Walmart on any day, at any hour promises a contrast exercise.  From the Lexus sedans to the Ford Fiestas in its melting-pot parking lot, to the Nine West to slipper clad patrons, it’s a panacea of diversity.  On the eve of Christmas Eve, it’s a circus of dysfunction.  There I was, amid the a sea of people intent on getting their tables and trees ready for the holidays, more than a bit tipsy with anxiety.  I confess that I don’t really like crowds.  Like a sentinel, I patrol my personal space.  I walk on the balls of my feet to protect it, and have perfected the dodge and weave of a good wide receiver.  It’s hard, however, to maintain a space bubble in Walmart in December.

I was there by choice.  Our beloved children have gotten more savvy to the Christmas train in recent years, and we had chosen to defer some stocking-stuffer shopping until the 11th hour to help insulate their surprise and our planning.  Naturally, I regretted the wisdom of this decision before I entered the store.  Though I went in with a mission specific list, alone, and stealth like reconnaissance infantry, I had sweat on my upper lip before the greeter greeted me.

Anyone with heart carves a special place for Walmart greeters this year.  The news story that a centurion greeter was pushed to the ground upon her 100+ year-old keister by an angry shopper who thought she was not moving quickly enough on Black Friday was all over the internet and fresh in my mind.  I took a moment to wish him a Merry Christmas.  This greeter was a senior too, and I confess I lingered to wonder about his safety before I followed his directions to the Entertainment department.

On the walk there, staccato snipets of family dialogue peppered my walk.  I think there is something sinister in the ventilation systems of Walmart stores, some airborne contaminant that makes Mommies especially ill tempered and sweet children sour into vats of tantrums and tears.  Last night was like this on steroids.  There were no jingle bells in the air.  Clenched-jawed parent units scolded child after child, “BE QUIET!”

“I SAID NO!”

“STOP TOUCHING THAT ALREADY!”

“NO!  I TOLD YOU WE WERE NOT BUYING ANY JERKY!”

“NO!  I’M NOT CARRYING YOU!”

I rehearsed exit strategies as I made a detour around the candy aisle.  That was too much to even consider.  I promised myself that the last thing that the children needed was more candy.  A more than cynical veneer had begun to shellack my attitude when a woman approached me from behind.

My first response to unexpected physical contact is generally a flinch and recoil, but I registered in my periphery that it was an older woman just before her arm reached around my shoulder.

“Do you remember me?”  she inquired, brows up and eyes open wide with kindness.  Her smile was an question mark of hope.

She was with a young woman, 12-13 by the looks of her, and I rapidly flipped through my mental Rola-dex the grandmothers that I knew who had adolescent granddaughters.

“No,” I smiled down at her admitting my inability to remember. “Help me, I want to remember,” I promised.

The reconnection that followed read like Jodi Piccoult.  Long story short, she was not a grandmother.  In fact, she is at least 12 years my junior.  She had been my student during my first years of teaching high school just out of college.  In fact, I had been quite fond of her.  She had been a bright, creative, free spirit who had much more talent than self-discipline.  The girl with her was her daughter, 12, the same age as our oldest.  She broke off to ask her daughter if she remembered that crazy teacher that she used to hide from in high school, who used to chase her all over the building to see if she had done her homework, and told her that I was her.  She told her daughter that I did that because I would never give up on her, and that I knew that she could do the work.

I hardly noticed.  I admit I was busy doing the math, trying to figure out how old she was when her daughter was born.

And then, my former student, in front of her child the same age as our oldest, told me that she was terminally ill.

She told me how happy she was to be able to Christmas shop with her daughter as it was likely she would be, “Gone or unable to next year.”

The noise of Walmart ceased.

There was only silent perspective and her voice.

“Thank you,” she said to me, “I’ll never forget how you never gave up on me.”

Sweet Jesus.

I was so rattled that I had to call The Husband, “I don’t even know what’s in the cart,”  I said to him, “but I have to come home.”

“Come home,” was his reply.  “Now.”

He had heard it in my voice.

I was not home long before I shared the story with him.  The Oldest Girl was there, but I had not considered the impact it would have on her.

Silly me.

The Middle Girl came down this morning to report that The Oldest Girl was up writing in her journal and praying late into the night.

She reported this in tones of irritation, not respect.  The Middle Girl’s precious sleep had been interrupted.

Used with permission, this is the letter The Oldest Girl wrote.  She had hoped I would deliver it to my former student, but alas, I lacked the wherewithal to request her contact information.

Dear Former Student, these then are my 10 year-old daughter’s words to you:

“Dear __________,

Hello, I’m <The Oldest Daughter>, <The Mamma>’s daughter.   I’m so sorry, and I have something to share about myself.  When I was really young, I was diagnosed with the coarctation of the aorta, because the doctors didn’t find it until several weeks, there were other complications.  However, the doctors diverted an artery [from my arm to repair my heart], and everything worked out.  I was a healthy, happy baby until another issue arose.  I was three, and my appendix burst in a very severe way, chance of survival were slim.  The doctors did a surgery, however, and it was successful!!  I am ten-years old and still alive.  Lucky?

No.  God helped me through it, He is the reason I am alive to write this letter.  He saved me  and He will save you too.  When I was baptized, I felt the Holy Spirit touch me, it was so awesome.  I may still have scars, but they are tiny compared to what God can do.  If you ask Jesus into your heart, if you truly accept Him as your Savior, then whenever you walk across a sandy beach, if you look back, there will be two sets of footprints.  When you look back and see only one, God has not deserted you, He has pick you up and carried you.

I pray that you can accept Jesus into your heart and continue or begin your walk with Christ.

Have Faith,

<The Oldest Girl>”

Sweet Jesus.

I did my best,
it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel,
so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth,
I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!