Friday night. Work was dead and we were bored past tears, had moved on to gnashing teeth and pulling out hair, and were ready to lock doors and leave when a rush of people came in to shop. Because the best time to tear into neatly folded piles of soft cotton tees is 730 on a Friday night. Thanks folks, btw. Love you. Anyway. I was working Adult and Marsha from Kids came over with a woman whose arms were full of clothes. "Kate, you've planned parties for your kids. Can you help this woman?" I smiled and said, "Sure."
Lady launched into an explanation. Her daughter's birthday was the next day, she'd made cupcakes, sculpted chocolate to look like butterfly wings, and decorated them and they looked okay, but the cake turned out horribly and she'd spent all day trying to fix it to no avail, it was a mess and she'd thrown it away and her in-laws were at the house so she couldn't do anything, and time was up and she didn't know what to do, what should she do, she was going to have a hundred fifty people at her house tomorrow and the cake was a failure and how could she make it special for her daughter who'd been such a trooper all year, how could she salvage the birthday?
I took a breath for her. And then tried to figure out what was going on.
"Can you just make a box cake tonight?" I asked.
"No, my in-laws are at my house. There's no time," she answered.
I internally shook my head. What did this have to do with the Gap? And anyway, box cake is ridiculous easy. Why can't she cook just because her in-laws are at the house? So I suggested it again. Told her she could super simple cover it in fondant, stick some butterfly decorations from Target's party favor aisle, and be done. An hour tops and it's beautiful.
"No, there's no time," she repeated.
I asked her how old her daughter was turning. "Four." I let her know that her four year old wasn't going to need a perfect birthday, just some attention and sugar. Then she unloaded and told me that her daughter did need a perfect birthday. She'd spent the last year dragged to the hospital and doctor's offices for her little brother who had medical problems. She'd been so good, hadn't complained, and it had been hard year and she deserved a perfect birthday.
And that was the moment when I got what was really going on. It wasn't about fixing a cake problem, it was about a mom who had a sick baby and a lot of guilt for the lack of attention she was giving to her healthy child. I shut off customer-mode.
We spent the next half hour talking. What could she do with what she had in her house to fix the cake sitch? Was it really a loss? She showed me a picture. The decorations made it look like a vagina, and I told her so. We laughed. It changed her face. "You're right. It looks like a big vagina." "But how cool is a vagina cake?" I asked her, and we laughed some more.
The laughing helped. We came up with a cupcake solution and she felt okay with it. I rang her up for the clothes and asked her about her sick child. Was he better? Or were they still dealing with health problems? She told me that he was still sick. That she was waiting for 12 months before she allowed herself to break down. I asked her why she would do that, and she said she felt she needed to get through a year, to be strong through this, that the doctors had said after a year, things would be better.
I stopped ringing her up and looked at her.
"You know that's crazy, right? There's absolutely no reason for you to bottle yourself up like that. You should be crying and often. You need to get it out, you need to break down when it gets to be too much. You need to grieve."
She looked back at me and her eyes teared. "Maybe."
I finished her transaction, then walked her to the door. It was well after close so I had to unlock the door for her, but we stood there for a few moments.
"You should go home, get yourself a glass of wine, and cry until you fall asleep. The birthday party will be a success. No one will give a shit about the cake. You need to cut yourself some slack. It's been a tough year."
"You're right. I'm going to take a shower and cry until the water's cold. Thank you for being such a great friend."
We hugged, I let her out, wished her luck and went back to work.
I think the oddest thing about this entire story is that I never caught her name. We have these moment in life, when we are called to set aside what we're doing, to step outside of ourselves, and take care of someone. How unexpected that it happened to me in the middle of the Gap, but, God, she needed someone and I am so grateful that I was able to be there for her.
I hope that she did go home and cry. I hope it brought her some relief. And I hope that the party was a raging success, that her daughter felt special and loved. I hope that the year going forward brings her son health. And I hope most of all, that she never feels embarrassed or ashamed for breaking down in front of a stranger, rather understands that people need each other. This is the kind of community I've been talking about. We need to be okay with showing vulnerability. And we need to be okay with seeing it, accepting it. We need to care for each other.
Listening to: The Joy Formidable