One of the many things I love about my parents is the wonderful people they’ve brought into my life over the years. Two of those people are Deb and Bill.
Years ago, Deb worked with my father. When he opened his first bar, he hired her on to help him manage it. I was just a teenager at the time, first finishing high school and then embarking on my first year of college. I thought I knew everything, and as we all learn later in life, really didn’t know shit yet. But from the moment we met, Deb was both a good friend and a big sister of sorts.
Bill was also a good friend of my Dad’s and a regular at his bar. He became first Deb’s boyfriend and then her husband. To me, he was like a big brother. He was a walking bear hug, a ready smile, a kind soul who was willing to do anything for anyone, without being asked.
Bill passed away unexpectedly several years ago. Sometimes, it seems like forever since he has been gone, and sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday.
I had some intentions for this week’s blog. I woke up early this morning after finally getting a good night’s rest, put on a pot of coffee and sat crosslegged on my couch with my steaming cup of wake-up and my laptop. In such writerly moments, I try to avoid signing onto Facebook until I’ve done my wordy deeds. I am far too easily sucked into a void where it suddenly becomes noon and the only writing I’ve managed to do is expand my vocabulary in “Words With Friends.”
But Facebook called me, and because I am weak, I answered.
In this case, that turned out to be a good thing. I have always been horrible at remembering birthdays. Sometimes I think I’d forget my own if someone else didn’t remind me it was coming. So I had forgotten that this windy Saturday morning would have been the first day of Bill’s 54th year, until I saw Deb’s update about it.
And I knew that what I wouldn’t be sticking to my original writing plan. Instead, I would be remembering Bill. It makes perfect sense, really. Because of all that was going on in my world at the time, I let Valentine’s Day slip by without so much as single mention in any of my writerly homes. I was completely okay with that. Love is grand, but I’ve never been overly fond of a commercialized holiday that tries to convince guys they suck if their girlfriends or wives don’t get something shiny and makes singles want to scarf down mass quantities of booze, ice cream, cheese curls or all of the above.
Writing about a love story on the day Bill was born is ever so much more meaningful to me. Relationships come in all shapes and sizes. Some are good, some are bad, and some go back and forth. But every now and then, you run into a couple that make you realize just what love is really supposed to be. For them, time never erodes that initial flush of affection, excitement and joy at being together. Instead, they hold onto that feeling while growing closer and more committed to one another over the years. But unlike some closely-knit couples, they never become just an island unto themselves. Their love touches everyone around them. You can’t help but smile just because you are having a drink with them at the pub or cheering your football team beside them. Their happiness is contagious.
Deb and Bill were one of those couples. So if I’m going to write about love in February, I’m glad it is on Bill’s birthday instead of Valentine’s Day.
I could tell the story of Deb and Bill meeting and falling in love. It is quite a romantic tale. But it is theirs. I could talk about Bill’s untimely death and the big gaping hole it left in so many lives. But that doesn’t seem like the right way to celebrate his life.
So instead, I can only share some of my favorite memories of times with both of you, Deb and Bill. It is Bill’s birthday, but you were such a team that I know Bill wouldn’t be annoyed at me for sharing his spotlight with Deb. In fact, he’d be pissed off if it were any other way.
1. I remember being 18 or 19 years old and being certain that my poor dad was an a-hole. I can’t even remember why. When you are that young, the silliest perceived slight or disagreement can put you at odds with the world, at least for 10 minutes or so.
So in the midst of a little get-together, I sat outside at our picnic table and sulked and stewed. Deb sat beside me, and asked what was wrong.
“Dad’s an asshole,” I responded, with no hint of the wordsmith I might one day become.
She proceeded to tell me that my father was one of the best people she’d ever known, and that one day I would realize that for myself and tell her she was right. She did it in such a laughing, sisterly way that I couldn’t take offense, even if I didn’t believe her.
About ten years later, we were having a beer somewhere – probably Dad’s bar.
“You were right,” I told her, and she knew exactly what I was talking about.
