Friday, March 5, 2010

The Appreciative Cashier

Sometimes, in the midst of a crazy shift and six-hour patient waiting times, I can easily forget that I signed up for this job. This forgetfulness can lead to extreme frustration, which only leads to a vicious cycle of being more and more short-fused and less appreciative of our jobs. I don't like these types of days, and I am grateful when I'm reminded that our jobs are not isolated in these frustrations.

A few years back, I was at a local store waiting in a very long cash-out line. It seems that several cashiers had called in sick and the store was trying to cope as best as they could. I picked the shortest of the waiting lines and still was about eight customers back.

I clearly remember the grumbling. It seems that everyone had an opinion of either how to make things go quicker or shared their thoughts they they would never return to this particular store again. How dare them make us wait like this? What were we, cattle or something? I smiled, correlating this to how our ER waiting room mood must be on those hectic days.

Slowly, but steadily, my line advanced to where I was next, following a gentleman who wore an armed-service ball cap. He had grumbled along with everyone else and, by the look on his face, was tired of the waiting. He placed his merchandise on the counter as the cashier greeted him.

"Hello, sir," she said, with a warm smile, "I'm sorry about your long wait. Did you find everything you were looking for?" Her pleasantness, apparently, remained unscathed.

The gentleman ignored her as he pulled out his wallet and a few bills. The cashier, her hair mussed and her make-up long past the point of retouch, was not to be deterred. She continued scanning his merchandise while she spoke. "Oh my, is that your hat, sir?" she asked, pointing to his cap. "I see it states that you are a veteran of the Army."

He touched the brim of his hat as he sized her up, finally returning her smile. "Well, yes, I was in the Army during the Korean War."

"Well, then," she said, now pausing and giving him her undivided attention, "I would like to thank you for your service to our country."

Hey, wait a second here! I had just witnessed something pretty special and neat. I was so caught-off guard and pleased by this cashier's actions that I could only imagine how this gentleman now felt. In fact, he was a completely different fellow after that--talking and joking around until she finished cashing him out.

I was next. "I have to tell you," I said to her after her kind greeting, "that how you handled that gentleman was great. You made his day with your kind words."

"Thank you, but I really do mean it. My grandfather and my father were both in the Army, and my brother is in Iraq right now. I can't even imagine what it would be like to go to war, you know?" She went on to tell me that every customer who goes through her line wearing some form of armed-service clothing gets a "thank you" from her.

She was an inspiration. Despite everything falling apart around her, she never once thought to be huffy or rude and, more so, was handing out compliments and immersing her customers in kindness. She demonstrated that grace-under-fire is not a lost art. If I could, I would have offered her a job in our ER. And lots and lots of money.

Several weeks after this, my wife, my kids and I drove a few hours to a nearby city's zoo, much larger than our local one. We were having a perfect zoo-kind-of-day, sunny and warm, with all the animals out and about within their exhibits. As we were walking down a paved, gently-sloping pathway, away from the exhibits of pacing polar and grizzly bears, we approached a gentleman in a wheelchair, coming from the opposite direction. He had bilateral below-the-knee amputations and was being pushed by what looked to be an adult grandchild. The man was wearing a matching t-shirt and baseball cap.

They read "United States Army."

As we were about to pass him, I stopped and looked at the both of them. "Excuse me," I asked, "but do you need any help pushing your wheelchair up the hill?"

"Why, no," the man in the wheelchair answered, his grandson nodding his agreement, "but thank you for asking. He looked at my children, who had halted by my side, and gave them a crooked, toothy, friendly smile.

I have to admit, I was nervous about what I said next. "Sir," I said, focusing on his clear brown eyes, "I can't help but notice your shirt and cap. Did you serve in the Army?" Was it any of my business?

He didn't seem to mind my question, although he did seem surprised that I had noticed. "Yes," he answered, "that's where I lost both of these." He nodded his attention to his partial legs before clasping his hands to his denim-covered knees. "Lost 'em in Vietnam when I was 24."

