The Power of a Smile

Smiling from beneath a Taco Bell visor she handed me my change and exclaimed: “Have a great day, honey!” As she always did every day that I appeared at her drive-thru window. I never knew her name, but I knew that she was one of the friendliest people I have ever encountered working at a fast food restaurant.

Several times a week I used to drive to the Taco Bell near my office to get lunch. On most days she would be the one to take my order and money. She looked to be about mid-forties but there was something in her appearance that hinted at the fact that life had not been kind to her. No matter what, each day, she always smiled a wide grin and made a little small talk. It was a welcome change to deal with a pleasant person at a drive-thru window, plus I liked the way that I could always count on her being there, wearing that welcoming smile…

Until one day she wasn’t there.

It must be her day off, I assumed, and went about my business. After the next visit and the next visit and the next, I began to wonder what had happened to her. Did she get let go? Did she quit? Did she simply change shifts? Did she get a better job somewhere? Anything was possible I guess, after all, I knew absolutely nothing about her. Several months went by and finally I just figured that she was gone. And odd as it seems to feel this way about a stranger… I hoped that wherever she was… she was happy.

Then one day she was back at the window, still smiling! I was so happy to see her again that I blurted out: “Hey! It’s you! You’re back! Where have you been!?!” I never gave a thought to the fact that I might be infringing on her privacy by asking such a question. She didn’t seem to mind one bit, she was as kind as ever.

Then I noticed it. Peeking out from the neckline of her purple polo, I could see the jagged edge of an angry red scar. “I had open heart surgery” she said matter-of-factly as she handed me my change. “There has been something wrong with my heart since I was a baby… but they finally fixed it.” And she grinned wider than ever.

We spoke to one another for a few moments. I inquired about her recovery and she explained that it had been a long and difficult one. She had experienced severe complications, gotten an infection and nearly died. I said how happy I was to see her again and that I’d keep her in my thoughts and prayers. She seemed genuinely touched by my words and appeared a little dumbfounded, but still managed to smile anyway.

I drove away thinking about her and how in ALL this time while I was shuffling back and forth to work and going out for lunch and running errands and stressing out and scurrying this way and that… she was battling for her life. I found myself praying for her — this woman whose name I did not know. And it made me stop and consider how much we rush and rush and race through life, so focused on the tasks that lay before us… the items on our To-Do lists… or the things that are troubling us… that we never stop to consider what the strangers whose paths we cross may be going through.

For all we know, the nasty woman in line at the check out counter may just have had her entire world turned upside down. Maybe they lost someone dear to them or lost a job. Maybe they’re battling illness, depression, defeat or heartbreak. Maybe they are lonely and longing for someone to simply look at them and NOTICE them.

For some reason, we’ve become so self-involved that we just don’t get it anymore. We don’t take the time to actually look and SEE one another. We don’t stop and ask someone how they’re doing. How they are REALLY doing. It seems all we really want is for them to just get out of our way. I know I am guilty of this.

Years ago, I read a bumper sticker that said: “Today: Give someone one of your smiles, it may be the only one they receive all day” and that has stayed with me. The woman at the drive-thru, who was so sick that she nearly died, yet always offered me one of HER smiles, gets it. She gets it. And thanks to her maybe I can finally get it too.