After we visited Minnesota in June to celebrate Bill’s 70th birthday, but before I wrote a post about how it had gone so uproariously wrong, I emailed Bill to ask if he would be comfortable with my mentioning his cancer. See, we knew that time was limited. A couple of months prior to the trip, we’d been told that nothing more could be done, and it was quite likely that this was the last time we’d all be together. And so, when illness struck and planes were delayed and the power failed and the car keys went missing and the painstakingly-created plans slowly but steadily began to crumble, we absolutely did our best to pull ourselves together and enjoy it, damn it! But somewhere, in the back of everyone’s minds, was the thought that this really, really wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. This was our last time together. It was supposed to be different.
Bill phoned me back, thanked me for considering his feelings, and then very politely asked me to not mention the cancer. First, he’d like to think that we would have gotten together to celebrate his 70th, anyway (we would). Second, he didn’t want people feeling they needed to fawn over him after they read the post (fair enough). Bill did want me to write about him, about cancer; in fact, he specifically asked me to do so. “I hope that you’ll talk about this later; I would be honored if you wrote about me.” He simply wanted me to wait until after he was gone, and then he was sure that I would do him justice.
Awesome. No pressure, Bill. Thanks.
It’s been four weeks since we lost him, and I’ve been thinking about what I want to say, how to possibly talk about someone who meant so much more to me than I can ever hope to illustrate. I could go on forever telling stories about him, trying to illuminate who he was as a person (as Nick did so very perfectly at the memorial). But I realize that I’ll never truly capture him the way I want to. Moreover, Nick – along with Bill’s other friends who spoke at the memorial – has already captured him so wholly that I don’t want to just repeat what they’ve said. And so, instead, I am simply going to talk the tiniest bit* about who Bill was to me… because he sure as hell wasn’t “just” my father-in-law.
* I realize that this is relative, given that this is probably my longest post ever. Work with me.
Nick and I met over twenty years ago (omg!), when we were freshmen at Connecticut College. We formally began dating the following spring, and I met Bill around that time – whether it was when he came to visit Nick at Conn, or whether it was when I visited Nick in Minnesota that summer, I don’t recall, but I do know that we’ve known one another for over nineteen years – more than half my life. Despite Nick’s and my gag-inducing No One Has Ever Experienced A Love Like Ours behavior, Bill welcomed me cordially and openly; I did not have to “earn” my spot but was, instead, immediately one of the gang.
Bill is well-known for his sense of humor. He found something laughable in almost every situation, could tell enormously funny and clever jokes and stories, and was a terrific teaser. I knew early on that I’d fully been accepted into his world when he began to tease me, mercilously, about almost everything. Since forever, I’ve slept with a white noise machine, while Bill preferred to sleep in silence – or, better yet, with the windows open (something I cannot do, because my ADHD brain causes me to jump at every hint of sound… “Ooooh, some crickets!” “Is that a woodpecker?” “I didn’t know there was a train near here!” “People still listen to Kenny G?”). We each found the other’s sleep/noise preferences to be utterly baffling, and we discussed it – with mock seriousness – not infrequently.
One day – well before Nick and I were married, before I’d “officially” become family – this cartoon arrived in the mail: (click to see original size)
If you only tease the ones you love, Bill clearly thought I was the bees’ knees.
As nineteen years passed, Bill and I communicated regularly, sometimes over the phone or through texting, but mostly via email. Because Ella and Annie’s birthdays are in December, I try to get the rest of our Christmas shopping done early, so I’m not rushing around like a crazy person (well, no more than usual). One year, I’d already asked Bill what he’d like for Christmas, but had yet to receive an answer. In the meantime, Ella had lost a tooth, but the Tooth Fairy accidentally forgot to show that night. Bill, being perfectly him, touched upon both with his reply…
From me to Bill
Subject: Me, bugging you again
Okay, I know I’m being a pain…
But I’m wondering if you’ve had a chance to think of anything that might be on your Christmas wish list.
If so, I’d love to hear it. 🙂
Hope all’s well…
Reply, from Bill to me
Subject: Re: Me, bugging you again
This is me bugging you. You gave me Twins tickets covering birthday, Christmas, father’s Day, fourth of July and Guy Fawkes Day. No Christmas present for me other than that, thank you very much..Is it true that the Tooth Fairy reported you to county social services?.
Although not a doctor himself, Bill had a lifetime of experience in the medical field, advising many medical boards and being — to me, anyway — somewhat all-knowing when it came to medicine and medical care. A year ago, when Ella broke her foot, Nick and I were faced with an extremely formidable decision: to allow her foot to heal as it was (without surgery), knowing that, if it healed improperly, she would need a much more complicated surgery down the road… or try to avoid potential problems and go ahead with surgery right then, even though her foot seemed to be healing just fine. Nick and I were absolutely stumped. While the doctor left the room to get his assistants and remove Ella’s cast, I excused myself… and called Bill.
Last summer, when my aunt was dying of cancer and I wanted to speak with her but was uncomfortable picking up the phone, I called Bill to ask him how to talk to someone in a situation like this. His advice gave me the courage to phone her; we had a lovely conversation. She died less than a week later, and I am forever grateful that we had the chance to talk. Likewise, it was Bill who helped me when Ella first developed her allergy to the cold. Not only was her condition scary and baffling, but we couldn’t even educate ourselves on it because of the scarcity of information. Unprompted, Bill emailed me links to scholarly articles on the subject, so that we could be better prepared.
