A few years ago I took daily walks along the winding paths of a cemetery near my Florida home. The peaceful setting helped me feel closer my dad and grandmother who had passed the previous spring – 33 heartbreaking days apart. Both were buried in far away Indiana; far away from me.
And it hurt.
I saw few people there. An assortment of squirrels and bunnies, otherwise it was usually just me and my grief.
Fridays were different.
A well-dressed elderly gentleman sat facing one of the monuments near the road, reading aloud from a book. Each week he brought a red rose, a Styrofoam cup with straw and propped them up against the stone– presumably gifts for the deceased.
For a month or so I waved as I passed by. He waved back but immediately returned to reading.
In a cemetery.
There was something about him that piqued my curiosity.
So I introduced myself.
“How do you do Michelle? I’m Ted Henderson” he said as we shook hands.
“Who are you visiting Mr. Henderson?”
“Please call me Ted. I’m spending time with my wife Margie” he smiled. “Every Friday, rain or shine.”
“Are Fridays a significant day for you?” I asked.
“For Margie and me, Friday evenings was date night. We’d go to supper, see a movie, play cards with the neighbors; that kind of thing. It gave us a few hours away from the kids. Later on when Margie got sick and went to a nursing home, we still had date night. It was something normal to look forward to. I’d bring her a red rose, and a chocolate shake from Winky’s. Then I’d read to her – the newspaper, books or a chapter from the Bible. Forty nine years and 2,544 Friday night dates.”
“Just because I can’t see her anymore isn’t a reason to cancel date night. Maybe she can see and hear me. That’s why I read to her.”
“And bring her a red rose and a chocolate shake” I added.
“May I join you?” I asked.
He looked pleased.
“Sure. I’d like that.”
I sat on the grass.
“Would you tell me more about Margie?”
A huge smile crossed his face.
“Margie was the prettiest girl I ever saw-big blue eyes, cheeks the color of peaches, long curly hair red as a fire truck, spunky and funny as two kittens fighting over a ball of yarn. I fell in love with her on the spot. She was crazy about me too, though I never understood why. I’m just plain old Ted.”
“Margie passed on eleven years ago but it seems like only yesterday we were newlyweds weeding the garden and squirting each other with the hose. Folks at church keep trying to fix me up with widows. I tell them no thanks. There’s only one lady for me” he said.
“She must have been very special.”
“Margie loved people. She visited sick folks, knit booties for new babies, gave away most of our homegrown vegetables to the needy and taught the kindergarten Sunday school class. Little ones were crazy about her.”
“You mentioned kids. How many do you have?” I asked.
Ted gazed off in the distance.
“We had twin boys; Theodore Jr. and Andrew. Teddy played high school football. Andy was our scholar, quiet and smart. Both were as handsome as movie stars, but they couldn’t have been more different. It’s funny how that works. After college they saw a recruiter and enlisted in the Army. We lost them in the Vietnam War. They died seven months apart” he sighed. “Afterward a light went out in Margie. Children aren’t supposed to go first you know.”
His eyes filled.
So did mine.
He lifted his chin resolutely.
“Our boys were proud to serve their country. They were where they wanted to be.”
“Please forgive me for stirring up painful memories.”
He looked surprised.
“Young lady I believe the Almighty sent you to me so I had a chance to talk about my family. Nobody asks about them much anymore. I miss still em’ like crazy but since they left God has never stopped blessing me, and giving me a million reasons to get up each day. I have wonderful friends, a beautiful granddaughter who spoils the heck out of me, and my needs are met. What more could I want?”
I wish I felt that way.
“Ted, how did you find peace after all you’ve suffered?” I asked.
“When Margie died I was devastated and moped around for months. Then one day I imagined what she’d say if she saw me sitting around in my PJ’s at 1:30 in the afternoon, my hair like shredded wheat, needing a shower and shave. She’d holler ‘Ted quit bawling, get off your lazy behind and find something to do!’ So I got out of my chair and started moving. It was hard and there were still were days when grief got the better of me. But I kept pushing forward through the pain; for Margie and for me. Of course I make an exception on Fridays but otherwise I’m a go getter.”
The sun was setting. He glanced at his watch.
“Mercy, look at the time! Margie always said I talked too much.”
Then he studied my face.
“Young lady, next time I want to hear about you. There’s a world of hurt in those green eyes.”
I smiled as a few stray tears trickled down my cheeks.
He patted my shoulder.
“You know where I am every Friday.”
In the days that followed I thought about Ted, and his simple acceptance of the hand he’d been dealt. Except for date night he focused on the living; a skill I had yet to master. Clearly I could learn a thing or two from him and looked forward to our next visit.
However I didn’t see him the following week, or the week after that.
For a man who never missed Fridays with Margie, something was wrong.
A few days later his obituary appeared in the newspaper.
My heart dropped.
Though we only met once, he was a rare kindred spirit. And in the space of an hour, he became my friend.
The memorial was the best party I’d been to in years. Instead of the typical somber hush in funeral homes, the place was packed with chatting laughing people. Big Band music boomed from the stereo. There was even a buffet table.
A young woman walked over and extended her hand.
“Hello. I’m Sharon, Ted’s granddaughter.”
“Hello, I’m Michelle.”
Her eyes lit up.
“You’re the lady that met Grandpa at the cemetery!”
Astonished, I nodded yes.
“He’d be happy you came.”
“I liked him so much. I just wish I’d known him better” I said.
“I’d love to tell you about him. To begin with, Grandpa was an Air Force pilot in World War II. When the Germans shot down his plane he was sent to a P.O.W. camp; where inmates regularly died from malnutrition. Grandma said Grandpa was a bag of bones when he returned because he often shared what food he had with the other men. He said they needed it more than he did. It was a miracle he survived.”
“A genuine hero” I marveled.
Sharon led me to a memory board; black and white photos of Ted as a young soldier, his beloved Margie with the twins, graduations, weddings and holding baby Sharon. Ted’s awards and medals including the Purple Heart were displayed on the adjacent table.
“After the war, Grandpa went back to school and he earned a degree in engineering from MIT. He eventually retired from NASA at Cape Canaveral in 1980.”
To think he referred to himself as “plain old’ Ted.”
The service was like a celebrity roast. Friends and family laughed at “Ted Tales.” Most spoke of how he inspired them. It was a celebration of a man who had touched so many.
On the drive home I remembered Ted’s words.
“I kept pushing forward through the pain; for Margie and for me.”
Grandma and Daddy would want me to do the same.
I enrolled in grief counseling at Hospice and worked hard to find a better place. I realized that grief never really leaves us but the sharp edges smooth over time as we accept the loss of our loved one. And through each moment of sorrow, God is there.
Soon after my last session, a parade of broken hearts passed through my world – one by one, all seeking what I’d found out on my own journey. I’m certain they were heaven sent.
It was humbling to witness God using my darkest days to light the way for others who desperately needed hope.
Just as He used “plain old Ted” to show me that in spite of the unimaginable, life is precious and meant to be lived.
Michelle Close Mills ©