"Well, sir," I said, taking a note from the department store cashier, "I thank you for your service to our country. Because of you, my family knows what freedom is." I held out my hand and he took it, shaking it vigorously. I shook his grandson's hand next, and then we parted.

Walking away, I turned back for one last look at an everyday hero, a war veteran. Lucky for me, he was doing the same. Our eyes met. I'm not sure what he read in mine, but I saw the gratefulness emanating from his. I smiled before turning back to my family.

My kids, ages nine, seven, and five at the time, were completely mesmerized. "Daddy," they asked, "did you know that man? And what happened to his legs?" No, I didn't know him, I answered them, before trying my best to explain how he had lost his legs, fighting for our country and defending our freedom.

After my wife and I answered our kids' questions the best we could, we continued on with our day, enveloped in our freedom, each of us walking on two good legs. My family on the paved path, me on a cloud. Man, did that interaction feel good!

As a result of the appreciative cashier, I try to greet every ER patient who has served in the armed forces with a heartfelt thanks. Try it sometime...it will make their day. And yours, too.

To think, this happened only because some cashier, during a busy, hurried moment, was able to remember the more important things in life. She made a difference. And I was there to witness it.

And as always, big thanks for reading. Next post will be Monday, March 8. See you then...

30 comments:

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Heather said...

Living in a military town like this, I am sitting here bawling.

Can we just meet in the middle and start a hospital together? PLEEEEASE?

Cathy said...

I am crying my eyes out reading this. During the last 10 years of my work life, I was a district supervisor for one of the retails chains. I had stores all over Central and Southern Ohio. I have seen some pretty incredible things from clerks who make almost no money. They put up with far more than should be expected of them.

You gave me an idea for a blog post. I love that this clerk said what she did, and that you followed and did the same thing. You taught your kids something that day they will not ever forget.

Tanya said...

My husband and I were in London with my in-laws when my father in law had this kind of encounter-when the gentleman we were chatting with found out that my father in law had been in London with the Army during WWII, he thanked my father in law for helping Great Britain fight that war. My father in law stood a bit taller the rest of the trip.

Katie said...

"...talking and joking around until she finished cashing him out."
As a writer and the queen of "Oops, that's not what I meant" I appriciate this line a lot. I might start using it.

Your first paragraph kind of summarizes my week: stressed, easily frustrated, and the never-ending headache. I needed the reminder that just because I feel like crap doesn't mean I need to treat the world that way. It only takes four seconds to do something nice but the ripples last long beyond those four seconds.

Thank you for thanking those who have given up all of their tomorrows so that we can be here today. Their sacrifice too often goes unnoticed. I have stopped on airplanes to thank soldiers and welcome them home; it feels awkward but it's worth it.

<>< Katie

Rositta said...

It's amazing where inspirations come from. We have a fair number of amputees at our local rehab hospital compliments of Afghanistan. Since I'm a knitter with lots of time on my hands I've knit a few blankets to hand out. Some of these soldiers families are not in Toronto and this offers a little comfort. We all need to do something for veterans...ciao

rlbates said...

Beautifully written, and great advice. Thanks.

StudentDoc said...

When I was at ODS (a sort of basic training for military physicians to be), I can remember how I felt towards the end - sleep deprived, mentally and physically exhausted, and just so over it. Somewhere near us there was to be some sort of competition for the wounded warriors. Many of the competitors came to our base and were working out on the track directly outside our barracks. Watching the single, double, even triple amputees running as fast and has hard as they could around the track gave all of us the energy and faith to continue. We realized what we were going through was nothing compared to what they had been through. We also realized that those heroes, and ones like them, would be our patients someday. It's amazing when you realize that at some point, you could be inspired, lifted, and amazed at every single one of your patients.

Diana said...

My husband is a Sgt. in the Army. In 2007, he ruptured 2 discs in the line of duty. In 2009 he had a 2 level spinal fusion that went bad, leaving him disabled. Three times in our marriage (before his injuries), we have been out to eat with our 4 children and have had our meal paid for. Each time the anonymous "payer" has left before we can have the chance to thank them. I will never forget those moments. Because of this, I try to pay it forward with everyone I meet. I can't tell you how much this has meant to us!