Come to think of it, Bill often sent me links to things I might find interesting, be it an article about storm chasers (because he knew I have a strange desire to see a tornado up close and personal; or, at least I did, until they went all Twister crazy these past few years), or a link to a children’s choir singing at the Queen’s jubilee celebration. But perhaps more than anything else, Bill and I emailed about cooking. We shared a love of all things epicurian, from restaurants to recipes to actually preparing food ourselves, and we bonded over our mutual appreciation of food time and time again. We exchanged recipes, gave one another cookbooks and culinary magazine subscriptions, and sent countless delicious goodies one another’s way, from bread-of-the-month clubs (omg, the chocolate sourdough) to unique oils and vinegars (the peach balsamic is still my favorite).
While I certainly turned to him for advice, he did the same to me; and every single time, I was honored and touched that he’d considered my opinion worthy of the asking. When taking photographs, he would inquire about lighting and angles. A few years ago, as he began teaching a new class at the U of M, he toyed with doing part of the course online, and asked what I thought of it, as an educator. Bill sought my assessment of music and musicians, and listened to me in earnest when I presented my point of view on a political topic. That my thoughts merited deliberation, when he himself was so intelligent and well-educated and witty, never ceased to please and humble me.
Bill was an extremely eloquent speaker and writer, always able to get his point across quite succinctly (even if his handwriting was atrocious). He also had a gift for reaching out and letting me know when he was proud of me, that he was thinking of me, or simply that he loved me. For the past five years, I’ve made separate photo books of Nick and me with the girls — one photo for each week — and have sent them to our respective parents. Always, Bill would reach out to let me know just how much they meant to him, while also managing to compliment me and make me feel like I was on top of the world.
I’m sure you know how much more than “just pictures” these gifts are. Please know that we appreciate the effort, skill, caring and consideration involved in their preparation.
And that, really, was one of the things I loved most about Bill: his ability to make me feel fantastic. He did this with everyone he cared for – sharing stories, freely giving compliments, letting those he loved know that they mattered to him – so I know that I wasn’t unique… but I felt unique. I felt special. That’s probably because I was special to Bill. Yes, part of this was because we were related to one another. That he respected and appreciated me as his son’s wife, his granddaughters’ mother, and his own daughter-in-law, was never in doubt.
The following was sent four years ago as a prelude to a poem he’d found and wanted to share with me, entitled “To My Son’s Girlfriend” by Michael Milburn
It was at that point that I was struck by the realization that Nick has been with you for nearly as long as he was at home with me — to the extent that anyone can claim to be the “woodworker” here, the resulting table is as much of your hand as anyone’s. That thought then led to a brief reverie on how happy it makes me to see Nick in such a wonderful family and how proud I am of you, him, Ella and Annie. It is one thing to watch one’s offspring take their first steps, do well in school, head off to college. It is quite another to watch their lives unfold and enfold in the context of the family of their own making. It’s a wonderful thing, this family stuff.
I’m using these to teach leadership, but I think her message is widely applicable. Moreover, she’s a great speaker and reminds me a bit of you, except you’re a better story teller. Love you.Bill
If I had listened to these talks back in February, they wouldn’t have resonated with me. These last few months have been so nutty, so sad, so unbelievable, I truly don’t think I could have processed Brené’s message – or, if I could, I would have lost focus along the way. Today, although I’m hardly in excellent shape emotionally, I feel much more open, much more receptive… much more vulnerable. Which, by her definition, means that I’m standing at the birthplace of joy and love (holla!). And, man, could I use some joy and love right about now.
Practicing gratitude? That, I can do. Looking for the good and the funny and the beautiful? I think I’ve got that part down. The rest is not going to be smooth sailing, this being accepting of myself, of my imperfections. Breathing through this time is incredibly difficult. And believing that I’m enough? Far easier said than done.
But Bill believed it. For him, I was enough, just as I am. Bill loved with his whole heart and told me – told all of us, for whom this was true – that he loved us, constantly. He was also imperfect, having made a great many mistakes, as we all do; but he embraced his imperfections and moved forward.
As much as I wished I’d seen these talks six months ago so that I could have thanked Bill for sharing them, I think that I was meant to see them now, when I need them most. That I saved them and then magically found them again, when I am actually ready, is surely not a coincidence (right, Bill, wherever you are?). Brené’s words resonated with me to my core – so much so that, upon completing the second video, my very first thought was, “I’ve got to tell Bill!”
“Father-in-law” is such a generic term, and Bill was anything but generic. He was bold. He was thoughtful. He was thought-provoking. He was funny. He was highly intelligent. He was kind. He was empathetic. He was curious. He was impish. He was loving. He was a gifted storyteller. He was devoted. He was good.
He was my husband’s father. He was my daughters’ grandfather. He was my father-in-law. He was my family.
He was my friend; my dear friend.
My life is forever changed for having lost him, and forever better for having known and loved him. Every day, I am moving forward – partly because I want to, and partly because there is no choice. Yes, there is genuine joy and so very much gratitude. I am trying consciously to live whole-heartedly, to accept myself, to breathe through these days. But Bill is never far from my thoughts and my heart, which still hurts more than I thought possible.
I guess I just miss my friend.