Just a couple of months ago, in November of 2014, I was on a work trip in New York City. Naturally, and true to New York City, my days were filled with travel, organizing, preparing, and little to no down time. While I was there, my friend Bill called and left a voicemail on a Sunday and I didn't get around to checking it until the following Tuesday.
"This is Bill Rice calling, probably for the last time. Because I'm going to go into hospice where you actually die..." Bill said in his voicemail, "I hope to die on our lady's immaculate conception, which is tomorrow. And so I'm saying goodbye to you. I love you and you've been a wonderful person in my life..."
My heart sank. Was I too busy to check this sooner, too rushed to consider someone who was sick, too occupied to think of someone other than myself when I sat down alone? I immediately panicked and in the midst of my workday called Bill's cell phone -- selfishly hoping and praying that he might answer and still be alive.
When he didn't answer I couldn't even begin to rationalize my busyness as more important than a loving goodbye. I fretted over the fact that I didn't slow down enough for something like this, someone so important to me, and remembered that maybe this was a reminder to slow down and listen.
I tried calling again about an hour later and he answered. Our talk was understandably a mix of foggy and lucid conversation about our friendship, about what he meant to me over the past 2 years, and even about how he was feeling about dying. We ended that conversation with a love filled goodbye and the hopes of talking again.
Bill was 82 and he had cancer; a cancer so severe he was told numerous times that he had months to live, only to survive those months by years. Finding Bill's obituary was no surprise to me. It was Monday the 5th of January 2015, and I hadn't heard anything for some time, so I looked for his name on the Internet. There it was, Bill Rice, died on December 17th, 2014. The surprise came while reading his obituary which was filled with facts of where he went to school, what he did for work, who he is survived by, and so on. To me, there was little reminder there of who Bill was as opposed to what Bill did.
Bill Rice and I met in 2013 while we were both on retreat at a monastery in Utah. He was then an 80 year old man whose life consisted of volunteering and yearly retreats to this monastery and I was then a 29 year old woman whose life was in the midst of an undeniable turning point. Bill introduced himself to me when he noticed me amongst the empty pews at a prayer service one evening. What began that first day as friendly surface oriented banter about being on retreat turned into sharing beers on the front lawn of the church. I'll never forget those plastic chairs we fetched and gathered on the lawn which was painted with fallen leaves. Nor will I forget our conversation that covered topics such as work, death and dying, doubt, questions, and spirituality.
Gradually, Bill and I began writing letters to one another; he'd recount from time to time the amount of letters I'd sent him. He told me on numerous occasions that he considered himself a surrogate grandfather of sorts, which I gladly accepted as both of my grandfathers had died prior to my birth.
Bill had never married, had no children, and nearly became a monk in his earlier days. When we discussed why he chose to not become a monk, I recall him saying something to the effect of 'I couldn't handle the not talking.' This didn't surprise me one bit as Bill could always be found talking to someone; He seemed to know no strangers.
His dedication to Catholicism struck me, perhaps as much as my not being Catholic struck him -- I received numerous letters from him with remarks about why a woman like myself would travel to all these Catholic monasteries and not be Catholic. I recall a few precious letters when I was entrusted with some of the questions he had regarding this life, the mysteries we all face, and the questions we all dance with for a lifetime. I had no answers for him other than my support, my listening, and my willingness to accompany him in those questions and mysteries. Through our letters we continued to discuss these mysteries, sharing that perhaps part of our craving of the mysteries is that they remain unknown and that very paradox creates a greater awe.
After I spoke with him from New York, Bill and I never had the chance to talk again on earth. True to Bill's legacy, he came into my life with questions and openness, and he left me with an abundance of reminders.
He reminded me the importance to staying in touch -- even if it means sitting down and taking the time to write a hand-written letter (not everyone emails).
He reminded me the importance of questioning things until the day I die -- even if it means I'll never know the answers (it's comforting to be reminded we aren't alone in our questions).
He reminded me the importance of staying faithful -- in friendships, in love, in spirituality.
I knew I disagreed with Bill, on numerous things, but greater than that, I believe we knew one another's hearts and intentions; this is friendship. Our disagreements didn't deter or diminish my love for Bill. I was instead challenged by the idea of thinking of things in new ways, presenting thoughts in new capacities, and ultimately landing on the truth that our friendship and the love we shared was greater than disagreements.
He reminded me that I'm never too busy to share a beer on an empty lawn outside a church.
He reminded me to never be too busy for another person.
He reminded me to slow down and listen.
In the end, how would Bill want to be remembered? Probably a lot like the way his obituary read in terms of relationships and the people in his life. Although, in remaining true to Bill, I'm certain he'd scatter and mention friends, acquaintances, and those people he had passed by briefly that we'd typically assume to be forgettable.
Bill never met a forgettable person. If you knew or were friends with Bill, you probably knew of at least one of his other friends or acquaintances. And perhaps that's the most important lesson I take from this man: there are no forgettable people; there is no forgettable person.
I only knew Bill for about 2 years and the culmination of his kindness, generosity, openness, and love, accounted for a lifetime with a surrogate grandfather.
True to how our friendship began: cheers, Bill.