January 5, 2006

Letters and Bills

Every year, we get a Christmas letter from the parents of my closest childhood friend - let's call them Bill and Mary. You know the type of letter, the one that gets folded into quarters and stuffed inside a normal Christmas card. A few years back (and I think I've written about this before), Mary died in a horribly violent car accident. Bill wasn't traveling with her at the time.

Bill continues to live in their home, alone, both kids having moved out of town. And he continues to send cards on birthdays, anniversaries and, of course, Christmas. They're usually late. More often than not sorry this is late appears scrawled across the bottom of the cards we receive. But - and perhaps this is really what I find most endearing - he tries.

The Christmas letters keep coming too. I know the man is computer literate but he still types the letters on an old typewriter. You can tell because it consistently drops a couple letters. Each year, since Mary died, the letters become shorter, a tiny bit more heartbreaking, and a tad more inappropriate. It's as if some tether that holds us all to our shared reality has let out a little slack for Bill.

This year the letter was four paragraphs long, each paragraph constructed of three to four sentences at most. His two kids are fine, although there wasn't much in the way of news. The birth of a new granddaughter was only briefly mentioned. He quit his job but the reasons are unclear, except that he felt like an old man in a young person's world. He mentioned the lack of income, thanking social security and a nest egg. He really always has been the cheapest man alive, driving a 1976 Plymouth Volare well into the late 1980's. He's trying to travel but can't seem to drive further than 100 miles out of town before he panics and turns back. Between attempting to slip this vortex, he's playing bridge with several of the 80 year old ladies from the neighborhood.

Looking back on my childhood and life in general, Bill has provided me with more life lessons that most adults I ran into as a child. Bill was always an angry guy. He'd sit at the two-way stop in my neighborhood in said Volare, writing down plate numbers of cars that failed to come to a complete stop. He called the cops once a month and read them the list. That is, when he didn't chase the cars down himself. Most attempts failed. I mean, the Volare even in its heyday was never a match for, well, a 10-speed bike. Bill drove his kids insane. They had to be the best. Anything less was wholly disappointing. He was confrontational, officious, and not always pleasant to be around. And now he's just sad.

I feel myself getting angrier sometimes, more and more frequently, at the unfairness of the world, and I remind myself that I don't want to be like Bill. I actually say that. It's a little mantra. You don't want to become Bill...you don't want to become Bill... Yet, at the same time, I see what the loss of Mary has done to him and I know that I would be equally rudderless without Beth. And that makes me love and appreciate her that much more than I already do. I would, quite honestly, be lost, unable to leave town, instead playing bridge with old ladies.

People ask all the time, who influenced you most growing up? Aside from my parents, I have to point to Bill. He has become, at once, an example of everything I don't want to become and a lesson in appreciating and loving my family as much as I can, every instant of every day.

Posted by Chris at January 5, 2006 7:44 AM

Wow... my heart just breaks for Bill. Even though he may have been an angry old man, it sounds like he's completely broken inside. I wish I could give the man a big, long hug.

Posted by: Corinne at January 5, 2006 8:17 AM

Chris, from what I've read nearly every day on your blog, you have about as much a chance of becoming Bill as I do of becoming Mother Theresa! I hope Bill finds some sort of peace until he joins Mary on the other side.

Posted by: mooalex at January 5, 2006 8:27 AM

So very sad. I wish there was something to be done for Bill. His sadness could not be easy for his children.

Posted by: jayne d'Arcy at January 5, 2006 8:45 AM

Was that Volare emerald green? They had slant 6's that will run forever.

Posted by: Diane at January 5, 2006 8:49 AM

You hate bridge.

Posted by: Mrs. Cactus at January 5, 2006 8:51 AM

Ha! "You hate bridge". Now that's love. ;)

Posted by: erika at January 5, 2006 8:57 AM

Just goes to show you that the "three-fold" rule applies. What you give comes back three times.

Posted by: Jamie at January 5, 2006 9:11 AM

I love the fact that your wife is your "rudder".

