I heard her before I saw her. She was singing softly to the song that was playing over the store’s public address system.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” she sang.
I looked up from my cell phone.
“Let your heart be light.” She turned and put toiletries into the bin behind her.
“From now on your troubles will be out of sight.”
She was actually SMILING as she worked behind the customer service desk at Walmart.
I was three deep in line and I watched her as she worked and sang, her voice soulful and sweet.
There were two women on duty that afternoon taking returns. I hoped I’d get her, and I did.
She looked up at me and smiled broadly.
“Well hello!,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
She recognized me from my years on the air at Channel 13.
“The question is, what are YOU doing here? With that voice you should be singing on stage somewhere!” I told her.
She smiled sweetly. Footlights were not in the cards, at least not now.
Her name was Kay and she had already put in a full day at work. In an hour, she would begin a second full shift at another job.
Early morning was the only time she got to herself. Kay told me she rose each morning at 2:30 to get to work at Walmart by 5:30. Ten hours later she was working her second job, which did not end until 10:30 each night.
“You don’t sleep much, do you?” I asked.
“I get about 3 hours most nights, ”she said.
She leaned across the desk with gentle eyes and a kind smile on her face. “This won’t last forever,” she said. “This too shall pass.”
Kay, as it turns out, knows all too well the meaning of those words.
“I have three kids, so I am accustomed to losing sleep,” she said. “But three years ago I lost my son.”
She paused, and the air between us got thick.
“He was murdered.”
Its hard to say why certain conversations become suddenly intimate—why you can tell a stranger on a plane, for instance, something only trusted family members know. The anonymity of the meeting and the parting is a grace of time and place that cannot be planned nor duplicated.
As a reporter, people often tell me intimate things because they have a story in mind, and reporters develop radar for those encounters. This was not one of those moments. The conversation unfolded with Kay organically as she processed my return.
When Kay told me about her son tears instantly came to my eyes.
She leaned forward again, speaking softly. “It happened in August of 2008. THIS is the first Christmas since his death I have even felt like singing. ”
At that instant there was a deep point of connection. I never lost a son to murder, but I have lost a son.
Grief is grief, no matter the package in which it comes.
I know the feeling of malaise and despair when everyone—even the commercials on TV—urge a merry heart and goodwill toward men . I also know what it’s like when the shift occurs–when hope flutters in your heart once again and you feel like singing to the carols when they come on the radio.
Kay’s son was her pride and joy–the first in her family to graduate college.
A few months after getting his diploma, he got in a wrestling match with a casual acquaintance. “My son got the best of him, and the boy came back and stabbed him 8 times,” Kay said.
There was a long pause as I looked at her, then reached across the desk for her hand.
Her voice became soft again.
“But I’m here. I’m still here.”
She told me how she buried her son, then did the only thing she knew to do—let go of the anger.
“I didn’t know the boy who did it, but I went to him and told him I forgave him.”
“Do you know what I mean when I say I could not carry that hatred around? I had to forgive him. I had to let it go.”
The look in her eyes was resolute.
It is a concept I understand intellectually, but I wonder how many people –faced with her circumstances—would have the strength to really do it.
She finished my return and I asked if I could give her a hug.
It was a long, sweet embrace over the desk—two strangers who were no longer strangers.
“You have a beautiful spirit,” she said. “ And so do you.”
I marvel at the stories people carry: Kay, at the Walmart customer service desk, singing as she serves, possesses an interior strength that is almost super human.
I walked into Walmart expecting to make a return, and walked out with Christmas spirit borne of a new perspective.
I will never hear the carol again without hearing the sound of Kay’s voice…
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light.
From now on your troubles will be out of sight…”