I was at the even bigger “happiest place on earth” — Disney World — when I got the call. My friend had called and asked me if I had heard the news. My friend, who I’d only seen cry maybe once, but otherwise never let her emotions get the best of her, broke down and cried. All she said was “It’s Wachs.”
“No!” was my response. And we cried together for what seemed like forever.
His name was Robert Harvey Wachs. Everybody called him either “Bob” or “Wachs.” He never wanted to be called “Mr. Wachs.”
He was a math teacher and yearbook advisor at my high school. Since I had friends in yearbook — particularly my then best friend — I would hang out in his room — good old 408. It was like a home away from home. Wachs, who was single, practically lived there. He had this oversized office chair, radio, rice cooker (most of the students were Asian, so we had an influence), grill, refrigerator and drawers full of candy and snacks.
Wachs had worked at the school for a long time, probably since the 70s. The school mascot — the tiger — was everywhere in Wachs’ world. You could easily spot his car anywhere. It was the white Astro van with the vanity plate TGRXPRS. I’m sure many a student got rides to and from practices, school, work, etc. in that van. He was just that kind of person.
Wachs eventually took over the school newspaper for a couple of years, so I grew even closer to him because of that. I will never forget his bearhugs and when he’d yell “Mayonnaise!” (his nickname for my last name). I remember the smell of his coffee breath and his chuckle that could be heard for miles.
I will never forget that one Saturday when I was at school on a weekend, trying to put the newspaper to bed. Wachs had gone to the “special” bathroom to which only he (aside from the janitors) had a key. It was a few doors down from 408.
Well, he had been gone for quite some time, and I really had to go. My friend, who was busy at work on the yearbook, suggested that I just go in the bushes right outside the room. So I did.
And I as getting up from the squatting position, I saw that bathroom door open and felt mortified. I don’t think Wachs had ever laughed so hard or loud.
Even after graduating high school, I still kept in touch with him. After I graduated from college, he’d bug me about my career. He’d always ask, “Are you writing?” I’d always say “No.” Then he’d ask, “Why not?!?”
Wachs was kind of like my third parent in some ways. He had two sons, so I always thought he treated me like a daughter. He was always there. There were only rare occasions when he didn’t answer his phone. But if he did miss it, he was sure to call you back. He was someone I turned to when I had problems with my then-boyfriend, who was another one of his “kids.” I could practically talk to him about anything.
Wachs loved animals as much as he loved his students. My first cat, Jodie, was from one of several litters of kittens Wachs had rescued from around the school campus. I wanted to name her “Bobbi,” but my mom won the naming rights. Jodie passed away 4 months after Wachs did. After that time, I had a dream that I saw them in Heaven, and they were together. Wachs told me everything was going to be okay. And there was relief that I knew they had each other.
The last time I had seen Wachs was about 9 months prior to that day I received the call. He was no longer the vibrant, big, chuckling teddy bear. He was thinner; his hair shabby; his beard so overgrown. It was sad. And scary. He was living in a home because he could no longer take care of himself. He couldn’t even drive anymore. No more Tiger Express. No more trips to the beach. No more taking his cats in his RV and traveling the route of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
I looked at him and felt like I didn’t know him.
When he got out of my friend’s car, we kind of just looked at each other didn’t have to say a word. We were both sad. The plan was to see him again.
I just never thought the next time would be at his funeral. And even then, all I saw was a photograph. Wachs had been cremated. It was heartbreaking.
I heard he was found wearing one of his high school sweatshirts. Wachs was a Tiger for life. Literally.
Recently, I went to the cemetery where Wachs is buried with his mother and father. I left feeling angry because I could not find his gravesite. It was after hours, so I could not talk to anyone to help me locate it. It has been at least a year since my last visit. I felt like kicking myself — again. Am I doing him wrong in death as I did in life by not visiting?
All I know is that I miss him very much. And on this Father’s Day, I want to thank him. Thanks for the memories. Thanks for the pep talks. Thanks. For everything.