Posted by: Bill at January 5, 2006 9:14 AM

Wow. What a bad influence... Bill cares enough about his kid's closest childhood friend to send holiday greetings consistently--late. [Hmm. I wonder if Bill would still have sent a Christmas letter updating his life if he knew it was to be flouted on the Internet!]

Bill cared enough to patrol the law-breaking drivers in the neighborhood, and then coincidentally Mary dies in a violent car crash. Irony.

How offensive that Bill drove an older, paid-off car. AND types on an old typewriter. Cheapest man alive--especially since Social Security = lucrative.

Bill influenced RC most??! But... You don't want to become Bill...You don't want to become Bill.

"Now he's just sad." And disrespected.

Posted by: kate at January 5, 2006 9:18 AM

You continue to amaze, my friend. We all need examples of who we don't want to be just as much as those we do. Unfortunately in my case, my example of who I did not want to be was a lot closer to home (when he was at home) so be glad you only get this once a year reminder.

Posted by: Mike at January 5, 2006 10:01 AM

Chris, I agree with mooalex---from what I have read, you don't have a snowball's chance in hell of turning into Bill. It is sad though. If this helps, my grandfather has become downright angry and not himself at all since my grandmother passed away 4 years ago. It is really hard to see what used to be a jovial person become so angry and lash out at so many undeserving people. It got so bad that my mother couldn't take it anymore and moved all the way to Nevada from Michigan, primarily to be with her boyfriend, but also to get away from my grandfather. At least you recognize the Bills of this world, and are doing everything in your power NOT to repeat history.

Posted by: Michelle at January 5, 2006 10:02 AM

Wow - that really hit home to me. I see people around me with so much in their lives but who are on the verge of turning into Bills. It makes me want to do that Cher slap from "Moonstruck" - you know, "Snap out of it!"

OK, maybe without the slap, but just a hard shake. Or a poke in the ribs. Or, for some of them, a knee in the groin.

Posted by: Susan at January 5, 2006 10:11 AM

Wow. I think I feel most sorry for Bill because he apparently had no "Bill" to remind himself of how he didn't want to end up. Kudos to you for reminding yourself of these things. That is so sad.

Posted by: Jade at January 5, 2006 10:33 AM

Funny. My uncle recently died and he was a right ba****d. He absude his children, beat his wife in their younger days and was generally a mean mean person.
His daughter nursed him through the last months despite his continued ill-will towards everyone.
We wondered what she could possible say at his eulogy. She essentially said the same thing you said about Bill.
That he gave her the opportunity to see how NOT to parent, to choose to be a good person despite modeling, to appreciate her loved ones.
So sad.

Posted by: That Girl at January 5, 2006 10:37 AM

Maybe he will find peace and it will open up some new doors for him. We can only hope.

Posted by: Jessica at January 5, 2006 10:52 AM

It is a shame how sad it is to see a person deteriate once they lose the one person they have so relied on during their lifetime. I hope Bill can find some peace before his time comes, and hopefully he's still not trying to chase down cars for their license plates! At least he has the ladies at bridge :)

Posted by: Michelle at January 5, 2006 11:25 AM

Thanks for sharing reminders that matter most. I do enjoy your posts frequently. A warm wonderful hug for your and your lovely family.

Posted by: pam at January 5, 2006 11:26 AM

Beautifully written, Chris. I bet it would make "Bill's" day to know what an incredible influence he had on you. Well...not the negative part, but well, you know.

Posted by: VirgoJen at January 5, 2006 11:29 AM

Inspiration can at times come from the strangest of places. While you may find yourself getting angrier at the world it sounds to me like you truly appreciate those people around you, especially Beth and Mia. I think if for that reason alone you won't be turning into Bill, because it sounds to me like maybe he didn't appreciate his family while they were around. Poor Bill.

