Yesterday was the final day of a long goodbye to our friend and neighbor, Mr Bill. We sent him off with military honors and with much wisecracking and laughter, as was befitting a man voted class clown in high school and who laughed habitually, with great abandon.
Mr. Bill’s life, though too short, was a life well-lived. He was one of those rare people who truly knew that the secret to happiness is to love God and love others. His sweet wife Julie says often of him that he never knew a stranger, which aptly describes the way he so easily drew everyone in, and how effortlessly he could make anyone laugh. His gregarious joy was so contagious that even people who’d only met him once or twice came to the funeral yesterday with stories of his antics and his generosity. A woman he worked with as a teenager at a Hallmark store in the 70s wrote from Arizona to tell of how fondly she still looked back on those days, and how, after she shared her regret with Bill that she’d never received an Easy-bake Oven when she was a child, he’d left one on her car one day, gift wrapped. She still has it today. Another man, who knew Bill in the early 80s and who hasn’t seen him since, came all the way from London to say goodbye, because the bond they’d formed all those years ago had been just that strong.
He joked about everything, even his cancer. He wrote in a letter to his friends: “I had a PET Scan, which is like a CAT Scan, only it’s for people who have dogs, fish, birds, or are just not cat fans. This scan showed the tumor had shrunk to half its original size. Everyone who was not mentioned in my will was overjoyed.”
Later, when the news came that the cancer had resumed its growth and the doctor told him he might have 4 months or 40 years, he said, “that’s the same thing my parole officer told me!”
We met Bill about 10 years ago, through our son, who was around 5 at the time, and who is the reason we call our neighbor “Mr. Bill.” That title made us giggle (my husband and I, that is, because we’re children of the 70’s Saturday Night Live).
Our son developed a Dennis-the-Menace/Mr. Wilson-type of relationship with Mr. Bill. I swear they started swapping jokes almost from day one. Some days our son would stand draped over our mailbox, watching for him to come home from work, bursting at the seams with the “gem” of the day. Seeing his car come around the corner was an occasion for great glee. Bill would leap from the car and fire off a gem of his own that he’d been saving for just that moment. I suspect each of them poured through the joke books every night, looking for ammunition.
Bill was good to all children, and children loved him. He had a child’s heart.
Throughout his Chemo treatments, Bill continued to celebrate life, especially last Halloween (his favorite holiday) when, despite being weak and tired, he dug through the garage and hauled out the house-sized, inflatable black cat with a motion-sensor caterwaul-screeching device and erected it across his walkway (because the kids expect it, he said).
After he passed away last Saturday, my family was saying a prayer of thanks for Bill and his friendship, and it was my son who hit the crux of what had been Bill’s mission on earth, when he said, “Mr. Bill truly knew how to love thy neighbor.”
As I stood with friends and at Quantico National Cemetery watching the Air Force honor guard fold the flag and handed it with great reverence to Mrs. Julie, I realized we’d soon be forming a line to walk past his coffin, and I’d have one final moment, just between the two of us, to say something noble. I actually fretted about this, because it suddenly mattered to me a great deal, but when my turn came, I had nothing. So, I just patted the coffin, closed my eyes, and that’s when the words came:”
“Goodbye Bill, and have fun up there!”
And I know he will.