I’m coming up quick on my fifteenth anniversary of working at Walmart, along with only one other member of my hire-in group. I started out that journey working in the grocery department, which at my store consisted of three aisles containing some pop, water, soups, cereals, candy, coffee, snacks, and little else.
It wasn’t a glamorous position, but I had previous grocery experience, and I enjoyed the work. My attention to detail and willingness to help out with just about anything were noticed pretty quickly, but after almost a year, my schedule had become almost exclusively cashier shifts. It’s not that cashiering was difficult or even displeasing, but standing more or less still for hours on end was most definitely not for me.
I applied for the first position that came open: department manager of paper goods and chemicals. I figured they’d be a good fit — the areas were pretty small, but it was fast-paced, not unlike the grocery department I was used to. However, I was told by a manager almost immediately that it was a futile application on my behalf as they had already had someone picked out. I was told, however, to apply for a different spot that had come open: department manager of toys.
Toys. One of the largest, most complicated areas of our store at the time. I was told repeatedly at the time for how crazy I was in even applying for the job. I was a shy, backward Christian boy in my early twenties, but that department would drive me to drink. Basically, I was risking my reputation as the goofy kid with the wooden cross on his vest and the perpetual smile and positivity that I brought to my job.
Contrary to what I was told, however, I loved that department. It was tough getting started — I received very little training, and my mentor left after having her third kid, leaving a small string of folks filling in for her whom I had to help train with what little bit I knew at the time. For the first year and a half or so, I struggled, and I admit that. I hated that there was an overnight supervisor who technically had nothing to do with my department but who constantly would criticize everything I did, for example. Still, the work itself? I enjoyed it.
Whether it was seeing the joy on kids’ faces as they found just the right toy or geeking out about all of the new Lego sets and Transformers action figures we’d get in twice a year as the seasons shifted, and those biannual departmental resets were wonderful challenges that I always had a blast working through with my friends on overnight projects.
Eventually, I moved on to other areas of the store by way of becoming an overnight supervisor of the same kind that used to vex me in my earlier years, but that opportunity brought with it a substantial pay increase and an additional day off each week, so I couldn’t just pass it over. I’m glad I chose that position when I did because it wasn’t but a few months later that the position of toy department manager was eliminated at our store, getting absorbed by one of the other department supervisors (sporting goods, I think?).
Flash forward to 2016, and the whole point of this post. By now, I’m… the exact same kind of supervisor as I was before the flash forward, but I do the daytime thing now. I still spent a lot of time in toys as it’s my favorite area of the store (even though we’re at a new building now and our toy department is about 33% smaller than what we had prior to our expansion), but the actual toy department associates have changed fairly often due to supervisor realignments or whatever else.
One of our associates in that area stood out: Sierra. She had begun her time with us as a cashier, and though I didn’t know her all that well, she was uncharacteristically positive and always seemed happy to see me and, well, everybody. She pretty quickly moved to the toy department doing the same job I did ages ago in the grocery area, and I don’t think there was a person that worked with her that didn’t at the very least enjoy Sierra being there.
I’m not sure when it was that she first sat with me on break — was she a cashier still? or in toys? — but we slowly became friends, at work and on Facebook. I’d come to find out that I was one of her first good friends at our store, which surprised me given how extremely outgoing she always was.
Over time, it amused me just how much she reminded me of me when I was her age, albeit without the extreme religious baggage (honestly, I make no claim to know Sierra’s religion — I guess I always assumed she was some sort of Christian, but I don’t think there was a post I made on Facebook, including my extreme atheist posts, that she didn’t at least press “Like” on, which was just the perfect extension of her in-person attitude: always positive, all the time). (Yikes, that was a big aside. Maybe I should’ve used footnotes? Nah…) Anyway, she seemed to generally love the toy department, and even on days when she was scheduled elsewhere, she’d ask about how “her department” was doing. I wish more people took ownership of their areas like she did!
And just like my early time at Walmart, she would get scheduled all over the place — garden center, cashier, toys, electronics… Of course, she was always happy to help everyplace, which was just her way!, and she even helped with the more unusual projects, like the overnight frontend redesign; I can’t recall any truly negative things she’d ever said about her job!
Flash forward to November 30 of last year. She was at work that day, in electronics. I only saw her briefly that day, but for the first time since I met her, she wasn’t smiling. She was petrified that she was going to lose her job because of something she had done at the request of someone else earlier in the day, but our manager (my mentor I mentioned earlier, to bring us back full circle to that for no reason) had reassured her that it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be easily fixed so that she had nothing to worry about. The combination of fear and relief had her shaken up and in tears — did I mention that she actually cared about her job and loved what she did? — and…
… and that’s the last time I saw Sierra alive. She went home that afternoon. On Friday, she didn’t show up for work, and nobody knew why. On Saturday, the same thing happened, but our manager (same one) and another coworker and good friend, Brianna, went out to her house to check on her.