2. I remember Bill baking apple pies around the holidays, and delivering them to my family on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning. A holiday wasn’t complete without a slice of Bill Pie. Or his oyster stuffing. Or so many other things he made over the years. Bill could rock a kitchen like nobody’s business.
3. I remember ever so many Steelers football games. Bill and Deb are part of the reason I became a Steelers fan. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a team that attracted a bar full of men in black and gold camoflage pants who did a polka after every touchdown? Bill manned the grill during most of those Steelers game, including the one windy, cold trip I made with them to a game in Pittsburgh. While everyone else screamed and cheered, honed in on the game, or drank and talked, Bill churned out pit beef or whatever else was on the menu with love. Behind that grill, he’d sweat even in the bitter cold to feed us all while we had fun. And what was so wonderful about that is that he was having just as much fun himself.
4. I remember the time that while mowing his yard, Bill accidently hit a momma bunny. He was such a gentle man (to those who deserved it – show him a bully and he’d whoop their ass in a second) that this broke his heart. He scooped up the baby bunnies and, not sure what else to do, called my Mom.
A little while later, he was at my parents’ doorstep with the baby rabbits. My mother and sister raised them, syringe-feeding them until they would eat on their own. Before they went their own way, there was a time or two that we had to fish a growing young bunny out of the family in-ground pool, but they made it to adulthood. Bill was a man who just couldn’t leave those little guys to fend for themselves, so he took them to those he knew would know what to do.
5. I remember going through a rough time doing my separation. Although I’d moved out of my parents’ house at 19, I had never lived alone. First there were roomies, then there was the fiance’-then-husband. Being a solo homeowner with a huge yard and a fear of things that go bump in the night was overwhelming. So was being too poor to pay for any help with anything that needed fixin’, which was a mile-long list. So I did what any scared and lonely dumbass would do. I went to the bar and I drank. A lot.
And Bill and Deb would take me home on their own way back from the bar. I was blessed to live super-close to them. Bill would tell me to look at the bright side of what was going on, which was I was opening myself up to kind of love I deserved to have – the kind he shared with Deb. Then he would tell me that when I was lonely or scared, I was dumb to sit home and stay that way. All I had to do was show up anytime and I could spend the night with him and Deb, and I’d get fed a damn good dinner and breakfast in the bargain.
I never took him up on that that, because stubborn pride had me wanting to prove to everyone that I could do this thing “all by myself.” I regret that a ton now, because I’ll never have the chance again. But I will never forget those brotherly words and how hopeful that made me feel when I was mired down in a big old swamp of suck.
6. I remember the way Bill was at the bar. He would sit there talking to my Dad and whoever else was around, enjoying his Sambuca or his Irish Mist. We still drink Sambuca in honor of Bill. He’d be laughing and talking with his friends, going on and on about whatever man stuff was on their minds.
But when Deb walked by, his face would light up. There was never a moment that seeing her didn’t make this happy man even happier. And he couldn’t go for even one conversation – with anyone – without throwing in something about how wonderful she was.
7. I remember so many of the “Bill stories” Deb has shared with me. How he told her that as long as they were together they could be so poor they had nothing but a cardboard box to live in and some tuna fish sandwiches to eat, and they’d still be happy. Deb’s Valentine’s Day dinner this year was a tuna fish sandwich.
There were the stories of how Deb would come home from a ridiculously stressful day at work to find Bill running her a bubble bath. Or of how together they helped organize all sorts of charity work around the holidays – coat and blanket drives where they’d gather up as many things as they could and deliver them to the homeless in Baltimore.
I get mad that Bill’s time here on Earth was cut so damn short, and I know the anger and sadness I’ve felt over that – big and achy as it is – is a pinprick compared to Deb’s. I am forever and always amazed by the strength that allowed her to pick herself up and keep going, to laugh and learn to enjoy the good moments in her life while still always holding him tight in her heart.
Happy Birthday, Bill. I still and always will love you like a big brother. Keep my friend and sister warm with your presense on this cold and windy Saturday. Remind all of us who knew you that you were an example of how to be good and kind and caring, and that with Deb you were also an image of what love should be.
And if they struggle this year, give those Steelers of ours a ghostly little kick in the butt.