It's interesting when you're in crisis the subtle things you do to shield people from knowing how bad things really are or how sad you really feel. After all, as the caretaker, you have to be the strong one. You have to hold it together. You have to make sure everybody else is ok.
During my husband's cancer journey, I found the most interesting places to cry where he, or anybody else wouldn't see me. The closet was a favorite. The shower. But when I wasn't home, it was parking lots that became an asphalt covered oasis. I found very early on that red lights didn't work well because people look around when they're stopped waiting for the light to turn green. They'll catch you with mascara tears and while they won't say anything, there's that awkward moment where you lock eyes and you know they're secretly wondering what's wrong with you. And then there's that feeling you have after a tragedy where you don't care what somebody thinks of you but at the same time, you don't really want to have to explain anything.
So, parking lots became my go-to place. Big shopping centers worked best because the other people who were there were busy. They were on a mission to get inside or get out and get home, and not usually super interested in the girl sitting in the car screaming into her steering wheel.
One day, I was on my way somewhere and knew I needed to stop for coffee. I don't remember what the particular problem was at that moment but, like most days, I was overwhelmed. I was on the phone and talking it through, when the person on the other line said something that stuck me enough to lose it right there. I could barely catch my breath and the ugly crying started.
The problem was, I was stuck in the coffee line. At Dutch Brothers. The one place where all the workers are young, happy and jamming out to music.
And there was no way out. I was literally blocked in so unless I wanted to back right up into the SUV behind me, I was about to be seen for the mess I really was.
As I approached the window as a middle-aged woman with my hair in a bun, and with my face wet from crying, I could barely speak. I was still listening to the person on the phone talk, and I had two choices. I could speed off or I could roll down the window.
I rolled down the window.
But I still couldn't speak.
The teenager who was supposed to take my order was known to me, only because I frequented the place often. She took one look at me and saw how disheveled I was and said nothing. She just handed me my drink. A drink I didn't order because I couldn't even muster the words, but I drink she would know I wanted.
I tried to smile when I took it from her and drove away and finished my call. By this time, I had pulled into a parking stall and was trying to regain my composure. I reached for my iced coffee, and when I looked down in the cup holder, I saw it.
A pink straw, and the words "We love you" written around it.
Ugly crying again.
This girl barely knew me. I don't even think at the time she knew my story. All she knew was that at that moment, I was hurting. She couldn't fix it. We couldn't talk about it. She couldn't hug me. So, she used the only tool she had in that instance - a pen, and a pink straw.
She wanted me to know I wasn't alone. And that whatever trial I was going through, that there were people out there who cared about me. That regardless of knowing all the details, they cared anyway.
I've said it before, there are moments in crisis that are burned into your memory. I remember the face of the doctor when they delivered the cancer diagnosis, I remember the look on my husband's face when we realized the cancer was back, I remember the tears from the nurses the night he died, and I remember that pink straw.
Because it became more than that. It wasn't just a straw and a message. It was a powerful symbol of how the smallest act of kindness can impact somebody's life.
I take that lesson with me wherever I go and I retell that story to anybody who will listen. Because I want them-no, I need them- to know how powerful their actions can be to a person in pain.
I visit a different Dutch Brothers now and that girl with the pink straw has moved on with her life. I don't know what she's doing now, but to me, she left a legacy. A legacy of kindness.
Every time I go to the new stand, I ask for a pink straw. Mostly because it reminds me that no matter how challenging my day is, or could be, that there is always somebody out there who cares. I don't think any of them knew the story when I asked. I'm pretty sure I was just "that lady" who wanted a pink straw.
Until one day when I told Jake, the manager, the story.
And guess what?
He shared it with his crew. And the meaning of the pink straw rose up again. And now this group of baristas know how easy it is to change somebody's day for the better with something so simple.
And since then, they have dived into my story, wanting to help me raise money and awareness for pancreatic cancer. Not because it's effected them personally. Not because they have experienced that tragedy. No. They're doing it because some girl in Idaho thought enough one day to be kind and now that story lives on and has evolved into something so much more.
And just a few months ago, that manager told me he had a surprise for me. When I asked him what it was, he presented me my iced drink, with a purple straw. Why purple? Because it's the signature color of pancreatic cancer.
They don't even really have purple straws. But the ones they get every so often; they have my name on it. Because they want to show me they care. They want to show me they're doing something to honor my husband. They want to show me I'm not alone. They want to be part of the story. A story they're helping create.
We often think we have to do something big to make a difference. We think we have to spend a lot of money or do a grand act. We don't. Sometimes, it starts from holding somebody's hand, or being present in their grief, or offering a hug, or writing a note, or reaching out in some way. And sometimes, it starts with a pink straw.
Simple acts of kindness is all it takes. This small thing has literally changed my life, and I hope you remember that as you go on with yours. Whether you're the giver or receiver, you can and you will make a difference by showing you care. How you do that is up to you, but find a way. Find a way to show somebody they're not alone. Even if all you have is a pen and something to write on, you will never regret impacting a life. Give the gift of love. Give the gift of kindness.
I'm so thankful for mine.
This story was submitted by Diana Register of Meridian, Idaho. Her bestselling book, “Grief Life,” is now available in print and kindle. Experience love, laughter, loss and hope in this raw, emotional, honest look at grief. You can follow her work on her Facebook page.