The Gospel According to Walter

I moved to Chicago in wintertime and that fact alone alerted my neighbors as to my relative cluelessness.  Being good Midwesterners, they rallied around me with plenty of advice hoping I would survive to see spring and they could avoid the stigma of my frosty demise.

Walter introduced himself by offering techniques I needed when falling on the ice.  I noticed he said “when falling” not “if”.  Walter himself had developed an advanced skill set.  In addition to bending his knees and rolling onto his back, Walter also positioned his hand to cover his right eye – the eye he lost in combat during World War II.  As he explained, replacement eyes are expensive, a lesson he learned falling on the ice many years before.  My imagining of that scene was both hysterically funny and it made me queasy.  That’s how it is with Walter.  It’s complicated.

Since that meeting Walter has rarely missed any of his twice daily walks around the neighborhood.  The morning round finds him collecting some of the newspapers the carrier has tossed on the sidewalk.  He then brings them to the front door of that house.  As wives become widows, Walter adds their homes to his delivery route.  Men, on the other hand, are on their own.  You can rely on Walter’s dependability more than most things, including the guy who drives through our neighborhood and tosses The Trib from his van onto the sidewalks.  If that fellow’s aim is off, if he’s later than 7am, or (God forbid!) if he forgets a house, Walter is on it and will offer passionate commentary on the infraction for days.

Walter’s afternoon round is more leisurely as he observes each house and yard and stops to converse with the occupant.  That person will be given the benefit of Walter’s full assessment as he spills out what needs tending and what new work does not pass muster.  Last year I painted my front steps blue, a brighter choice than the original grey.  Walter cautioned me not to get too carried away and I knew by his tone that I had already crossed way over his line.  He reminded me that day why my generation needed therapy and I felt grateful to have gotten some.

Two years ago Walter was late for his morning round and I noticed he was knocking on doors and speaking to each neighbor.  He knocked on my door, too, and had come to tell me his wife had passed away during the night.  He wanted to be sure we all knew and so here he was, doing this most difficult thing after spending the night saying goodbye to his wife of over sixty years.  I was moved by his strength and devotion particularly since he was quite frail and exhausted.  A few days following the funeral, Walter returned to my house to ask my advice about being widowed.  I was floored.  What could I possibly tell this man who had been married for over sixty years?  Even today I can’t begin to imagine the extent of that loss.  But that day we talked about how surprising it is that hearts keep beating after they have been shattered.   Somehow we still find ourselves alive and yet not at all the same as we once were.  We were speaking of the uncharted territory that each of us begins to travel following any great loss.  And though we must travel it as individuals, we may find along the way other travelers who understand that journey.  And bless them when we do.

As I write this it is almost autumn and with a summer of wonderful weather behind us, Walter’s afternoon rounds find him carrying bags of tomatoes to offer.  He is proud of the two varieties, one being a surprise since he picked up and planted the wrong plant.  Nevertheless he is pleased with his accidental success and is quick to point out that this great find has come from a mistake.  Imagine that.  And often these days when Walter approaches my house he barks like a dog.  That’s right.  And, yes, my dogs Luna and Sophie bark back in response.  Walter then beams.  He even beams on days when he’s not wearing his hearing aids.  Seems to me he’s happy to cut loose whether he hears the girls return his calls or not.

So here’s to Walter who is still Walter and who is different at the same time.

in Love and Service,



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