Man who kept vigil at wife’s grave laid to rest
Rocky Abalsamo will never have to leave his wife again.
In December 2000, the Globe told the story of Roque “Rocky” Abalsamo, who spent nearly every day, all day, at the West Roxbury gravesite of his beloved wife, Julia “Julita” Echeverria Abalsamo. Rocky, who was then 84, had kept vigil during the seven years since his wife’s death, in rain and snow, heat and cold, arriving when St. Joseph Cemetery opened and trudging home to his Jamaica Plain apartment when it closed.
Rocky died Jan. 22 at Stonehedge Health Care Center in West Roxbury after several months of declining health, said his daughter, Angela Arai of Hanover. He was 97.
The Globe story propelled Rocky to minor celebrity. It appeared in various forms in The New York Times Magazine, on NPR, in newspapers as far away as China and Poland, and on readers’ bulletin boards and refrigerators. The attention amused Rocky, but all he wanted was to remain close to his wife.
They met as teenagers in a cafe in their native Buenos Aires. Rocky was sitting with his back to Julita when he overheard her talking with friends “about the soul, about life, goodness,” Rocky recalled in a November 2000 interview. Even before seeing her face, he decided, “This is for me. I must know her.”
“People no listen, people only see,” he said. “They need to listen, to see what is inside, to be happy.”
He said he fell in love with her “not because she was” – he made the symbol for an hourglass figure with his hands – “but she was,” he added, making the gesture again. “She was pure love. Her beauty was a gift apart, a reward.”
They shared a first kiss on Sept. 16, 1937, a date he celebrated annually. They married the following April. After their daughter Angela, they had a son, Roque Jr.
Rocky worked for three decades as a civil engineer while Julita tended their family. They followed their children to the United States in 1971 and settled in Boston a year later.
Rocky and Julita had been married for 55 years when she died in 1993 of complications after heart surgery. Distraught, he began spending his days at St. Joseph Cemetery.
“She is part of me, so here I am whole,” he said. “Being here makes me feel better. Not good, but better. I do it for Julita, and for myself.”
Among the belongings he carried daily to the cemetery was a photograph of a lovely woman with green eyes and dark hair. On the back, she had written: “Today the sky smiles to me. I see you. You look at me. Today I believe in God. With all my love, Julita.”
The Globe’s 2000 story, headlined “Endless Love,” described Rocky’s ritual:
“On cold days Rocky wears a patched and faded green parka. He owns other coats, but Julita knew this one best, so he will not change. He greets Julita — ‘I am here!’ Then he unfolds a blue beach chair — he leaves it every night against her headstone — placing it on a piece of plywood to keep it from sinking into the soft earth. Then Rocky relaxes, reading, writing, and reflecting. For exercise and to keep warm, he walks around nearby headstones engraved Cicciu, St. Clair, Doyle, Galvin, and Daley.
“He rarely eats or drinks, in part out of respect but also so he does not need a bathroom. On special occasions he toasts Julita with sparkling cider; he will do so Dec. 20, her birthday. Some days he brings a cassette player. On one tape they sing together, a Spanish lullaby. Rocky’s strong tenor is answered by Julita’s sweet soprano. Hearing Julita’s voice brings a smile to his face, a mist to his clear blue eyes.
“When dark comes, Rocky prays. He sprinkles crumbs on the grave, so chipmunks will keep Julita company after he has gone. Sadness returning, he says goodbye. He rubs her name on the red granite stone. The ritual has left an indelible mark.”
Over time, what began as a personal act of mourning touched dozens of others who came to the cemetery. Former strangers brought him meals, boots, hats, and scarves, and they decorated Julita’s grave with plants, ceramic angels, flags, and stuffed animals. He told them stories and shared his wisdom about life and love.
One of Rocky’s most regular visitors was Linda Handley, a math teacher in the Needham schools who lived across the street from St. Joseph Cemetery and walked the grounds for exercise. Handley noticed that a groundskeeper named John Tobin also took special care of Rocky. One day while Handley and Rocky were talking, Tobin brought Rocky a pair of sweat pants to wear as an extra layer on cold days. When Tobin left, Handley remarked, “What beautiful blue eyes he has.”
Rocky knew Tobin and Handley were middle-aged and had never married. Rocky arranged to have them visit him at the same time on the 61st anniversary of his first kiss with Julita. Handley and Tobin married a year later, and Rocky took a few hours away from his vigil to attend.
In their wedding program, they wrote: “We are convinced that the miracle of this day is the work of a very special person, Julita Echeverria. . . . We are grateful for the lessons of Dona Julita and her beloved husband and messenger, Don Roque Abalsamo. They have taught us that love is a true blessing and that the virtue of knowing how to give is the staircase to heaven.”
The couple remained close to Rocky in the ensuing years, even after retiring to Cape Cod. “Our marriage was a marriage made in heaven,” Linda said Thursday, “and Rocky is the one who watched over us all these years. He was like our spiritual mentor.”
“We try to model ourselves after Rocky,” she added. “We know that he had a wonderful relationship with his wife, and like him, we put the other person first.”
Rocky continued his daily pilgrimage until 2005, when his son was killed in a car crash in California. Although he still visited Julita’s grave regularly, Rocky spent more time with his surviving family members. “I think he had a realization at that point that we need to let go and we need to continue to live,” his daughter said.
His last visit was in July, before he fell ill.
Angela said her father’s vigil was often difficult for the family. “We always had a fear that something was going to happen to him, that we would find him frozen in the winter,” she said. “We had to let go from our fear so he could live the life he wanted to live.”
“The most special thing about my father was that he lived his life his way,” she added. “He lived one day at a time and enjoyed that day without preoccupations for tomorrow.”
The family planned a graveside service for Rocky, who leaves his daughter, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
When the Globe story ran in 2000, Rocky’s name and year of birth were already engraved on Julita’s gravestone. Near the end of his life, he told his daughter he wanted to be buried to Julita’s left, just as they had walked together in life. And so Rocky will be buried in the plot next to Julita’s, and they will rest side by side, forever.