A stranger’s death brings forth an emotional memory from the past

Wilbur L. Watson (1944-2016)

Wilbur L. Watson (1944-2016)

A man named Wilbur L. Watson passed away last week back in my home state of Maine, succumbing to life after what was described as “an extended illness.”

As I read Mr. Watson’s obituary, passed on to me and others through a Facebook friend’s post, I learned he had been employed at the Bangor International Airport for 32 years and he enjoyed both photography and NASCAR racing.

That was far more than I ever knew about him.

He was 71 years old.

My own path through this world crossed with Mr. Watson’s just once. To be honest, it was a day that changed both of our lives — his in a major way; mine in a far more minor fashion.

But it was a day I’ll never forget and it all came rushing back to me when I learned the news of his death.

Wilbur, I learned a long, long time ago, was the birth father of somebody who was very close to me back then. He had been only 20 years old when she was born, and life being what it is, she was raised by her mother and by another man, who adopted her, and gave her his name.

She grew up in a close and loving family more than 500 miles from the place Wilbur Watson called home.

That alone, I suppose, shows you how life is funny and sad at the same time.

It’s sad that a birth parent can go far too long without holding a loved one in their arms, or to look their eyes and try to find the words, “I’m sorry,” and someday “I love you.”

But it’s also funny how certain roads can lead back to the past, to moments where wrongs are righted and the future can be so vastly different than what once was.

So there was I was, perhaps 30 years or so ago, driving down a road with somebody at my side, somebody who was just about to meet her birth father for the first time.

Together, we were driving to Wilbur Watson’s home.

Looking back on it, I can’t imagine what the nerves were doing inside her as each mile brought her closer to the past and her future.

I can’t imagine what was going through his mind as he sat inside his home, looking at the clock, knowing with each passing minute that his past was finally going to become his present.

All I knew for sure was I was along for the ride — for moral support, for emotional support, for whatever role I would be needed.

So much is foggy now, the circumference of that day slipping away from the memory banks, but I remember vividly the first time they saw each other.

He stood looking at her. She stood looking at him. That pause, so brief, so awkward — what were they thinking as they saw each other?

But what could they do but embrace and cry? Father and daughter, hugging each other and holding each other for the first time in a long time.

I was blind-sided by what came next.

I remember feeling the emotion rise up inside me just by bearing witness to that moment in time. It was that which surprised me most, I suppose.

I never expected my own eyes to fight back the tears of seeing this reunion, but the emotion of the moment was simply too much. I looked away, I remember that. I looked at the floor, I remember that. I remember feeling the first few tears escape down my cheeks.

I remember thinking, “I shouldn’t be here” for such a touching and emotional moment in two people’s lives — a moment that should be shared alone.

Yet there I was — not quite the fly on the wall, not quite the elephant in the room — seeing a family renewed.

All these years later, I am glad I was there. Not just for her, but to see such a hopeful moment come to life in front of my very eyes.

Over the decades since, I’ve grown apart from my Maine roots, losing touch with family and friends except through the miracle of Facebook and my rare sojourns back home.

I don’t really know how the father-daughter relationship grew going forward — though she is listed in his obituary as his daughter and she is also Facebook friends with his other children, as well.

I can only hope from that moment sprung a new branch of her family tree and I hope it made her life a little better going forward.

I sent her a note through Facebook, telling her I never forgot that day when she met Wilbur for the first time. She replied to me, saying she too remember it like yesterday, and, she added, she never really thanked me for being so supportive back then.

Needless to say, she didn’t have to.

Bearing witness to that moment perhaps still reminds me there is hope for tomorrow in everybody’s lives.I think that’s why I’ve never forgotten that day.

Rest in peace, Wilbur Watson. Though we only met just once, I’ll never forget you.

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