The candy shop was almost empty, but I was rushing nonetheless.
“Come on, Charles, we talked about your budget before we left the house. You agreed to no more than $20 for this chocolate.”
Charles was adamant. “I don’t want to get anything cheap,” he said. “It’s a present, and I want it to be nice.”
I sighed and tried to sound reasonable. “But she’s going to eat it, Charles. There’s no need to spend all your money on something that won’t last. And remember, you are going to want money during your trip, so you can eat good food and go sightseeing and buy souvenirs in London.”
“I’m not buying anything cheap!” he insisted.
So I took a deep breath, and braced myself for round seven. Eventually we agreed on eight truffles Charles could pick out, one by one, from the glass case below the register. The sales clerk placed them carefully in a shiny gold box that, despite being just under budget, looked admittedly classy. I pulled Charles’s debit card out of my wallet, relieved to finally be paying and on our way out of the store.
“Are you a member of the Godiva rewards program?” the clerk asked politely as she scanned Charles’s box of chocolates.
Oh no, I groaned internally, here we go.
“No,” Charles said, “But I’d like to join!”
“Charles, you really don’t come here very often, and do you actually need … ?” I began, but Charles interrupted.
“I’m going to join! She asked if I wanted to join, and I’m going to,” he maintained.
Suddenly, I remembered standing in a movie theater lobby, two and a half years earlier. Charles and I had spent ten minutes arguing about whether or not he needed to become a member of the AMC rewards program. After a light-hearted movie we had both enjoyed, we left the theater frustrated and annoyed at each other. “You never want me to be part of anything,” Charles had accused. You have a hundred membership cards that you never use, I had wanted to say. You can’t even fit them all in your billfold.
Shaking myself out of my memories, I looked at Charles.
“Sure,” I sighed, not wanting to repeat what I was sure would be the same hurtful argument we’d lived through once already. Charles blinked at me and turned back to the sales clerk.
“What do I have to do?”
Within three minutes we were walking out into the mall. Charles had given the clerk his e-mail address and in return received a small yellow plastic card with a barcode, a free piece of chocolate, and the promise of $10 in merchandise on his birthday. He was smiling brilliantly.
“That sales woman, she was a nice lady,” Charles said, turning to me as we walked. And it struck me that she had been nice, but mostly because Charles gave her the opportunity to be. She was patient with us as Charles tried to remember his e-mail address, and her smile grew as Charles thanked her repeatedly for the membership. I was worried about unnecessarily taking up her time and the time of customers behind us in line (despite the remarkably empty store), but by the end of the transaction I think the clerk was just as happy as Charles that he had joined the rewards program. His gratitude was contagious, and I was not immune.
“Can I sit down to eat this?” Charles asked, gesturing toward his single truffle in a white paper bag.
“Of course,” I replied, and sank down on a bench beside him.
As Charles ate his piece of chocolate, I thought about the last ten minutes. Why had I been so reluctant to let Charles sign up for the Godiva membership? Perhaps it was superfluous, and Charles does own more small pieces of barcode-emblazoned plastic than he can fit a wallet around. But far from wasting anyone’s time, I think Charles had brightened the store clerk’s day. He had a free chocolate to show for his efforts, and had taught me more than I could yet name or explain.
Shopping with Charles reminded me of the extravagant nature of gifts. The point of giving a gift isn’t to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible, or necessarily to choose something the other person needs. The objective is to invest time and energy into a person you care about, and to offer them something that will bring them delight. Maybe the gift will be consumed quickly or wilt or eventually break, but so what? Being ephemeral doesn’t detract from a gift’s significance.
There is certainly beauty in the freedom with which Charles gives. I was also struck at the difference in pace with which Charles and I approached our gift-buying excursion. I wanted to shop quickly, because I was trapped in a framework of viewing the experience as something to be finished. We would go, purchase the chocolates, and I could strike “buy Caitlin’s thank-you gift” from my to-do list.
For Charles, though, the time spent shopping was a reflection of his appreciation for Caitlin. He honored her through carefully considering different flavors and shapes of chocolate, different gift boxes and sizes.
Furthermore, by inviting me into his gift-giving process, we also had the opportunity to invest in our relationship. There was nothing in my afternoon so important that I needed to hurry home from the shopping trip. No e-mails, phone calls, or even dinner preparations were worth detracting my attention from Charles in the store, or denying him the space to shop the way that worked best for him.
I have had a handful of other opportunities to shop with Charles since buying chocolates for Caitlin, and I still have to work consciously to be patient with an experience that I have so long conceptualized as a chore.
The gift of sharing life, though, is that the ordinary and mundane tasks of our lives perpetually offer opportunities to be together, rely on each other, and learn from each other. By accompanying each other through grocery shopping or vacuuming the steps in our home, we can transform routine errands into sacred space.
Yuko Gruber and Charles Clark are housemates at L’Arche’s home on South 6th Street in Arlington, Virginia. A 2014 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Yuko serves as home-life leader. Charles Clark works at Linden Resources, ushers at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of Arlington where he is a member, and is an active advocate for people who have intellectual disabilities.