but soul-tired. It was the fall of 2008, and like every other American, our family was feeling the crushing weight of financial stress and job insecurities. I had grown weary from the constant daily strain of it all.
I was tired, I was weary, and I was broken—spirit-broken and heartbroken. Having just suffered my third miscarriage in six months, I was angry at just about everyone and everything—angry at the bad luck, angry at the horrible circumstances, angry at my body, angry at God and whatever or whomever was responsible for this wretchedness.
I was tired, I was broken, and I was weak.
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 aforementioned 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 meekly 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 beastly 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 acerbic voice was coming from a woman behind me. And she wasn’t stopping. She continued to tell him how I should have known better, how I should have done better, how I should have been better. Her litany of callous advice went on and on.
Rage—pure, unadulterated rage—boiled up inside me. The fighter in me instantly came to life. I wanted to scream. I wanted to slap her. And I wanted to curl up in a ball and sob.
I took a breath, summoned every ounce of peaceful 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 in a mouse-like voice.
“I would never have let my kids drag a teddy bear around the store,” she retorted. “You need to set limits.”
What had I done to deserve this judgment and harsh criticism? What had I done to deserve getting berated by a stranger when I was merely trying to buy a pair of mittens?
What had I done to deserve any of this—the criticism, the miscarriages, the infertility problems, the financial setbacks, the loneliness, the cruelty of strangers?
Why did the universe seem to be so against me? Why was everything so freaking hard?
I was tired and broken and weak. I had no fight left in me.
“Thank you,” I responded, surrendering myself to something outside of myself, something bigger than my own fragile emotions. “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.
More tired, more broken and weaker than ever, 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.
“Excuse me,” said the man as I braced myself for another confrontation. “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 damn white teddy bear, a few tears rolled down my cheeks, and then I smiled, knowing that everything would be alright.
I needn’t have wondered about the hostility of the universe or the cruelty of humanity. Everything that I had doubted was clearer now than ever before—because on that cold fall day, Kindness (with a capital K) showed up in an Old Navy parking lot dressed as a round-faced man driving a red sedan.
This piece is an excerpt from the author’s book, Open Boxes: The Gifts of Living a Full and Connected Life, which is a collection of stories about the paradoxes of parenting and the fullness of life.