Love your blog and congrats on the win!

SeaSpray said...

Great post and so very true!

I was glad it was a Vietnam vet. My husband was in Vietnam in 71-72 and back then no one thanked him or any Vietnam vet for their service. Spit on and baby killers yelled at them or urine tossed on them.

I didn't meet him until after he came home ..but coming from a patriotic family in which both uncles served all through WWII ..he would've known I was proud of him and of course his family was. None of his friends cared ..no one showed any appreciation.

Thank God all that changed with the 1st Gulf war. It was so wrong and disrespectful what they did to Vietnam vets. Thank God we have moved on from that.

My younger son just said this morning to his friend home on leave,that he was up at the Gym wearing a Coast Guard T-shirt (friend in Coast Guard) and a woman came up to him and said "Thank You." and son said he explained he wasn't the one in the CG. But how wonderful the woman took time to do that.

Regarding the cashier: Kick the dog or "Pay it Forward" ..kindness that is. She handled him beautifully and you were sweet to acknowledge her abilities. Even if people remain grouchy ..you never know what seeds of kindness are being planted in their spirit... some just take longer to germinate than others. I like to think of it as a ripple of good going forward.

I was like that with the ER patients I registered. You never know what is going on in a person's life ..and if it's bad ..sometimes even just a warm smile can brighten their spirit... and things can begin to look a little better. Good words are never wasted. They go out there and accomplish good things. I think someday we will be surprised if we are ever given a Jimmy Stewart-It's a Wonderful Life opportunity to see the positive effect we've had on others and in this world and it all starts from somewhere.

Your kids learned valuable lessons that day.

A Navy veteran said...

What a beautifully poignant post.

Karen said...

I loved this post. I can understand your apprehension at approaching the man in the wheel chair to thank him, but it's something more of us should do. The benefits are amazing. I don't know how I found your blog, but it's very well written and I'm enjoying reading it very much.

emmy said...

Having come from an Army family, it is really nice when Vets get thanked and praised for their service, especially Viet Nam vets because they received so little of it at the time of their service. But please be considerate of current servicemen. Last month when my son came home for leave he had a stop over in the Atlanta airport and I went to spend the few hours with him. Because of an ice storm we were there for about 10 hours. During that time so many people stopped to offer their thanks and appreciation that it became overwhelming to him. Seriously, it was more than 100 people. Some of them offered gift cards and wouldn't let him turn them down. The USO suite in the Airport is cramped and windowless, so it wasn't much of an option for us. I think if he'd been sitting there alone it might have been more welcomed, but as it was, he just wanted to spend some time with me. I'm not saying don't thank them, just be mindful of the situation.

thecatsmeow said...

I am not a military veteran, but I did have 12 years of experience in supermarket cashiering...and for as many times as the management chided me for it, I always tried to engage the customer and have some friendly conversation (veterans included, but also lots of others if they were so inclined). We, too, had a few regulars who were veterans, with interesting stories to tell. It never failed to impress me. For though I could never have been in the military for medical reasons, I've always had respect for those who are/were. Another awesome post...now you've got to pass the tissues!

911RN said...

Coming from a military area and service family, I too, thank veterans and active military for their service when they are seen in the ER. It is always appreciated- you can see it in their faces and it puts a skip in their step. They stand taller and prouder even if they are there because of illness- often due to or related to their service.My father is retired Navy and I have 3nephews that are in different branches of service.

Yes, I'm thankful to every veteran for their service for our often, "taken for granted" freedom.

Great cashier, great post.

Jacqueline said...

We live in a military town...there are frequent opportunities to show our gratitude. My dad once even bought breakfast for a soldier and his family. Now, my cousin is a soldier, and I'm quite proud of her and honored to be related to her. My best friend's father served in Iraq the year before he passed away from pancreatic cancer. I'm honored to call him my second father. Military men and women as well as their spouses and children are all heroes to me...they sacrifice so much that I know I never could/would for people who more often than not, take it for granted.

