So there I am, looking at pocketbooks, arguing with myself that I surely don’t need another pocketbook but gosh darn, it’s my birthday and I can be frivolous if I want to be, when a young teenage girl crosses the store to get to me and hands me a purple square of paper on which is drawn a heart holding these handwritten words: Don’t forget to smile. Don’t forget to love. Happy Valentine’s Day from Alex.
I want to know more, but she is gone. I don’t see her anywhere. I kick myself for not asking her what she was handing me. Eventually, though, I spot her and run to catch up. She is with a woman and a tall, lanky young man. “I’m curious,” I tell her. “What’s the story behind this valentine?”
The woman tells me that Alex is her son who died last October. His last words were “Don’t forget to smile. Don’t forget to love.” As she tells me more of the story, tears spill. I’m quite sure we’ll soon need to call for clean-up on aisle 14, and I don’t care.
“Today’s my birthday,” I tell her, “and this is the best gift ever.” Hugs are swapped and enthusiastic wishes for a happy birthday come from Alex’s sister and brother (who’s wearing a t-shirt with a photo of Alex on it, and you know, nobody thinks it the least bit odd when I reach out and touch the brother’s chest.)
Alex’s mother asks to take a photo, then more tears are shed and hugs exchanged before we part ways. I don’t even know their names, but Alex will live forever in the mind and heart of this woman called Jeanne who never had the honor of knowing him in this life.
Today Alison and I go to the surgeon’s office on the twelfth floor to have the drainage tube removed from her throat. When the elevator doors open on the eleventh floor, a woman pushes a stroller from the back of the crowded elevator to the front, and as she’s exiting, I see that she’s wearing a shirt that says “Don’t forget to smile, Alex”.
It all happens so fast.
I see the shirt, the memory floods me just as clearly as if it happened yesterday. She pushes past me, exits the elevator cab, and in a split second decision, I go after her, turning around to hold the doors open long enough to assure Alison that I’ll be along in a few minutes.
“Excuse me,” I say to the young woman in the t-shirt. “I see your t-shirt, and well, last February on Valentine’s Day, a teenage girl stopped me in a store in Newnan to give me a purple piece of paper bearing those same words: “Don’t forget to smile. Don’t forget to love, Alex.'”
The young woman’s face lights up into a broad smile and in her best broken English, she says “That’s my sister.” She goes on to explain as best she can that the t-shirts and valentines are how Alex’s family deals with their grief and how they keep Alex’s memory alive. She reaches out and hugs me warmly just like her sister did 6.5 months ago.
And just as I did 6.5 months ago, I leave smiling and blessing Alex’s family for honoring his memory in such a fine, meaningful way and vowing that though I’ll never have the privilege of knowing Alex in this life, I’ll never forget him – memorializing him by remembering to love and remembering to smile. Seems a fine legacy to me, Alex. A mighty fine legacy.