The odd thing was, as I planned the nine hour trip down to New Jersey, dreading the drive, I kept losing the fear because I knew I would be seeing Walter.
But “No!” I said, catching myself again and again, remembering suddenly that Walter, of course, was dead. This tension played itself out over and over as I made arrangements for the dog’s care, contemplated the ability of my ten year old car to survive the eight hundred miles, much of it through crowded metropolitan traffic, and played with maps and Google directions, not having a cell phone or GPS. One moment I was heartbroken and stressed, the next elated with anticipation at seeing Walter. Finally I stopped to center and focus. And I thought: of course this feeling makes sense. Walter was not the kind of man who would miss his own funeral. There were people to comfort—his wife, his children, his grandchildren; there were people to cheer up. Of course he would be there.
With this settled in my mind, I was able to calm down. And surely he would take care of me too. He would help me on the way down, through the dreaded traffic and unknown roads; and he would help me on the way back, when I would be exhausted. I would be O.K. Walter would see to that.
The drive down was marked by three incidents. I had been driving for four hours. The air conditioning unit in my car had stopped working a year ago and I hadn’t had it repaired. I felt hot and and utterly weary. I just can’t do this, I thought. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a small bright white car, of no recognizable make, pull up beside me. The driver’s face was partially obscured by a baseball cap. But as I glanced over, I could have sworn it was Walter. For seconds the cars rode parallel to each other and then the bright white car zipped off, lost to me in traffic. I straightened up, gripped the steering wheel with renewed energy and smiled. I'll be O.K., I thought. I can do this.
Several hours later within ten miles of my friend’s house where I planned to spend the night, large detour signs blocked my way. I was directed through a maze of New Jersey streets to a strange town. I only knew how to find my friend with tried and true written directions and now they were worthless. Shunted every which way by detours, I became entirely lost. I stopped at a pizza place to ask directions to the town I was looking for, Dumont. The young girl behind the counter was sweet, but admitted, as she began a rambling discourse: “I’m terrible at directions.” A man waiting to pick up his pizza overheard this and interrupted. “Just follow me,” he said. “I’ll take you there.” Back in my car, I followed him through a welter of streets and turned right when he pointed right, as he went straight ahead and left me. Confused and still lost, I drove along and in a few moments I saw a welcome sign stating “Dumont”. But where was my friend’s house? I recognized nothing. Stopped at the next red light I glanced anxiously around. And there it was, directly to my left—her street!
The next morning she led me to the Garden State Parkway through a web of detours. The funeral home was a farther two hours down the parkway, packed with morning traffic and frequent toll stops. I followed the directions to the home but just short of it, I was sure I had overshot the mark. “Don’t worry,” I heard a silent voice advise . “Just a little bit farther.” And yes, there it was.
On the way back, recollecting the comments of Walter’s children and grandchildren, I realized that they each felt particularly and especially loved by him. He had made every one of us feel unique and valuable.
Some hours down the road, I began looking for a Shell station. Inexplicably, a $20 Shell gift card which had been lost for months had turned up the day before. I wanted to use this card, but after miles of looking, the gas meter hovered too close to empty and I took an exit which displayed a Mobile sign. As I rolled down the ramp, what should I see straight in front of me but a Shell station! I smiled. Thank you Walter, I said.
Back on the road, I drove on tired but almost relaxed. I marveled at this: it was unprecedented for me to feel relaxed in this kind of traffic. As I drove, I began to daydream of the perfect meal to keep me going: Starbucks iced coffee and Nathan’s hot dogs. Service centers flashed by offering Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds and Arbys. And finally, just as I was about to give up a huge billboard came into view: Nathans and Starbucks were featured!
Nine hours after I had left the funeral home, I pulled into my driveway, exhausted but calm.
The Buddhists have a name for someone like Water. They call him a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so in order to help others.
Thank you, Walter. I will miss you.
Please read previous columns: "Walter"