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fred and gingerWalt died Saturday, after a very long battle with cancer. He was 87. Funny thing is, he volunteered up until about a week ago when he became too weak to get himself out of bed. But before that, he would come in, his clothes hanging off his body like busted balloons. He ended up using a cane and sat down often for longer and longer periods of time. None of that mattered, because he was “working.”
I remember when he first came in seventeen years ago. His wife, Grace, who was a volunteer at the time thought it would be good for him. And so he came to orientation. I noticed in class how his silver hair curled just so over his perfect collar. He listened politely, asked methodical questions while taking copious notes.
Grace informed me that Walt had been a very successful trial lawyer. It showed in his dissecting approach to volunteering. “Give me the facts. Tell me what to do and it’s done.” Trouble was, Walt wanted to work with patients. That’s what his wife did and he wanted to do the “top job.” But patients aren’t cases and working with them is about nuances, not facts, although Walt at first thought that by studying a few facts, he then knew them. Oh, how he struggled and how I struggled with him.
We spent that first year together, doing a sort of schizoid tango, Walt telling me that he wasn’t comfortable, me assuring him that he would eventually get it. Often I thought he would quit and numerous times I ran out of ways to tell him not to. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t find the words to make him comfortable. Other volunteers helped in guiding him, but ultimately he had to find his own comfort. As the first year passed, he began to let go of his authoritarian role and started to sit down next to patients as he talked to them. He began to find pleasure in bringing a cup of coffee and enjoyed the less direct ramblings of life stories.
Our frenzied dance slowed to a waltz and he mixed into the routine like a French vanilla creamer in a perfect cup.
Several years ago, his beloved wife, Grace died. Burdened by grief, he insisted on continuing to volunteer, never sharing his heartache with patients, preferring supportive roles. Year after year his reason to be slowly returned as he immersed himself in helping others. He spent more and more time volunteering, but this time he greedily sat at bedsides. It was right for him, and soon the staff began to know and appreciate his humble spirit. And so Walt became a great volunteer.
At his service, his son said that Walt changed for the better by volunteering and that he got to see a side of his father that was truly inspiring. He voiced his gratitude to the organization for helping his Dad become a better man. There wasn’t a dry eye. See, we all knew things about Walt, things he had chosen in his new humility to share, things like struggles with alcoholism and infidelity. We could only imagine the Walt of old. We knew the deep Walt, the one we watched become a humble servant to others. He was as much a part of us as we were a part of him.
As we left the service, I realized how much I would miss our dance, But then, I pictured Walt dancing with Grace and hoped she would be proud of the man he had become. I know we are.
Cheers Walt. Thank you for showing me that by patient practice, we can all do a mean two-step.