I’ll tell you, there’ve been days this month when I have no idea what the hell’s going on.  Up is down, down is up, the world is spinning backward on its axis.  It’s been an extremely unusual December.

Take last week.  I had this chance encounter in Wallyworld on Thursday morning, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the woman I met.  Just thirty minutes of my life, and now I can’t get her off my mind.

Being a writer means I process experiences in words.  Being a writer with a blog means experiences chase themselves around my brain until the ruckus is unbearable and I sit until the words come.  So here I am, fingers hovering over the keyboard, waiting to write something I suspect will be more than just another post.

Thursday morning found me doing my last minute run for groceries and Christmas supplies.  I especially needed to get anything I didn’t want the kids to see since they would be out of school for break on Friday afternoon.

I was in the HOLIDAY SUGAR! aisle, searching in vain for peppermint candy canes to hang on the tree for Christmas morning.  This is a tradition I’ve carried forward from my childhood – Santa always left red striped candy canes on the tree, and we loved spotting them among the ornaments on Christmas morning. Now my own kids love this annual “surprise” (BrightSide, too), so I needed to find those peppermint goodies. And I was getting a little annoyed, frankly, that such an easy item on the list was taking that long.

I eventually came to realize that our candy cane state of affairs has become dismal indeed.  It seemed I could find any flavor on the shelves except for peppermint.  They had raspberry, Jolly Rancher, Life Savers, Sour Patch, Brach’s Red Hots, and blueberry candy canes, just to name a few.  Blueberry?!  I mean, come on…I just needed plain old peppermint.

I’d been standing there long enough to attract attention, so a woman with a cart half filled with candy asked if I needed help.  When I told her what I was looking for she laughed and told me they don’t make them any more.  It turned out she’d searched for them, too, with no luck.

As I tried to process this bizarre turn of events we struck up a conversation.  She was buying supplies for her son’s classroom Christmas party, so we started talking kids.  And Christmas.  And the Santa reveal issue. Her son is ten years old, and she’s thinking this could be their last December with a Santa believer in the house.

Then we moved on to the Elf.  Her family had visited a friend’s house where their elf gave the kids books, kicking off the inevitable elf comparison by her son.  This meant stepping up the game in their own home. Her husband scored tickets to the new Star Wars movie and slipped them into the elf’s arms, then they basically forgot all about them.

Later that night they were in the bedroom changing sheets when they heard their son’s squeal.  He came running in, vibrating with excitement, stuttering about the envelope Max (the elf) was holding with “vie” showing.  He was grinning ear to ear at just the thought of what it might be, but he was afraid to touch the elf to find out.

This was when things slid sideways in the conversation.  The woman said, “It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile since -” but broke off, tears springing to her eyes a moment later.  That’s when she told me she’d lost her six-month-old daughter to SIDS four years ago.

Time stopped, and it felt as if I’d lost my peripheral vision.  All I could see was the pain on this woman’s face, mixed with the strength she mustered to carry on every day despite this loss.

We both just blinked for a moment before I moved toward her and acknowledged that no, I didn’t know her, but I was going to give her a hug.  There was nothing I could say to ease her pain, so simply giving her love and support was the best I could offer.  The second is to honor her strength by sharing part of her story:

It’s just been hard.  It’s been a really hard four years.
I nursed my daughter.  I fed her every morning at 6:00.  That morning I got up at 6:00 and fed her, then by 8:00 she was gone.  And my son was with me when it happened.
He watched me giving his baby sister CPR and kept saying, “Mommy, why are you doing that?  She’s just sleeping.” because he didn’t understand…he couldn’t understand, because my milk was still coming in, so he thought she was okay.  But by the time the paramedics got there she was gone.
My husband was away so he got this news in an airport terminal.  I fell to pieces and he took a leave to care for me, but then he had trouble, too…it’s just been a really hard four years.  
But then, when my son found those movie tickets…I think that’s the first time I’ve seen him really smile since his sister died.
My son talks about her all the time.  We still hang her stocking at Christmas, and whenever something good happens he says, “I wish Brooklyn was here.”  At Christmas he picks out toys to donate for kids who are the age that she would be.  I think that’s something he’ll probably do for the rest of his life.

We spent about half an hour talking in the candy aisle, ignoring the shoppers around us, tears occasionally trickling down our cheeks while we swiped them away.  As Brooklyn’s mom shared her story I could feel how much courage it took for her to survive her loss.  That the time with her family at Christmas is precious, treasured with the fierceness of a woman who knows what it means to hang an empty stocking by the fireplace.

Finally I gave her another hug to pass along to her family, wished her a Merry Christmas, and left her to get to her son’s party on time.

There are moments when time seems to stop.

This moment was one that showed me both the power and pain of a mother’s love.  That we never truly know what the people around us have been through.  And that the strength of the human spirit truly is remarkable.