I Don’t Want to Walk Without You

I Don’t Want to Walk Without You

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

I Don’t Want to Walk Without You

The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next.

Mignon McLaughlin

From the time my daughter Jennifer was about three years old, we would 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 was 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 a cold October evening in 1995, two Marine Corps officers made that fateful visit to my door to inform me that my nineteen-year-old daughter was dead.

Several weeks after the funeral, her belongings were shipped to me from her base. I stood alone weeping in my garage as the moving men unloaded thirty boxes of her things. Everything came back, except her.

It took several months before I could open some of the boxes. I could only bear to go through one or two at a time. 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. I thought, If I can wear Jen’s shoes, particularly on days when I need to feel her close to me, this might be a way we could continue to “walk together.” Interestingly, they looked similar to the latest style for women’s shoes, so it seemed like a possibility.

As excruciating as the holidays are without her, I find the two most difficult days are her birthday and the date of her death. Since her passing, I have chosen not to work on those two days. But in January 1998, I didn’t have a choice.

I was scheduled to present a series of out-of-town broadcasts and seminars starting on Jennifer’s birthday. As a public speaker and trainer, the emotional toll of this significant day was compounded by the demand from my audience to be constantly positive and motivational in my presentations. I wondered how I would ever get through the day. I decided to wear her military shoes that day. I wanted to feel her walking with me.

Somehow, the day came together. Everything seemed to go well. Even so, as I headed back to the hotel where I was staying, I felt very sad and lonely. A hotel was the last place I wanted to be that evening. I approached the front desk in the lobby to pick up a card that was waiting for me from my sister Jeanne. She knew how emotionally difficult Jen’s birthday would be. As I was picking up my mail, I heard the bellman on the phone with a hotel guest. He was explaining that the hotel no longer had a shoe-shine person, but he would be glad to shine the shoes himself.

As a trainer in customer service, I was quite impressed with what I heard. When he got off the phone, I complimented him on his customer-service skills. He responded humbly, “It’s a quiet night. And 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’ll 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 time I first saw Jennifer in these shoes. It was at 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 can still see Jennifer as she was presented the medal. She stood at attention in her dress blues and these shoes. 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 changed into another pair of shoes and took Jen’s down to the front desk. I told the bellman that I had decided to take him up on his offer. He smiled and said he would bring them up to my room when he was finished.

As I walked back, I wondered if I should share with him the significance of his gesture. These shoes played a key role in helping me get through the day. 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 helped me recognize all of this with his kindness.

When he knocked on the door a little while later, I hesitated. There are times when words are just not adequate, and this was one of those moments. I opened the door, smiled and simply thanked him, telling him it meant a lot to me. I handed him a large tip.

I shut the door and stood cradling the shoes. Their polished surfaces shone back to me, just as Jen’s face had that 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 next to the rose and whispered, “Happy twenty-second birthday, Sweetheart. We found a way to continue to walk together after all.”

Joyce A. Harvey

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