By: Joyce A. Harvey
From the time my daughter Jennifer was about three years old, she and I used to sing to each other a line from an old Barry Manilow song about not wanting to walk without each other. Instead of the word “baby” I would sing “Jenny” and she would simultaneously say “Mommy.” I was a single mom, and she an only child. It became our pledge to each other … our lifeline of support through some difficult years.
Tragically, the day came when I had to walk without her. On October 2, 1995, two Marine officers made a fateful visit to my door to inform me that my daughter was dead. Jennifer was 19 years old and serving in the Marine Corps at the time of her death.
Several weeks after the funeral, her belongings were shipped from her base back to me. I stood alone weeping in my garage as the men unloaded 30 boxes of her things. Everything came back … except her.
I couldn’t open the boxes for months. Finally, I began to open one or two at a time. It was a very difficult and emotional task. During one of these painful sortings, I found her black military dress shoes. Jennifer and I wore the same shoe size, so I put them on. Immediately, our old song popped into my head. Oh, Jennifer, I thought, I don’t know how I’ll walk without you.
As time passed, I chose not to work on days that were particularly painful, such as the date of her passing and her birthday, January 12. But in January of 1998, I didn’t have a choice. I was scheduled to present a series of out-of-town seminars and broadcasts starting on her birthday. As a public speaker and trainer, the emotional toll of this significant day was compounded by the demand from my audience to be upbeat and motivational. I wondered how I would ever get through the day.
I remembered Jen’s military shoes. Fortunately, they looked similar to shoes that were fashionable at the time. I decided to wear them during my presentations. I wanted to feel her close to me.
Somehow, the day came together and everything seemed to go well. Even so, as I headed back to my hotel, I felt very sad and lonely. A hotel was the last place I wanted to be on Jen’s birthday.
I approached the front desk in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency to pick up a card that was waiting for me from my sister, Jeanne. She knew how emotionally difficult Jen’s birthday would be. The bellman was on the phone with a hotel guest saying, “The hotel no longer has a shoe shine person, but I would be glad to do the shoes for you.”
I was quite impressed with what I was hearing, and when he got off the phone, I complimented him on his customer service skills.
He responded humbly, “It’s a quiet night. Besides, I was in the military. Shining shoes is one of my specialties.” He looked down at mine, and with a big smile said, “I’d be glad to do yours for you.”
I thanked him for the offer, but told him I didn’t want to impose.
He insisted, “If you change your mind, bring them down.”
As I walked to my room, my thoughts flashed back to the first time I saw Jennifer in these shoes. It was during her graduation from boot camp at Parris Island. Jen had been selected the Honor Graduate for her platoon, in recognition of outstanding “leadership, discipline, proficiency, bearing and physical fitness.” I could still see Jennifer standing at attention as she was presented the Honor Graduate medal. It was the proudest moment of my life. I knew the courage it took for her to accomplish all that she did, just as it took courage to do what I had to do today.
I glanced down at the shoes. I sure haven’t kept these shoes looking as nice as Jen did, I thought. They actually needed a good “spit shine.” I thought how symbolic it would be to have them polished on her birthday, especially by someone who previously served in the military.
I took Jen’s shoes down to the front desk and told the bellman I had decided to take him up on his offer. He smiled and said he would bring them to my room when he finished.
As I walked back, I wondered if I should share with him the significance of his gesture. There’s something symbolic about polishing and shining an item, whether it’s a medal or a pair of shoes, as a way of acknowledging accomplishments, acts of courage and even birthdays. This young man was helping me to recognize all of this with his kindness.
When he knocked on the door a little while later, I hesitated. What would I say to him? Could I even begin to explain how much his kindness meant? There are times when words are just not adequate, and this was one of those moments. I simply opened the door, smiled, thanked him warmly and handed him a large tip.
I shut the door, and leaned against it cradling the shoes. They looked so much better. Their polished surfaces were shining back at me, just as Jen’s face had on graduation day. I walked over to the table where I had placed a single rose in a bud vase next to Jennifer’s picture. I put the shoes beside the rose and whispered, “Happy 22nd birthday, sweetheart. It looks like we found a way to continue walking together after all.”
First published in Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul, 2003
©1998 Joyce A. Harvey
Reprinted with permission only.