Updated on November 2, 2017
Can anything good come from standing in line?
The check-out line at Old Navy gives me hives. Especially when the clock is ticking away seconds until my feet need to be planted at the bus stop. I just need one pair of pants; a pair that will hopefully cover the ankles of the boy whose legs won’t stop stretching. But, the line is endless. Behind me stands a mom with a toddler in full-on meltdown mode. She’s doing all the mom things. But he’s a toddler. And in his fit, he grabs one of the trinkets from the display shelf. Seconds later, the toy is hurled to the ground and shatters into a million pieces.
The mom kneels right at my feet, attempting to deal with the mess. And as I stoop to help, I realize she is crying. It takes only a second. Just the sight of the tears and the overwhelm in that mama’s eyes and my own begin to brim as well.
The toddler tries to make a run for it and the mess keeps scattering under all the feet. Balancing a diaper bag and a pile of jackets, the mom tries to gather the shattered pieces. Instinctively, I snag the little boy by his arm and swing him to my hip. Yeah. I am overly empathetic and weird like that. Also, I am an expert at catching runaway toddler boys. The little boy is shocked that a teary-eyed stranger is holding him and momentarily freezes.
Everyone in the line is now staring at me.
“I have three of my own,” I hastily give these strangers my credentials as the mom struggles tearfully and unsuccessfully to continue the cleanup. The person behind her begins to help with the pieces of the toy on the floor, and soon the whole line is working to put things back in order.
I continue to hold the squirmy little fella as the mom tries to compose herself. I am impressed that I haven’t lost my “holding a thrashing toddler” muscles from back in the day.
“It can’t be fixed,” the dejected mom tells the store clerk when we finally make our way to the front, “it’s all in a million pieces. I will have to pay for it.” She begins to unearth her wallet from her bag.
I talk sweetly to my new little friend and blink back my tears.
I have lived this woman’s life. The overwhelm is palpable.
Her shoulders are hunched, her brow furrowed, she checks her watch twenty times as the clerk slowly rings up her clothes. And her eyes. It’s her eyes that get me. They tell of sleepless nights and panic that lives right below the surface. She looks at the floor as she asks me a million times if I mind holding him. I smile and shake my head, not trusting myself to talk.
And then this man from the back of the line walks forward to the counter. “I want to pay for her stuff,” he says gruffly. “The broken toy, too.” He takes out his card and swipes it before she can say a word.
“You moms,” he says shaking his head, “You make the world go ’round. I don’t know how you do it.” He ruffles the head of the toddler on my hip, signs the receipt and then turns to the folks in line.
“Go home and thank your moms for all they do for you. And have a good day.”
Everyone stands silently stunned. She and I have full on tears now as we walk to the exit. I hand her back her little bundle and our teary eyes meet.
“You’re going to tell me it gets better, right?” she asks quietly, “that I should treasure all this time because they grow up and…” her voice trails off.
“No,” I whisper, “I’m going to tell you that it gets harder. So. Much. Harder. They break things you can’t figure out how to fix and they need things you don’t know how to give them. But. They do eventually learn how to stand in line.”
She laughs and we both wipe our tears. “And that man? I hardly had enough money for those jackets, let alone that broken toy.” She goes on to tell me of financial hardship and other kids. “Maybe that broken toy was actually God’s gift? That’s what he does right? He shows up in the most unexpected places?”
Before I can respond, she quickly climbs in her car and thanks me for my help. The little boy waves goodbye through the back window as they pull away.
But this side of heaven? God might just use long lines, broken toys, run away toddlers and big-hearted men to wipe away our tears and remind us that he’s right here.
I whisper thanks and hurry to catch that bus.