Sierra had passed away in her sleep sometime the night of the 30th, at only 20 years old. I remember getting a message on that Saturday from Kayleigh asking if Sierra had passed away, and the utter confusion and shock that that brought with it. Sierra? The ever-jubilant and seemingly healthy young Sierra? No way.
But then other people confirmed it. Eventually her family was sharing the news on Facebook. By the end of the day, I’ve had to break the news to others too, even while I was still in denial.
All the denial in the world — from all of us at Walmart — couldn’t change it, though.
Her visitation and viewing came that following Thursday. I was at work that day, so I went on my lunch break, arriving to it late, but staying longer than I expected to, honestly. I remember walking into the funeral home and a big group of my friends all surrounding me, and there were so many hugs. We hurt. Our circle was broken. Everything was wrong.
I waited a long time before I went to see Sierra, instead spending time looking at her tables full of pictures of her with so many of her friends. Except me. I’ll get back to that.
When I did approach the casket, I wasn’t sure how to feel or what to think. I wasn’t through with feeling denial, and my brain was an electric mess of dissonance in trying to organize itself. I didn’t linger long there, but I stood with my friends for well over an hour, as well all seemingly took turns breaking down, welcoming and hugging those who were still showing up, and sharing memories of Sierra.
We didn’t all have pictures with her up on her display table. Some of us were very new to our group. What was my excuse? Why didn’t I have photos with her or, well, just about any other of my friends? It didn’t help my fear of death any to think that when I die, there won’t be much to memorialize me with.
And so that’s what Sierra taught me: Beyond reminding me of myself of over a decade ago, she reminded me of the joys of friendship. I wish I would’ve realized that while she was yet here — or that she was yet here period — but I resolved there and then to try to be a better friend, and not just to those friends I usually spend all my time on (the long-distance ones that appreciate a text-only bond come to mind).
My friend Dakota — and I’m not sure what exactly prompted this but it came at just the right time — told me, either during the viewing or the next day during the funeral — that I meant more to everyone than I could ever know.
I needed to hear that. Having an awesome family is one thing, but a person needs friends — unabashed friends which become a special kind of family.
After the viewing, I went back to work, and my wonderful, if broken, circle of friends went out to eat. They all ended up back at Walmart after — I’m not sure if all together or coincidentally separately — but I know Brianna and Jordan wanted to bring me some food as I didn’t spend my lunch eating. We all ended up back there in electronics, where I was covering as nobody else came in that day due to the viewing, and I realized that I needed a picture with all of them. We took a few until everyone in them was satisfied. We joked, laughed, and enjoyed each other for a while before everyone left.
The next day, around noon, we all met again at the funeral home for the final services, and even on that day, I met new people, new friends: Kelsey, Devon, and their baby. It was with them and Brianna who I rode out to the cemetery with, and in true “it’s a small world, especially in a small town” fashion found out that they lived just one block away from me.
We laid Sierra to rest out in the country, not too far from where she lived, and afterward, there was a meal for everyone at a church not far from my neighborhood. It was great being with all of my friends outside of Walmart, even if the circumstances, in a word, sucked. Dakota and I had work, so he left when I did.
Since Sierra’s passing, I’ve tried to be more open with my friends, and more available. I’m sometimes a pretty smart and funny guy, and I have plenty to offer in the way of friendly advice, especially when it comes to avoiding all sorts of relationship pitfalls, after all! My wife and I even invited some friends over for New Year’s, which was an absolute thrill even if that infernal game of Uno lasted two hours too long! There were some whom I invited that couldn’t make it (which is a shame because if even just one had shown up, we could’ve had a balanced game of “Battle of the Sexes” going), and there were still others I probably should’ve invited but didn’t in the interest of keeping it small given that we’ve never really entertained before.
Time has marched on, and I’m enjoying work a lot more in focusing all the more on friendships — something I haven’t done for quite some time. I see a lot of people whine on Facebook about interpersonal troubles with those whom are politically or religiously opposite to them, and I just don’t get that. I’m an outspoken liberal, and sometimes I can be an absolute ass about being an atheist, but it has never been a barrier with my friends. It’s remarkable what happens when you treat people well!
Not a week goes by, though, when I don’t hear from a friend or see a post about missing Sierra. While part of me hopes that I never stop hearing that — we all most certainly will miss her always — I know that we must do our best to move on, to honor her memory exactly as she would want us to: By being there for our friends (“I got you!” being her sweet refrain), by owning our work and finding pride in it, and by facing every day with an overflowing positivity which drowns out the dark.
Sierra cannot be replaced, and ultimately, I hope the same will one day be said about me, and about everyone whom I care about.
Be irreplaceable. Find those who care about you and celebrate those relationships. Let your life be a celebration of (at the risk of sounding redundant) life, friendship, and love. I can think of no better way to honor Sierra’s life than to carry her light forward, sharing it with us as she selflessly shared it with us.
Sierra Stamper-Morgan. 1997–2017.
My lack of religious beliefs notwithstanding, I hope the same thing whenever the matter of death arises: May we meet again, in some form.