One Year Gone — But Not Forgotten
Honoring my Blues Brother
We were dubbed “the Blues Brothers” — Billy was Elwood, I was Jake. We were, indeed, like brothers. We met in the middle of a literature conference in Warren, Ohio, where work was being done on a book by addicts, for addicts seeking recovery. We’d both found a way out of hell, and were dedicated to helping the next addict find the way that we’d found. We’d both gotten hi-jacked by friends to be at that conference — neither of us had planned to be there. I had a sense, when I met him, that I’d known him for a long time, and would know him for a longer time. The second part of that became true — who knows about the first part? Maybe we knew each other in another lifetime? It sure felt like it.
I didn’t understand a word he said, the first time we spoke. His speech was kind of garbled and took a little getting used to its rhythm and cadence, which I eventually did, plus I was a little hard of hearing. I could tell by the way his eyes lit up when we talked, though, that he liked what I said, and I acted like I liked what he said. I really had no idea — just figured it must be good, because he said it with such passion. His whole being lit up when he really got going. The man exuded a love of life, and you could feel what you could not hear.
Billy was in a wheelchair when I met him, and would be for most of his life. He had cerebral palsy, but I never knew a person with a disability who was less disabled. The guy couldn’t walk, could barely be understood when he talked, and yet he lived a remarkable life, a life of impact, with friends all around the world, people who loved him for simply being who he was. He was my longest continually sustained friendship.
A year ago today, my wife and I were wrapping up a week on the beach in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We’d had 4 days with just us, a nice, quiet get-away, followed by a couple of days of chaos and way too many people. It was a convention of the fellowship we both now belonged to, the same one Billy and I had worked on that book for, only now it was 40 years after I’d first met him.
I was meeting a lot of people I’d only gotten to know through Zoom and other on-line platforms, like Facebook and WhatsApp. It would have been great, but every single one of them wanted to hug me. I was still wearing a mask and being mindful not to get sick with Covid because, frankly, it could kill me or my wife. We both have a desire to keep living a lot longer than this, so we were being careful. Just being there was a big stretch for us .
Every time I had to say no to a hug, and got the sense that the other person was disappointed, would leave me feeling more and more frustrated by the whole affair. Do you think the mask might have been your first clue that I’m not hugging? How about the red dot on my name tag that was supposed to be the code for not hugging? It really got old, fast.
I was getting ready to call it quits when I got the text from Billy’s wife, Deb — “Billy passed away yesterday.” She was in the hospital, having had a stroke recently, so he had died at home, alone, with his little dog at his feet. A neighbor checking in on him and the dog and the cat had discovered him slumped over in his wheelchair.
We had been planning to stay through Monday, but both agreed to head back home the next day, Saturday, instead. That night I got to spend a few hours talking with another old friend, George, which really helped me in my moment of profound grief.
George is another one like a brother to me. When I had walked into my very first meeting, back in February, 1980, I was a very old 25, while the meeting consisted mostly of a bunch of teenagers. I was getting ready to walk out of there, and never would’ve looked back if I had, until George intervened and chatted me up by the coffee pot.
I walked back into that meeting, and the rest, as they say, was history. I got and stayed clean, met Billy, became a “blues brother”, got to help write a book that’s helped millions of addicts around the world, and today get to sit in meetings with addicts who weren’t even born yet when we wrote that book. Being able to spend that time with George that night was so healing to my broken spirit — I was profoundly saddened by the news of the loss of my blues brother. Billy (“Elwood”) was just always there for me, as I was for him.
Now, I wanted to be there for his life partner, to help in any way that I could. I’d learn that his body would need to be retrieved from the state anatomical board, and arrangements would need to be made with a funeral home to receive the body from the state, and to handle appropriate disposition of his remains. He had wanted to be cremated.
I got to do all that. I also had to go to the funeral home, after they’d gotten him back from the state, de-frosted him (they’d had to freeze him there, so the funeral home thawed him out and laid him out real nice in one of their parlors for me to identify him — it was a very thoughtful gesture) and had to identify his body before they cremated him. As I was running around handling all of this, it occurred to me — the last time I went to jail, Billy had bailed me out. “Back atcha, brother” I thought and said to him. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to do that for my friend, my brother.
I can’t believe it’s been a year now. We’re still wearing our masks, and I’m still saying no to people who want me to go to these conventions. They just don’t get it. The entire world, with the exception of those of us still at high risk for complications with this thing, think that Covid’s over. It’s not. Not for us. I’ve adjusted to the new normal. Most of my interactions are online.
This new normal was actually a boon for Billy those last couple of years of his life. He had become a shut-in, not by choice but by physical necessity. I remember how difficult it was for him when I’d come pick him up to go to a ballgame when the Nationals first came to town in 2005. We went to a bunch of games together, both like a couple of little kids out there, just taking in the game we both loved, a couple of aging blues brothers remembering the many “missions” we’d traveled together, now just enjoying the fruits of a meaningful recovered life. I really loved those nights at the ballpark with Billy. So, he hadn’t been able to get out to meetings for many years. When Covid hit, and all the meetings started showing up on zoom and other platforms, suddenly he was able to participate in that process again. He attended meetings all over the world, virtually, as did I, and a whole new generation of addicts got to know the beauty of the light that he carried within, and generously shared with any and all he came in contact with.
He might be gone a year now, but the memory of a lifetime friendship lives on in my heart, and my memories. I am such a richer individual for having known Billy/Elwood, and having traveled on many a mission from God with that man.