Happy Birthday

Walter is his neighbor; he lives a few doors down. There are two others in between them and even more in the general vicinity, but Walter has always been my favorite because they share the same birthday. It certainly isn’t because they knew each other (they didn’t), nor because they passed away on the same day. Walter went the year before.

Today would have been my dad’s 70th birthday. It was early afternoon and the mercury was creeping toward 90 degrees. There wasn’t a speck of white in the sky, except for the remnants of an airplane’s vapor trails. Maybe it was the heat that kept me from crying, though my sweat unfortunately wasn’t as preoccupied with the temperature.

There’s a lot of concrete at cemeteries. Whether it’s a towering wall of niches or vast expanses of hardscape bowing down to religious mosaics upwards of three stories high, on a cooler day you’d pay no attention to it. Today, however, the concrete would not be ignored; it magnified each ray, and it was harsh. Every flower seemed to wilt in the pot I was carrying.

Dusk is my favorite time of day; my dad’s area of the cemetery is nothing short of heavenly when just the slightest bit of light remains and the stars are quickly ushered in to keep watch during the night. With Valentine’s Day in the not too distant past, a welcoming committee of red mylar heart-shaped balloons swayed in the breeze; they seemed almost patriotic against the blue sky. Red roses were laid at numerous graves, and I noticed a few new markers since the last time I visited. It’s not a short process to have one made and delivered, so I was happy that the recent ones came in time for the 14th; a celebration of life and love always deserves a name to go with the sentiment.

As mom and I rounded the corner to Ascension Gardens, there they were: members of Walter’s family. They sat in a narrow strip of shade; prayers were quietly spoken in Spanish. We wanted to tell them about the story we’d heard of Walter, although interrupting a prayer didn’t seem like the best time for storytelling.

So I will tell you.

My dad passed around 1am on September 19, 2014. Later that same day, we visited the cemetery and spent a few surreal hours looking for his final resting place. As we settled on Ascension Gardens and took a few moments to find the perfect plot – not too close to the sprinklers lest there be soggy ground, not too close to the sidewalk lest people carelessly stray from the path – we noticed Walter’s marker. He had the same birthday as my dad, so we took this as a good sign and figured my dad would have someone nearby to visit with when the mood struck.

According to the Memorial Counselor who’d been showing us the property, Walter had been a groundskeeper at the cemetery for nearly 20 years, admired and loved by family, friends, and coworkers alike. The story goes that an elderly lady was having trouble locating a particular grave one afternoon. As she wandered, she saw a uniformed employee nearby. He asked her if she needed help and she told him about the grave she couldn’t find. Within seconds he took her to where it was. She was grateful for his assistance, and he went on his way.

As the woman was leaving the cemetery, she thought she’d stop by the mortuary and give her thanks to the employees inside; she wanted them to know how helpful their groundskeeper had been.

“Do you remember his name?” they asked her.

“The name on his shirt said Walter,” she replied.

They thanked her for letting them know and she left.

What the woman didn’t know is that there was no employee named Walter – no current employee, that is. Walter had passed not long before that day she needed help at the cemetery. The staff’s beloved Walter was very much still around – still taking good care of things, still helping those in their moment of need and caring for their loved ones’ homes, and minding the property with a watchful eye.

I’ve said before that my dad and I are wired very similarly. I knew it all along, but I became even more aware of it after he passed; the calm soul I’d always gravitate to when the world became a bit too noisy was gone. There are times when I swear I hear his words and advice, as though he’s sitting next to me in the car or on the couch in my living room, and even during quiet times when I just want to sit and “be” – alone with my thoughts and memories of him. We generally celebrated his birthday as a family by either a small gathering at my parents’ home or out at dinner, and today I was struck by the sad reminder that I’ll never share a pre-dinner gin and tonic or glass of wine with him again, we’ll never clink glasses as we do a birthday “cheers,” and I’ll never hear his kind, gentle, “Well, thank you, hon,” as he opens a gift from me.

Then again, I did hear those words – they were loud and clear as we placed the flowers on his marker.

I like to think that Walter and my dad celebrated their birthdays together today, and I like to think that they were both so happy to have had visitors. For almost 30 years, my dad was without both parents on his birthday – so if he can’t be with us, I like to also think that this is the second year in a row where they’ve been together once again.

Happy birthday to my amazing, kind-hearted, gentle, and ever-present dad. I miss you.

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