Exactly one week ago, on Saturday morning, my wife and I got into the backseat of my father and stepmother’s car, in Georgetown, Texas, pulled out of their garage, and headed eastward, to make the hour-long trip to the small town of Rockdale, Texas, population 5,323.
Our goal was to attend a memorial service to commemorate the life of my uncle, a man I’d always called “Big Bill,” my dad’s eldest of two brothers and father of “Little Bill,” his only son and my favorite cousin—see the header photo; he’s on the left, and that’s me, on the right—while I was growing up. Of course, in attendance was Betty Lou, Big Bill’s wife, Tammy, their daughter, and a variety of other people, including family members such as my estranged brother, a person I haven’t spoken with for a long time.
At the time of his death, my uncle was eighty-seven and two years younger than my father. Earlier this month, Big Bill had been admitted to the hospital for a variety of respiratory problems. Almost as soon as he was admitted, his condition deteriorated rapidly, and then, on June 6th, dad and Janie, my stepmother, got a telephone call that Big Bill was in critical condition and that they should come if they wanted to sit with him during his last living moments. They drove quickly to the hospital and, shortly thereafter, he was gone. My father told me he stayed with his brother a good fifteen minutes after he took his last breath and was the last person to leave Big Bill’s room.
We arrived at the St. John’s United Methodist Church at ten a.m., an hour before the service was to begin, for “visitation.” As soon as we stepped into the church, we were bathed in soft, colorful light that was filtered through large, stained-glass windows. I almost immediately saw Little Bill who made his way over to me. As soon as he got to where I was standing, he began, in a near whisper, to say sad things about how hard it was to be without his father. The tears flowed out of his eyes, and I spoke supportive words in a faltering voice. I put my arms around his shoulders, and we cried a bit together. After those tears had come, I felt a cathartic release.
Little Bill and I had been inseparable growing up. We spent every holiday together and many weekends in one another’s company. Plus, each summer, during the vacation period, I would spend a week or two with him, in Rockdale, and he would spend time with me and my family, in Georgetown. He was only six months older than I was, and we had many interests in common. In fact, when I was around eleven or twelve years old, Bill turned me on to rock-and-roll music. He had a stereo and many records—I’m talking the old-fashioned plastic type with grooved surfaces, the place where those beautiful sounds lived. We’d listen to The Edgar Winters Group, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the like. As soon as I heard all those bands, I went home and pestered my folks until they bought me a similar setup and a few discs to go with it.
I’ll never forget an especially memorable visit we had together. I was about five or six years old and living in Austin with my parents at the time. His folks drove over and the two of us spent the day running wild outside in the manner that two boys of that age are apt to do. When Little Bill’s parents started talking about leaving to return home, the two of us found a hiding place outside. We hid well while his father and mine called out to us. We could see them moving around the house, searching high and low, but we stayed quiet and out of sight. We stayed in place as they became increasingly desperate.
“What do you think we ought to do?” I asked Bill in my childish voice.
“I don’t know. Stay hiding?” Bill answered.
“We’re sure to get spankings,” I reminded him.
“Yup. I guess so. But I don’t want to leave.”
“I don’t want you to leave either. Let’s stay where we are.”
We held out for a while longer, eventually stepping out of our hiding spots, surrendering, in a way, to the authority of our respective dads. Sure enough, we both got our rearends warmed nicely.
The memorial service was nice, and I learned a few things about my uncle that I didn’t know. After it was over, the church served a meal for all those who wished to partake in a little sustenance. I spent more time with Little Bill, and we talked about all sorts of subjects, many of them providing us opportunities to take walks down memory lane. It was a wonderful, magical hour we spent together.
My estranged brother stayed for the meal too. At one point, I waved him over and the two of us huddled together. I told him, “I want us to start talking again. Would that be acceptable to you?”
“I don’t have any problems with that,” he told me.
“Good. So let’s make it happen.”
And then we shared telephone numbers.
On the way back to Georgetown, I held my wife’s hand while we sat in the backseat. I told everyone about my conversations with Little Bill and how I’d taken steps to reconnect with my brother. Everyone was pleased with the news I was sharing.
The day had started off very sadly, but I felt incredibly happy as we drove through a portion of rural Texas at midafternoon.