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The Gift

Published: Monday, May 12, 2014 11:36 a.m. CDT

Michael doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know my socio-economic status or where I grew up. He doesn’t know my marital status or how many kids I have. He doesn’t know my triumphs or my failures. Michael doesn’t know me. And I don’t know Michael. But Michael has changed my life.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my 20-month-old to breakfast at my favorite diner. After the man sitting in the booth across from mine paid for his meal, he walked back toward my table holding a white receipt.

“I paid your bill.”

“Thank you,” I said, the confusion audible in my voice.

“Do you know why I paid your bill?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Because you’re taking such good care of that little boy.”

My eyes welled as he handed me the credit card receipt, proof of his payment, before walking out the door. And there was the stranger’s name: Michael.

I had read plenty of stories online about angels disguised as humans stepping up to financially assist someone in need. I’ve always believed I would be the kind of person who would help if ever presented with the opportunity.

Michael’s unexpected gesture made me realize I had been waiting for the “right” moment to be generous when I should have been living generously all along. Clearly, this must be the lesson life was handing me in the form of free French toast. I became determined to pay it forward. ASAP!

My first chance presented itself at Starbucks. I stalked a guy studying drink options for 20 minutes. When he finally shuffled toward the cashier, I jumped in front of him, ordered my drink and offered to pay for whatever he was getting.

The stranger refused, clearly convinced his creepy stalker was trying to poison his drink.

“I insist,” I said, unwilling to lose this opportunity to do good. “Someone paid for my breakfast the other day, and I’m just paying it forward.”

“No means no!” he yelled.

Perhaps paying for a stranger’s coffee wasn’t the answer.

I’m not one to make sentimental attachments to inanimate things, but I inexplicably had kept the receipt. Pulling it out of my wallet, my eyes welled again.

Why did this silly receipt make me cry? I didn’t understand the emotional reaction I was having to my free meal.

That is, until I allowed myself to admit the truth. It wasn’t the payment that had touched my heart; it was this stranger’s reason for doing so. “Because you’re taking such good care of that little boy.”

Over breakfast, my son and I had gone through our typical daily routine. He threw crayons on the ground. I picked them up. He threw them again. I took them away. He cried. I made him promise not to throw them. He kept his word. And opted to eat the crayons instead. He wanted to walk around the diner. We did. He wanted to sit on my lap. He did. He slapped my face. I told him to “show Mommy gentle.” He petted my cheek and gave me a kiss. We sang songs. And tickled. And giggled. He went in the highchair. And out of the highchair. And in and out again. And that’s where my son was — sitting on my lap, picking at my meal — when Michael came over. He had seen the whole thing. He had witnessed the cuddles and witnessed the scolding. And after all that, he told me I was doing a good job taking care of my little boy. And it made me cry because it was something I needed to hear — something probably every parent needs to hear.

After this realization, I began seeing the world differently. I looked for the everyday hero in other people instead of trying to see the hero in myself.

When my son threw a tantrum, I noticed the people who smiled with knowing empathy rather than the nasty glares that I would have only noticed before, whether they had actually been there or not. I looked people in the eye more. Held the door open more. Smiled more. And when a neighbor I’d never met apologized profusely after her toddler ran into my lawn and threw our ball into the street, I told her not to worry, because, I said, “It looks to me like you’re doing a good job raising the little boy.” And I meant it. And I noticed how her eyes welled when I said it.

I hope to someday thank Michael for the gift he gave me. So much more than a meal, so much more than a compliment, Michael gave me the gift of sight. And if I ever have the opportunity to pay for his meal, I’ll try not to be a super-creepy stalker about it.

Like Katiedid Langrock on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/katiedidhumor. Check out her column at http://didionsbible.com. To find out more about Katiedid Langrock and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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