The first time I met Bill, my father-in-law, was over 20 years ago. Looking back, I think I had been preparing for his death since the minute I met him. A bizarre sentiment to be sure, but I was in college, dating his daughter, and there he lay in a hospital bed after a heart attack.
I remember thinking to myself, “Man, if he ever gets better, I am probably in for it.” Bill was a pretty big guy, ex-Navy and lifelong farmer. He was over 6 foot tall and broad to my under 5 foot 5 inches and skinny. Our differences went beyond the physical with Bill working with his hands in the traditional sense as a farmer and welder throughout his life and me working with my hands on a keyboard as an IT engineer.
Even though he lay in a hospital bed, I didn’t see him as weak. He looked like a fighter and you could tell he would pull through. So, he did.
I knew Bill for half of my life, but only about a fifth of his. It was that latter bit, from age 70 to 90, which unfortunately colors my entire perception of him despite the picture of him as a young, blond sailor that hangs in his computer nook. Still, in that 20 years, I saw him conduct feats of strength I’d be lucky to achieve at that age (or even now).
The first time I saw a rotor tiller was when he unloaded one from the back of a truck and tilled my wife’s garden bed. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Again, check the ages I knew him.
When I took over the job, I found out just how strong he was. My arms felt like jelly and after a few minutes, he took back over.
This physical strength stayed with him even until the end. On his 90th birthday, I pushed him in his wheelchair up the ramp in front of his house. His big arms pulled him and his chair up the ramp as I pushed.
Still, that strength was only physical. What amazed me most over those last few years is how Bill found strength in family and with God.
Bill’s family is large with several children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters. He never made you feel like an outsider. This is why, when it came time to ask permission to marry his daughter, I wasn’t nervous. He was all too happy to give me his blessing. He understood the value of a marriage and family.
A lesser man could have given up on companionship after losing his first wife, but Bill found Eileen, another widower. They not only had two children together, but Bill took in Eileen’s son as his own, a gesture so powerful it was palpable when he spoke at Bill’s funeral.
Where a life could have been spent alone, Bill was lucky enough to find a companion and share another lifetime, growing his family and extending a fatherly (or grandfatherly) face to everyone who was willing to accept it.
Together, Bill and Eileen had a bond that strengthened their ties to everyone who came across them. If you needed help, you could count on them to deliver.
Knowing Bill meant knowing what it was to be good to others.
Bill never lifted a finger in anger, spoke ill of someone or held a grudge, at least not that I witnessed. In fact, even when met with frustration, he would keep at it with a ‘come on, come on’ under his breath. If you were helping him work on something, he would always offer encouragement or a creative solution, never giving up on the problem, or on you.
I saw this innovative spirit a few months before his passing when I helped him fix his oxygen tubes. He was struggling with them, but asked me for some electrical tape and we taped it back up together, getting it working again with little fuss.
While many come to God towards the end of their lives, Bill was unique. He lived his beliefs, which was apparent to anyone who knew him. He was always quick to lend a hand, even as his health declined. He always had a smile for everyone, especially at church and he would always sing.
One of the songs I remember is “Because He Lives,” which I borrowed for the title here. The song’s lyrics bring you from a newborn baby through to death and the influence God has over us. I can’t think of a better tribute to a life well lived.
I can only imagine the strength it had to come to God after losing his first spouse. This was a strength that Bill and Eileen both share.
In fact, I’ve never been very religious, despite a Catholic school upbringing. I’m proud to say that I wouldn’t have joined my local’s Church Council had it not been for Bill’s influence over my life. His example showed me how I could give back.
And so, we come to the end. Before we say goodbye, I want you to imagine him one last time. This won’t be Bill as a young man on the farm or as a strapping sailor, but as I knew him.
Bill is ready for church, sitting in his wheelchair at the top of the ramp in front of his house. He got there himself and he is not so patiently waiting for Eileen to come out and bring him down to the van. He’s fidgeted a little, but enjoying the morning, watching the cars go by and maybe checking out his barn across the street.
The three things that define his strength are at play in his mind:
He believes that he could get down the ramp himself with nothing but his arms and the wheelchair to carry him down.
He wonders if Eileen will come out to stop him, or if maybe you will. After all, family is always there.
And lastly, deep down inside, he knows that God will carry him to safety.