Sitting at a McDonald’s table in Charleston, SC, I looked down at my ill-fitting shirt and shorts. Stress had taken its toll, and most of my clothes now hung off me. I should have worn something else I thought, but how do you pick out an outfit for saying goodbye to your mother? I reached up and felt my earrings. They were hers and seemed right. That was something at least.
Within the hour, my family and I would come together to take my mom off life support. It was Good Friday and I managed to secure an Episcopal priest to read her last rites, but he was on a tight schedule. After months of watching and praying for any little miracle that might bring her back, we were now down to a single hour. Irony at its cruelest.
I watched everyone at the table, my eyes resting on my 9-month-old baby boy. My dad, aunt, and uncle. My grandmother, now ex-husband, and his parents. “It’s not fair,” I whispered. No one heard me and their chatter continued. I repeated it, louder this time, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair that you all will get to see him grow up and she won’t.”
“Don’t be like that,” someone said. Don’t be like what? I thought. Angry? Bitter? Don’t be heartbroken that I was losing my momma and best friend? Don’t be completely overwhelmed with the thought of a world without her? I was a new mother, I needed her. How was I supposed to be a good mom when I wasn’t going to have my own to turn to?
I couldn’t sit there for another second. The walls started closing in on me, the few French fries I had managed to eat stuck in my throat. I ran outside, barely able to breathe, hot tears running down my cheeks. I stood there in the April sun trying to make the world stop spinning. I could taste the salt from my meltdown and started wiping my face with the back of my hand.
I heard someone approach and looked up to see a man with a weathered face and long gray hair. He offered me a handful of brown, fast-food napkins and said, “Sweetheart, I don’t know what’s wrong, but I sure hope it gets better.”
I managed a thank you and took them. Something about the encounter calmed me, and I walked back in, napkins clutched in my hand.
As I made my way to her room in the ICU, I held on to them like a lifeline. I turned them over and over, feeling the scratchiness and slight dampness from my tears. I picked up my mom’s hand and noticed she still had the tiniest bit of pink nail polish left on her nails. I smiled because it was so her. It’s strange the things you notice even when facing the unimaginable.
We gathered around her saying things like “I love you, “I’ll miss you,” “It’s okay to go now.” The priest read her rites and the nurses began the inevitable. And just like that, she was gone. I felt like I was outside of myself. I looked at my family and at her and couldn’t understand how I was still standing. I eventually wiped my eyes with my now-tattered napkins and made my way out.
Fourteen years later, I still think about the man and his napkins. He not only gave me strength in the moment but taught me how important simple kindness is. People tend to look for the big stuff, the grand gestures. Sometimes there’s a girl in a parking lot who just needs an encouraging word and a napkin to dry her tears.