Ash Wednesday & an Ode to Walt

–Originally published Ash Wednesday 2012

Today is Ash Wednesday.  We skipped the service this morning at church.   We couldn’t really envision what this serious service would look like with two toddlers in their jammies eager for breakfast (or maybe we could) so we opted out this year.   But I’ve been thinking about it all day.  It’s one of my favorite services on the church calendar.  It’s so solemn and serious.  I like having the ashes spread on my forehead in the shape of a cross.  I like hearing the words, “Remember, o woman, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  It seems such a fitting way to start the Lenten season.

Tonight, as I was ironing I looked up and glimpsed my grandpa’s hat in the closet.  I have it set up so I can see it whenever I open the closet.  I walked over and held the hat for a minute.  Smelled it (it still smells just like him – amazing).   And I was reminded of what I was doing around this time last year.  Last February I was in Lodi to help bury him.   Well, to “spread” him, actually.   We didn’t bury him.  We spread his ashes.  Up in the mountains, where we had spread my grandmother’s ashes five months earlier.  I helped; I reached into the bag and grabbed hold of some of him and tossed him into the wind.  It was weird.  Strange and a little scary.  Thinking about it as I pushed my iron back and forth and cried a little, I realized that tossing his ashes that morning was the most real Ash Wednesday service I could ever attend.    As it turns out, we really do return to dust.

We all called him Walt.   His name was Roy but he was always Walt to one and all.  An old baseball nickname. I have so many fond memories of him from my childhood. He practiced throwing grounders with me in his backyard when I joined the softball team in 4th grade.  He taught me how to drive when I was fifteen (“gettin’ on the freeway… ppssshhh, it’s a can of corn.  no problem, you can do this”).   He talked sports with me.   Told me endless stories about his beloved dog, Shortie, and I always kind of fancied myself as his favorite grandchild.  I have absolutely no proof of this and I know my siblings and cousins would beg to differ!  But I always just felt like he got me.  And I him.

Most of the family agreed that it was “a good time” for him to go.  That he had been so sad.  That he was finally pain-free.  That he was with Ed.  And it’s all true.  But it’s still hard to have him go.   We were in Lodi for Thanksgiving a couple months after my grandma died and I was looking forward to spending a significant amount of my time there with Walt.  I just wanted to sit with him.  Talk about Ed, maybe.   See his little apartment.  Visit the dining area with him.   But I came down with the stomach flu just before we left for Lodi and I just couldn’t seem to kick it.  So I spent Thanksgiving Day on the couch, staying as far away from him and everyone else as possible.  I remember that Jason gave a toast to Ed at the meal and even in my feverish haze from the couch, I still remember the look on Walt’s face as he leaned in close to hear Jason’s words.   And then a few days later, still sick, my dad had to drive me to Urgent Care (IV fluids and antibiotics).  On the way, we dropped my mom off at Walt’s, just around the corner. I was too weak to even sit up in the back seat.  Walt gave me a sympathetic look from his doorway, waved at me with a smile, and called out “hee!” (his signature greeting).  That was the last time I ever saw him.

So this Ash Wednesday, I’m thinking about Walt.  Missing him.  Remembering him.   Celebrating him.  And remembering that I, too, will return to dust someday.

Walt (in his hat) & Gryffin, May 2009