I celebrate that it’s possible to miss someone I never met, whose name I didn’t even know.
Whenever I drove down Main Street in our little Oregon town, there was a man in a wheelchair, waving at passing traffic. He wore oversized red gloves, fuzzy and bright, to catch the eyes of passing drivers. His patriotic top hat featured stars, stripes, and a shape reminiscent of The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I presumed he was a disabled veteran, though I had no evidence but appearance. He was always smiling, and he was out there every day. He was deeply dedicated to his career of simply waving.
Countless people’s days were brightened by his waves. He had an important leadership role, and he was beloved in this town.
One day he wasn’t there, though. A few days later, a memorial appeared in his place. First it was just his picture, with two flags beside it. Then it grew to include one of his hats, a more detailed memorial with flowers, and a couple of other remembrances. Then the town installed a permanent bench, painted with patriotic colors and the dates of his birth and death. Others will be able to sit on it and wave, though no one can quite take his place, and no one yet has.
His memory reminds me of other wavers who have changed lives. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, there was a man who stood on the boulevard and waved, in a tough neighborhood bordering Oakland and Berkeley. His gloves were a light tan, setting off the color of his dark skin. He too was a beloved local figure—a true leader who was missed, when his life suddenly came to a close.
Many years later, I’d see a man on a rural Oregon road, as I drove the back route to my city job. He made it his avocation to carry a plastic bag and pick up trash, always wearing his radio headphones and a bright yellow safety vest. Every weekday for years, we’d wave as I passed. We never had any other interaction; but our fleeting wave made my day better, every time. It was a sign that both of us were diligently fulfilling our simple purpose, as best as we knew how. He’s still there, last I knew; but I’ve moved on.
With each, I can’t remember our last shared wave—nor did I know at the time it was the last. We never know when we’re waving goodbye as well as hello, in our fragile and transient lives. That makes it even more important to greet each other, in celebration of our fleeting existence.
Such small, kind gestures better our world on a subtle but vital level. Just to greet each passing stranger may make more difference than all of our other achievements—and it’s so easily accomplished. I celebrate that ease with nothing more than a smile and a wave.