Just this afternoon, Mary and I were at our local health food supermarket---Whole Foods---picking up an enormous carrot cake. Tomorrow is the birthday of a dear friend who was tragically killed by the police in the December of 2001. Every year, we buy this cake---his favorite---and share it with friends (and sometimes his family) on the anniversary of his birth.
This time, we took our half-sheet cake to the checkout counter and I gingerly lay it on the conveyor belt. Taped to the top was the original invoice with our specific requests for the wording and decorations, with "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" in large letters.
Being friendly and inquisitive, the young twenty-something gentleman at the register bantered with me as many cashiers will, especially at this particular store. Sliding the cake along the conveyor and ringing it up, he looked at me and said, "So, I see it says happy birthday on the cake. Who's birthday is it?" He smiled widely.
At that moment, my world seemed to come to a grinding halt. Mary told me later that my face turned very red in that moment as she watched me from nearby. So many things can go through one's mind in the split-seconds it can take to respond to an innocent question. I consciously wondered if I should just say, "Oh, it's for a friend" and leave it at that, or choose to match his inquisitiveness with an authentic answer. I must have weighed the pros and cons of both in a nano-second and chose the latter.
"It's for a friend who died five years ago," I responded. "Tomorrow is his fifth birthday since he died."
"Oh," he responded blankly. " I feel like such a jerk."
"That's OK," I said. "Thanks for asking."
If he had left it at that, he would have been able to quit while he was (sort of) ahead. However, instead of removing his foot from his mouth, he chose to insert it even deeper into that most misguided but well-meaning of orifices by cheerfully adding, "At least you've had enough time to get over it."
I don't know what color I turned at that point, but I again found my mind racing, and my awareness of the hustle and bustle around me was nil. I considered mentioning that he had been murdered in cold blood by the police and that, no, I have not "gotten over it", but chose instead to simply let it drop.
I thanked him, let Mary take the receipt (because I could not look the cashier in the eye), thanked the bagger, and picked up the heavy box with Woody's memorial dessert safely inside.
Exiting the store, Mary and I processed the interaction, distractedly failing to locate our car for several minutes. Sitting in the passenger seat, my laughter bubbled up as I considered that the cashier may never dare to ask another customer whose birthday it is. I imagined the conversation he had about it with his coworker who bagged our groceries, and Mary said that Woody was probably having quite the cosmic chuckle about the whole scenario.