So, I thought my Christmas shopping was done, and then I realized that I had forgotten to buy a present for our dog, Nutmeg. Wanting to stick close to home, I decided to take a “quick” trip to our local K-mart, whose parking lot has been woefully empty since the Giant Eagle moved out a few months ago. I pictured a sparsely-filled parking lot and one lonely cashier with a line of ten people. Not wanting yet another business to flee our town, I decided to do my part and give K-mart some business. I didn’t know if they would have what I needed, and as I backed out of my driveway, I considered going to Walmart instead.
I was surprised to find a healthy number of cars in the K-mart parking lot. It was interesting that there was no bell-ringer from Salvation Army out front, but when I walked through the doors, I saw long lines, and only about half of the registers were in use. I knew I’d be in for a wait. But I had some time to kill, so I went about my shopping.
In the pet aisle, I met a woman who has a 105 lb. Labrador retriever, and we were soon chatting about our dogs and the available toys for our disparate-sized dogs. See, people. This is what I like about Christmas. No other time of year would inspire me to speak to a complete stranger about dog toys, or anything else for that matter.
When I had completed my selections, I headed to the front of the store where I found five lines of approximately 20 shoppers each, most encroaching into the women’s clothing section. I picked the one that just grazed that section and curved toward the customer service counter, which had been pressed into a checkout line. Lord help the person who actually wanted to return something.
Straight away, I found myself explaining to confused customer how the lines were working. They were so long it was unclear which line was headed to what cashier. After explaining what was happening three times to the unhappy woman, I gave up, and she wheeled her cart in a direction opposite from checkout. The woman in line in front of me seemed amused.
“It’s Christmas. “What does she expect?” she said with an accent that I couldn’t identify right away.
She was holding a half gallon of milk and a couple of other items in her hands. I offered the bottom of my cart for her use, telling her I knew how unpleasant an extended period of holding a cold container could be. This gesture sparked a conversation.
I don’t know her name, but let’s call her Pilar. That’s a pretty name. I considered calling her Maria, after the Sesame Street character, but you’ll soon see why I decided not to.
“I just spent a month in Puerto Rico helping my mother,” said Pilar. “I’m not going to get upset about this line.”
Pilar said she works at a large retail store and took FMLA leave after Hurricane Maria to help her parents recover from the devastation in their small Puerto Rican town. Her mother has Alzheimer’s disease and had fallen ill. She was in the hospital, which was running on generators, and the precious electricity was being used for patients in intensive care, rather than the elevators. So, every day, Pilar and her father climbed five flights of stairs to visit the sick woman.
When Pilar arrived at the airport in San Juan, she was struck by how empty the usually bustling place was. The only people there were seemed to be from the military and FEMA.
The Army gave Pilar MRE (meals ready to eat), because she doesn’t live there anymore, and they feared she would get sick if she ate the local food. Pilar said the meals were very tasty. She really liked the lasagna. “It’s just a bit salty,” she said. “But that’s why the meals are good for 20 years.”
She said that there is no beef to be had in Puerto Rico, only chicken. She pointed to all of the merchandise surrounding us. The stores back there have one or two items on the shelf. “And if you want to buy five of something, you can’t. You can only buy two.”
I asked her how the recovery is going in Puerto Rico. She said it is still very bad. They had expected to restore power to the entire island by December 15, but that hasn’t happened.
Pilar said that the cities are faring much better than the small towns and villages. Many roads are wiped out and there is still no electricity or water in the town where her parents live. She said the lack of lights is not as bad as not having any water. They can get water from local wells for bathing and household tasks, but they cannot drink it. Every few days the Army comes around and drops off jugs of water like the milkman used to drop off milk.
I was surprised that there are five families from Puerto Rico who are staying at a local hotel in our town, hosted by FEMA. The difficult thing for these people is that extended families have been distributed to different locations around the country. I asked her if anyone in our town is helping them feel more at home and easing their stress through the holiday season. She said that her daughter has done some volunteering with them, and some churches are helping as well.
Pilar said that 250,000 people have left Puerto Rico since the hurricane and she doubts that all of them will go back. The devastation is too great. She said the noise is deafening there, because of all the reconstruction. I know in my own neighborhood that I don’t care for the sound of construction. I’m sure I wouldn’t like the level of noise in Puerto Rico.
Many of us have too much noise in our lives, not just in the audible sense, but noise in the form of information, obligations, and our own internal, chaotic thought processes. We try to find the quickest route to where we have to be, we fume if we are placed on hold, and we seethe when we are forced to stand in a line. When I saw the lines at K-mart today, something told me to just surrender to the time. I did, and I feel richer because of it.
“You never know when everything is going to be taken away,” said Pilar. “No one expected that the storm would destroy the whole island. When I was there, I learned that I couldn’t worry about next week or next month. I had to take care of problems as they came, and I really learned to just take each day one at a time.”
She took her items from the bottom of my cart and placed them on the conveyor belt. I don’t even know how much time passed as we spoke. It doesn’t matter.
She finished her transaction and as she was walking away, she turned to me and wished me a Merry Christmas. I did the same.
Maybe my little story enriches your day a little bit. Perhaps the next time you’re faced with a situation which slows you down, you might think of Pilar and how life can change so quickly, and how lucky you really are at this moment. I know I will.
Merry Christmas. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, be merry.