Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
The following article was first published on February 17, 2010.
This year I’ve decided to give you (kind readers) a Valentine’s Day gift. I know it’s a few days late, but since my present is neither candy nor flowers (and won’t decay) I think the gift I have in mind will do just fine. I’m giving you a nonperishable story of a Valentine’s Day I experienced some thirty-five years ago. It’s a tale that I believe might help lift your spirits some day when you’ve done something—how does one put it?—not all that clever. Plus the story provides a nice reminder of the importance of keeping focused on what you really want.
It all started one Saturday evening when I suddenly realized that I only had an hour to buy my wife a Valentine’s Day gift. Since Louise was working on a project across campus (I was a grad student at the time), I loaded our six- and four-year-old daughters into the back seat of our Volkswagen bug, strapped our six-month-old son into one of those plastic baby carriers, and headed off to the nearest shopping center I could find.
Soon, with Becca, Christine, and a Raggedy Ann doll connected to me in a daisy chain of hand holds, and Taylor swinging gently in the plastic carrier clutched in my other hand, we found ourselves scurrying through a very high-end shopping center that was close to our apartment—but unlike any place I had ever been before (it didn’t have “Mart” or “O-rama” in the title). It was chock-full of wealthy, beautifully attired, perfectly coiffed people who frequented the luxurious stores that surrounded us.
Since I had been cleaning my outdoor grill when it struck me that I needed to buy a gift, I didn’t look much like the prim and proper patrons around me. I looked more like the Maytag repairman, and my kids appeared as if they had just been plucked from the sand pile in our back court. Which they had. The shoppers’ genial smiles turned into looks of disapproval as they scrutinized our scruffy clothes, our home-cut hair, and our barely opposable thumbs.
Eventually, the four of us found our way to the home center of a posh department store where they had on display the very present my wife had hinted she wanted—a variable speed blender, complete with pulse control. Soon, a perky clerk was wrapping up a bright red blender I had chosen in honor of Valentine’s Day. I knew that a household appliance wasn’t as romantic as, say, a diamond necklace, but you have to ask yourself: Can you whip up a batch of pureed spinach with a diamond necklace? I don’t think so.
Next, as the clock continued to run, the girls and I scampered out into the shopping center in search of an affordable card. Everything was so expensive. A simple card cost five bucks.
“Daddy,” Christine uttered, “don’t you think . . .”
“Shush,” I blurted as we hurried past one high-end store after another. “I need to find your mother a card.”
“I know,” Christine continued, “but . . .”
“No ifs-ands-or-buts about it. If I don’t find a card, I’m in trouble.”
Seeing that her sister was getting nowhere, three-year-old Becca asked: “Where’s baby Taylor?”
It was like being hit by a bucket of cold water. There in the hand that had once carried my son, was a package containing a variable-speed blender, complete with pulse-control. Where was baby Taylor?
“He’s back in that big store,” Christine offered as she pointed to the far end of the shopping center.
Egads. I had left my son in the middle of the blender display! In a flash I reversed course and headed back to the scene of the crime where I frantically tried to get into the store—repeatedly banging into a locked pair of massive glass doors.
“The place is closed,” explained an older gentleman walking by. “It’s Saturday night.”
“But I left my so . . .” I cut myself off midword. “But I left something inside.”
“You’ll have to go around back to the employee entrance,” the fellow explained.
Moments later the girls and I scurried along a terribly long wall while employees disgorged from a lone door at the far end of the building. The animated employees walking our way were all talking about some idiot who had . . . (well, you can guess). Then, as they saw me frantically hustling along with my two remaining kids in hand, they quickly concluded that I was the fool they had been bad-mouthing.
If looks could kill . . .
The best I could do was smile back lamely. I just wanted my son back.
Eventually my daughters and I found ourselves inside the building and standing next to a knot of folks who were cooing and making other baby noises while my son, still in his plastic container, smiled back politely. I searched for the proper words.
“Has anyone found a baby? It seems I’ve lost one.” No, that would land me in jail for sure.
“Funny thing, I came with three kids and now I only have two. Go figure.” Equally lame.
Eventually I blurted out, “You’ve found my son! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Pointing out that they had found (rather than I had lost) my son appeared to take the edge off the pack of store clerks. Nevertheless, the lady in charge gave me a long, hard look before barking, “Do you think you can get him home without losing him?”
“I brought my Raggedy Ann,” Christine remarked as she held up her well-worn doll. “And I didn’t lose her.”
“Yes, dear and I’m very proud of you,” I muttered back. Then looking the authority figure directly in the eye I tersely proclaimed, “So, we’ll just be heading on home now.”
With this lame pronouncement fresh off my lips, I snatched up Taylor and retreated out of the massive building.
“Do we tell Mommy the secret?” Christine asked as we walked back to the car.
“No!” I blurted. “We mustn’t tell Mommy that I bought her a variable speed blender, complete with pulse control. It would spoil the surprise and we don’t want to spoil the surprise.”
“I mean. . . how you left Taylor in the middle of the store and then got locked out?”
I was doomed. There was no way I was going to be able to keep the two girls from tattling on me. And sure enough, a few minutes later when we pulled up in front of our apartment, the girls bolted from the car as they rushed to tell mom the exciting news. They kept the blender a secret, but not the fact that I had left their baby brother in a big, scary store. That part of our little escapade they told with great relish.
“You left him in the store and then got locked out?” Louise asked incredulously as I presented her a brightly-wrapped gift.
“True,” I explained, “but you haven’t had a chance to see the gift I bought for you. I was so focused on expressing my love for you with this truly special household item—complete with pulse control—that I lost focus for a second.”
“You didn’t lose focus,” Louise accused, “you lost Taylor!”
“I didn’t lose my Raggedy Ann,” Christine offered.
And so there you have it my friends—my present to you. Never again did I leave a child locked in a department store. I learned my lesson. I learned to stay focused on what really matters.
In addition, I freely admit to my idiocy. That’s the whole point of this story. One day when you’re feeling bad because you missed a deadline at work or maybe you were late picking up your daughter at soccer practice, think of me and my Valentine’s Day debacle. Compared to me, you’ll be a saint. And should a loved one become angry at you for not flossing your kids’ teeth adequately or keeping them from getting hurt on a see-saw, you can say: “True, I messed up. But at least I’m not as bad as that idiot who left his baby in the middle of a blender display!”
That’s my present to you.