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.
Typical Grandpa Bill humor…
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.
Our family ties meant a lot to me, too. I was honored and gladdened to have him as my father-in-law, as the father of my husband, and as the grandfather of my children. He and Nick shared an uncommonly strong partnership, and seeing them interact together filled me with awe and deep, unbridled happiness. I reveled in being with the whole clan, watching him as a father to Nelle and Em, and seeing him blossom whenever he was with Mary, our girls’ GranMary. Alongside her, Bill was a superb grandfather, delighting in the girls’ accomplishments and interests and constantly looking for new and inventive ways to connect with them. I relished every one of these familial bonds.
Posing as the Tooth Fairy for a video chat, after Eleanor lost a tooth.
There can be no doubt that the roles Bill and I played strengthened our relationship. With that said, Bill was not just my father-in-law, nor my husband’s father, nor my children’s grandfather – nor was I, to him, just a daughter-in-law, nor his son’s wife, nor his granddaughters’ mother. What is perhaps most remarkable about Bill’s and my relationship – and what, I think, I will miss the most – is that we loved each another just because, regardless of the roles we played in one another’s lives.
This is not to discredit the relationships where role does play a central, if not the most important, factor. When Ella and Annie were born, I felt an immediate and irrefutable connection to them; they were my children, they were part of Nick and me. I loved them with every fiber of my being and would have thrown myself in front of a car for them or – God help me – braved the line for Justin Beiber tickets, had they asked me to, before their personalities had even emerged – simply because they were mine. As they have grown into the human beings they are today, it so happens that I genuinely like the people they are becoming, and the love I have for them has deepened as a result; but, at its core, I adore them because they are my daughters, and I am their mom.
Likewise, there is a particularly warm and terrific feeling in being my own parents’ daughter, and to having them as my mom and dad. I know that I am loved at the simplest and most profound level, and that is comforting and incredible. On the other hand, it is also incredible to know that Bill loved me, no matter what our roles may have been. I am firmly convinced, if Nick and Ella and Annie had somehow disappeared, and we had nothing left to tie us together, no assigned parts to play in each other’s worlds, that Bill would still have continued to think I was fantastic, just because I am me.
We did not have to love one another; surely, we could have gotten by with pleasantries and some form tolerance or perhaps even mutual admiration, as so many in-laws do. Instead, we chose to love one another, and that kind of love is, indeed, elusive and special. He was Bill, and I was Emily, and I miss him oh so very much.
I miss playing Words With Friends with him. He was an intimidating and daunting opponent (although, not to brag, but I totally beat him a lot), and our games were some of the ones I looked forward to the most. I haven’t played WWF with anyone in at least six weeks (sorry, peeps), because, as he got sicker, Bill had stopped playing, and I was terrified of being informed that our game was over. I still am.
I miss his hugs, the way his long arms circled all the way around me and pulled me in tight; I can’t believe that I’ll never hug him again. It is simply not possible that he won’t be the Tooth Fairy when Annie loses her next pearly white. Bill’s sideline cheering is the stuff of legend, and I cannot wrap my head around the idea that he’ll never attend Annie’s soccer games or see one of Ella’s swim meets or congratulate Nick when he earns his MBA. That he won’t walk through my door again with a stack of photocopied (and annotated) recipes for me to try makes my stomach hurt, quite literally.
I can no longer phone him when a medical crisis strikes, nor ask his opinion on how to comfort a friend in need, nor tell him about my subbing assignments and how ecstatic I am to be back in the classroom. There will be no more games of Hand and Foot with him and Mary and Nick after the girls go to bed, wherein he scribbles “Them” and “Us” or “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” to keep score. There is no one with whom to discuss the finer points of extra virgin versus flavored olive oil. When we visit his house, I can turn on the sound machine in my bedroom, and know that he won’t be there to shake his head and laugh. God, how I miss his laugh.
And, quite frankly, that’s just shit. It’s not okay. It just isn’t.
A few days ago, I was trying to describe Bill, and my relationship with him, to my therapist. The emails, the articles, the jokes, the recipes. Card games, meals, phone calls, laughs. Oh, how he laughed! He laughed at so many things, but he also laughed at me – not like that, but rather because he thought I was funny – really, truly funny. I made Bill laugh, often; little has given me more joyful pride.
As I rambled on, I began to falter, because I couldn’t put my thoughts into words. He was my father-in-law, yes, he was my family, but he was so very much more. We talked; we shared; we consulted; we hoped. He was Bill, and he meant the world to me.
My therapist listened, thought for a moment, then looked at me and said, simply, “He was your friend; your dear friend.”
Perhaps this is odd, but I’d never thought of Bill as my friend. To be sure, Bill was a tremendous friend himself, and had a great many of them, but I’d never included myself among them. I knew, certainly, that he was a phenomenal friend to Nick. In fact, not too long ago, when Nick was at a loss for how to express his sadness, I attempted to help give voice to his feelings by (mis)quoting Red
from The Shawshank Redemption: “I guess you just miss your friend.”
But, somehow, I’d never considered that Bill was my friend, too.
After his memorial two weeks ago, a group of us gathered at a nearby bar to more raucously celebrate his life. Although Nick and his sisters were surrounded by marvelous friends and family, and although I knew many of them, I felt out of place. I’d been battling bronchitis and felt like crap, and when sadness threatened to overtake me, I decided that, instead of being the morose, coughing, teetotaler in the corner, I’d take myself away for a bit. Not knowing where to go, I found myself in our rental car, curled up on the passenger seat, tears flowing freely.
To make the maudlin scene complete (because I do so like a good drama), I determined that now was a good time to re-read some of Bill’s old emails to me, including one titled “Brown”.
Hi — on the off chance that you have not seen the TED talks
by Brene Brown
, I encourage you to watch these two.
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.
I remembered receiving the emails way back in February, but – to my dismay – realized that I had never watched either video. (Cue lots more tears.) And so, hunched up in the car in my brand new eggplant-colored memorial dress, I resolved that now was as good a time as any to click on those links.
I listened to every word, all forty-one minutes of them. Brené is, without a doubt, a great speaker (and certainly a better story teller than I, despite Bill’s generous assertion); I found myself utterly drawn in. Moreover, I found myself hearing – really hearing – what she had to say; it was a watershed moment.
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.