He was a big man struggling to hold back his tears.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

The slightly built woman behind the counter told him it was all right. But the man knew that it wasn’t. So did the other people in the store, who edged away from him.

OPINION

It was National Chocolate Day and this was the scene inside a Cupid Candies store.

The man was buying chocolates for his two sisters, who had been especially kind to him.

“What kind of chocolate do you want?” asked the clerk before the man began sobbing. “Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?”

“They like milk chocolate,” the man replied.

Then came the follow up questions. Chocolate creams? Chocolate covered nuts? Chocolate caramels? Turtles?

The big fellow was overwhelmed.

“I’m not sure,” he said, staring down through the glass that covered the chocolates. “My eyesight isn’t very good. Maybe you can help me out.”

“No problem,” said the woman behind the counter. She began slowly lining up chocolates inside a gift box.

“Thank you,” the man said. “You are being very kind.”

“Is this for a special occasion?” the clerk asked.

“My sisters and their families have been very good to me,” the man said as his voice began to break.

For a minute or so he couldn’t speak at all, but you could hear him gulping for air as he slowly lost his battle to contain his emotions.

“My wife died,” he said, and the tears began to flow. “She was the very best of us.”

“I miss my wife,” he said and the tears flowed some more. “I never knew how much I would miss her.”

“That’s all right,” the clerk said. “Grieving is natural. We all miss our loved ones. We often take them for granted when they are alive.”

“I apologize,” the big fellow said. “A grown man shouldn’t cry.”

“It’s all right to cry,” the clerk said. “We all understand, don’t we?” she said, speaking not only for herself, but for the others in the store.

“No,” the man replied. “A grown man shouldn’t cry. I shouldn’t be allowed outside. I should stay in the house.”

“Your wife would not have wanted you to sit in the house alone,” the clerk said. “She would want you to get out and get on with your life. She loved you.”

The man turned to my wife and me and said, “I’m sorry.”

“You should wait on them,” he told the clerk, nodding in our direction. “This is embarrassing.”

We told the clerk we could wait. My wife told the man we knew what it was like to lose someone you love.

The clerk told the man that her name was Hazel. She reassured him again that it was all right to cry. She asked him what sort of gift wrap he wanted and when he said he didn’t need any, Hazel said she was going to wrap the boxes anyway and she used beautiful paper decorated with pictures of flowers.

“Chocolates and flowers,” she said. “They go together.”

The man thanked her and cried, and Hazel said she was going to give him a hug.

He protested. She said she didn’t care. He needed a hug, and she was gong to give it to him.

She explained she wasn’t a regular store employee and normally worked in the factory. So if he came back looking for her, “I probably won’t be here.”

And I watched as a tiny black woman hugged a very sad white man. Two strangers with nothing in common but the tragedy and magic that is human existence. Sometimes we must be reminded what is really important in life.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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