Posted by: Beth in StL at January 5, 2006 11:50 AM

Beautiful post, pal. I find myself repeating a similar mantra, except mine is "you don't want to become like Grandma." And I know I have to be careful because she and I are scarily alike. I'm not sure what made her the way she was, but I am thankful that right now, I have a system of support in my life that helps me work out my issues.

And I'm very glad you have Beth and she has you.

Posted by: Rhonda at January 5, 2006 11:59 AM

In honor of the lessons Bill has taught you, maybe you can look up a widow support group in his area and send him the information (along with a deck of bridge cards... in bright yellow). It's never too late to change or to find peace. Maybe he just needs a little nudge and to know that someone cares, so that he can find his peace.

Posted by: witchy_puppy at January 5, 2006 1:01 PM

huh. And my mantra is, "You don't want to turn into your mother. You don't want to turn into your mother...."

Posted by: kalisah at January 5, 2006 3:35 PM

aww poor bill, makes you thankful for what you've got. i know i am...just from reading that!

Posted by: lizabetty at January 5, 2006 7:21 PM

You can learn alot from anyone and everyone.

Posted by: Lisa B at January 5, 2006 7:26 PM

May my guy someday be as self aware and in love with me as you are and you are with Beth. A beautiful post Chris.

Posted by: amy at January 5, 2006 8:31 PM

What a great, powerful post. It's funny when somtimes we get jolted like this, reminding us of the people we are and the poeple we don't wish to become.

Thanks for sharing that.

Posted by: Chocolate Makes it Better at January 5, 2006 11:20 PM

Bill sounds like my dad. My heart aches for him because he's sad and lonely. My brother has the same mantra "don't become like dad". okay, dysfunctional TMI time is over.

Posted by: Jen at January 6, 2006 1:39 AM

I do actually know a couple named Bill and Mary, and Bill passed away not too long ago. He said that with all the pain, he was glad to go, but sorry to leave his wife. They were one of most beautiful old couples I've ever known, and every time I think of Bill and his charming personality and Scottish brogue, I cry...much as I'm doing right now.

Posted by: Heather at January 6, 2006 5:14 AM

I have a family member that is a lot like Bill. I feel so bad for people like that, but I remember them as a life lesson.

Posted by: Nicole at January 6, 2006 6:40 AM

That was a very interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: Jess at January 6, 2006 7:21 AM

i think it's amazing with how his life is obviously falling apart that he still takes time to remember his kid's childhood best friend and his family. while you may not want to end up like bill in the sad, lonely sense, there are some ways we could all benefit by being like bill. he's lost in his grief and loneliness, but he still manages to reach out. that's something...

Posted by: suze at January 6, 2006 8:43 AM

Now there's a goal I want to reach in my life. To become someone's example of what NOT to become.

Posted by: wlfldy at January 6, 2006 8:43 AM

Isn't it funny how people we DON'T want to be can be just as influential (if not more so) than those we DO look up to? Crazy. I think many of us, unfortunately, know someone like Bill.

Posted by: Zandria at January 6, 2006 10:48 PM

please tell bill that i love him. thanks.

Posted by: RazDreams at January 6, 2006 10:50 PM

I surfed into your site after following a maze of links. I read your portrait of Bill yesterday and it stayed with me. I wondered why..and if I should tell you. But blogging and lurking and pecking these keys are all generated around ideas,aren't they? A way to think things though, or keep thoughts alive or start someone else thinking along different channels than they might otherwise. Then I figured out why Bill and your description of him in your childhood and how he is still a reminder of those days had caught my attention. Your Bill illustrates how we are all role models. Not good ones..or bad ones, and it isn't something we can choose to be or do. We just are. We adults have someone watchng all the time. And we don't have to be a celebrity for our actions to make an impact on someone. Whether we are involved in the lesson in a negative way or a postive one, we are guiding some little one in how to grow up. Thanks

Posted by: Sue at January 7, 2006 9:18 AM

Wow... great post... I often hope that I will make as much of an impression on the people in my life as Bill has made on yours...

Does this count as my anti-lurking post???

Posted by: Deepblue at January 10, 2006 8:56 PM