I knew my step-father as Willie but he went by many names.
In his professional life people called him Bill. His daughters called him Pop or Dad. My sister and niece called him Pop Willie. His friends knew him as Willie J or Willie-man.
I went home to Chicago two weeks ago to help take care of Willie. He had been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer which had spread to his liver. Too weak for chemotherapy, the decision was made to bring him home where he would enter hospice care.
Willie passed away last Tuesday, July 10th, at the age of 70.
Before these last two weeks I can't say that I was well-acquainted with dying or death on a personal level. I am fortunate that three of my four grandparents are still alive.
Cancer changed all that.
And although I never wanted to meet him, Death and I now know each other's names.
Death's a real son of a bitch.
* * *
As is the case with this blog, I'm left with only pop culture references to help explain my feelings. Two things spring to mind as I am writing this. The first is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I remember buying the book at midnight on the day of the release. There I was, a 30 year old dude trying to wade through a sea of tweens in Potter glasses, all swishing and flicking their wands. After I got home I spent the next two days devouring the book.
When J.K. finally got around to explaining what exactly the Deathly Hallows were, I was pumped. My pulse was racing, my mind was trying to piece together all the implications of what this meant for Harry and Voldemort and their inevitable final showdown. I was one hundred percent certain that Harry was going to obtain all of the Deathly Hallows and use them to cheat Death and bring down Voldemort. I still don't understand why Rowling didn't go that route. Why name the book after the Hallows and not even bring them into play? That was a huge disappointment for me. And don't get me started on the ending. Such a let down.
But I thought David Yates, the director of the Deathly Hallows films (split into two parts) did a masterful job using an animation sequence to explain the Hallows (Ben Hibon actually directed the animation). It's probably my second favorite scene in all the movies (after the stag patronus charm scene in POA, but I digress). Let's review:
Watching my mom's grief and the grief of Willie's family and friends over the last couple weeks, I would do anything to deliver the Elder Wand, the enchanted stone, and the cloak of invisibility to them so that they might have another week or year or five years with their Dad, Pop, Pop Willie or just plain Willie. He and they deserved that time together.
That brings me to my second pop culture item.
"What do we say to the God of Death?"
We can put on a brave (Bravos?) face when confronted with death and tell him "Not today" but that doesn't really mean anything. It's our way of reassuring ourselves that we have some kind of control over our lives.
That's one reason why I think the Potter books and Game of Thrones are so effective. They don't lie to us. Death is dealt with honestly. Important characters die on the regular. Rowling and George R.R. Martin are fair with us, just like death is fair. Eventually, he comes for everyone.
* * *
I've told my mom many times that "life is messy" on the ocassions (every day) that she would be stressing out about something. It's sort of become my motto.
Now I know that death is messy too. For the survivors.
The only thing we have over death is living.
And Willie lived about as full a life as one could imagine. Sex, drugs, motorcycles, and rock n' roll about sums it all up. I look at my life, my job, and I envy all those experiences he had and the risks he took.
All I can offer is a cliche: live hard, love hard, and make the most of the time you have because it isn't a lot.
One spin. That's all we get.
* * *
A few months ago, before all this cancer stuff started, I was back in Chicago for a week helping my mom out while both she and Willie were dealing with some health concerns. I was cooking, cleaning, running errands, driving people around and just helping out however I could. Most of the time though, I was hanging out in the house with Willie just shooting the shit (which he was a grand champion of).
One day, inevitably, our conversation turned to music and we started talking about The Beatles. I was shocked when he told me that he preferred them to the Rolling Stones. My mom is a huge Stones fan and I thought for sure he would have shared her sentiment after being married for nearly 20 years. But no, he preferred The Beatles. I was excited about this, as I too prefer them to the Stones.
So we're talking and he asks me what my favorite Beatles song is. I was a little caught off guard by the question. Usually when you talked with Willie, he tended to dominate the conversation with his opinions and stories so him asking me this question stunned me for a moment but I rallied and came up with "Norwegian Wood", "Within You Without You", and "A Day in the Life" as some of my favorites. When I said "A Day in the Life", he got really excited and just went on and on about how much he loved the song.
Talking with my mom this past week, I learned that the version of that song that he really loved was an instrumental by Jeff Beck which I have included below. I don't remember him mentioning the Beck version when we talked so I also embedded The Beatles original version.
I like to imagine him riding his motorcycle, tooling down some backroads, the wind in his beard while "A Day in the Life" and the rest of The Beatles' catalog provides the soundtrack.
Willie... You were loved and you will be missed.
Back tomorrow with the links.