A Requiem

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.

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Rick Beckman