Six years ago, during a time when my life had completely lost its luster, I met a clerk at a Wawa convenience store who understood the healing power of happiness. Actually, I suppose I never really "met" him. I simply had the good fortune to go through his checkout line.
He was a 20-something African American with a open, friendly face and a thick bundle of plaits held back in a rubber band. Usually he ran a cash register. "How's it goin'?" he asked each customer with casual ease, looking them full in the face and responding sincerely to what they said, often with a smile or a laugh. He never rushed, but his line moved smoothly along. It was as if he stood outside the flow of time.
Nine months earlier, our son had been killed in a car accident. I was still moving through my days behind what felt like a thick glass wall. I couldn't imagine ever again being happy. In my worst moments, my mere existence was a burden. But this young man seemed to live in light. More than that, he seemed to have the power to share it with others.
I began making a point to get in his line whenever I went to that store, watching to see how he did it. On one visit I noticed he wore a nametag: Jason. As always, our interaction was quick but absolutely complete. Our eyes met; we smiled; I went away feeling better about life.
One day I stopped inside after fueling my car but circled through the store without seeing anything I wanted. Jason was at his register. On my way out, he looked up from the customer he was serving and nodded at me to say hi.
I smiled but left quickly, feeling a little exposed. How had he known I was there? I'd only looked at him for a moment.
That evening I told my husband I thought I'd found a flesh-and-blood angel.
But was he really something special? Or just a regular guy who liked his job? One day, hungry for lunch, I went into the Wawa deli. To my surprise Jason was there. He looked out of place slapping cold cuts on rolls. He smiled at me, but not as warmly as usual. He seemed distracted, a regular guy.
On my next visit Jason was back at the checkout counter, laughing with everyone who came through his line. As my turn approached, he waved to a customer, a white man in his fifties, and called out, "Hey man, how you doin'?" You would have thought they were the closest of pals.
He turned to my purchases: A Diet Coke and a small bag of potato chips.
"Caffeine and fat," I said, "but it's okay. I just worked out."
"All right!" He extended his lightly clenched fist for me to tap with my own. Our eyes met and we laughed.
One day before he could speak, I asked Jason how he was doing.
"Awesome," he said with a big smile. "If I wake up in the morning, I'm awesome."
I wanted to reach the place where I could say the same.
I began to play around with time, trying to slow it as Jason seemed to. When I had a lot to do--especially then--I made a point of relaxing my shoulders and trying to deal unhurriedly with others. In traffic I let cars cut into line in front of me. These were my baby steps toward living in the moment, and re-embracing life's light.
I also deepened my efforts to live in service to others, which is how I've decided to bring meaning into my life. Gradually I began to understand that service isn't just about housing the homeless or digging wells in African villages. It's also about making connections with those around us. It's about spreading light, and it is the most holy work we can undertake.
During that period a convenience store clerk turned out to be my angelic model. But before long, he flew.
One warm afternoon I went in to find him not there. I thought, okay, maybe he's taking a day off. Even angels are entitled to days off. But the well-dressed and carefully coifed woman in front of me asked the rather harried cashier, "Where's Jason today?"
The cashier looked up distractedly. "He transferred to the store on Hollowell."
"Oh," the woman said, clearly disappointed.
"He sure is a nice person," I said.
"I'll miss seeing him," she said.
No kidding, I thought. Maybe I should start going to that other store. But I had no idea where it was. And something told me I needed to let him go.
The purpose of the angelic presence, my grief counselor advised me, is to give us a nudge toward learning important lessons. They don't stick around. They dip into your life for a short time and disappear.
I saw Jason just one other time, years later, after I'd started fully living again. I'd gotten my drink and was hurrying out the door when I glimpsed him from the corner of my eye, standing off to the side.
I stopped in my tracks and took two steps backward in shock.
Jason gave me the biggest smile I've ever seen. I grinned back at him, tipped my hand up in salute, and went out to my car, walking on air.