Thank-you...all of you...for your selflessness.

coulrophobic agnostic said...

I always feel so terrible for Vietnam vets in particular - you have to wonder how many of them feel like their lives were so horribly changed for war they didn't believe in, a war that is now the go-to example for a pointless, unwinnable war.

Jen said...

wonderful.
and diana, that is amazing.

Charlie said...

Just wanted to let you know that your blog is an inspiration and that I hope to one day be a humble, caring and informed doc like yourself.

Cheers.

Cal said...

Reading one of your posts, more often than not leaves me with more confidence in fellow human beings. I am glad there are people out there who take the time to thank others for their service. I have felt the urge before to speak up, but somehow never knew how to articulate it, so it never came out. Thanks for speaking up and setting an example for your children, and now for us too.

DBenzil said...

Lovely post and sentiments. I think the ultimate message is (as my kids said for years) BE GOOD-instead of spreading your stress, find a way to reduce your stress by making someone else smile, laugh, feel better about themselves, feel honored. There are many beyond those that have served in the military who deserve our thanks each and every day-teachers come to mind as obvious but so do the folks who collect my garbage (a job they do well and I don't like to think what life would be like without them). Don't get me wrong, I realize that Veteran's put their life on the line and that is very special but in the end, the value of pay it forward is that the more you do it, the better the whole world is!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It was beautifully done. I know that after reading it I was more thoughtful and slowed down a bit with the patients yesterday.

rheumablog said...

Brilliant post, and right on. It's easy to forget how powerful a smile and kind words can be.

As a vet myself (though I was fortunate enough not to have served during wartime) I know many, many vets from Viet Nam, the Gulf War and now some from Iraq. They really do deserve our thanks, even if we don't believe in the war itself. Such selflessness and bravery should be recognized and honored.

Thanks for all you do.
-Wren

SeaSpray said...

I LOVE the insightful and heartwarming post and comments in here.

Jim ..you ARE *inspirational* with your writing! We never know what seeds we are planting or how/when they will take root and bloom. :)

Elaina said...

I blogged just yesterday about how a couple bought dinner for my family, because my husband was in uniform. The support and thanks he recieves truly means the world ton him, and to me and our children

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Tonjia said...

:-) I am a military mom and I always thank those servicemen and women both present and past for their service.

I was once walking through our local mall with my daughter when she was home on leave, and dressed in her USAF BDU's, when a man holding the hand of his little son, walked across to shake her hand and thank her for her service. It always embarrassed her, and she didnt know what to say, I told her to say "thank you".

I believe the heroes of today are not sports stars, or movie stars or politicians. The heroes of today are our servicemen and women who are risking their lives for our freedom. plain and simple

Anonymous said...

You rock!!!!

Jabulani said...

Scripture says "A soft answer turns away wrath and heaps burning coals on your enemy's head." There is much truth in this. And a lesson we can all learn.

I don't think people here (UK) praise our servicemen and women enough. My experience (limited perhaps) is that most folk are ambivalent. Unless they specifically know someone connected with the war, it's happening in another country to other people and therefore not worth their bother. This, to me, is shameful. I have 3 cousins who were in each branch of the Services. 2 have now left but the 3rd, was 18 when he went away to fight in the Falklands. He came back a different person. I don't think we should underestimate the holes left by going to war. They can't always be fixed, but sometimes a thank you can lay a cool bandage over it.

It is said that smiles cost nothing, and will always go a mile between the bends. Think about it... ;)

Kate said...

I grew up a Navy Brat. My grandfather, father, uncle and brother all served - and my brother died in-service at the age of 21. The other day I was at a service station, and a man in his dress blues was behind me in line. The line was long, so I had time to muster my courage, and after I paid, I turned to him and thanked him for his service. Then I shook his hand. He was startled but appreciative, but it was the reaction of the others who witnessed it that really impressed me. EVERYBODY shook his hand, as well. I hope he knows how that made MY day.