Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Those of us who are graciously self-defined as middle aged usually are pictured in our mind’s eye as twenty-something. The little aches and pains, the sags, the wrinkles, the sun damaged skin, the thinning hair are all easily overlooked as foreign and belonging to what we see in the mirror, not our true selves. We preen and puff and straighten ourselves up and then turn our backs on that image to face the day without the reality that everybody else who deals with us has to see. It is a fine game we play. And, everybody is in on it.

Sometimes the reality of our true age seeps in cold and sobering, and we are faced with a frightening image of mortality. Our parents die, or their friends -- intellectually, that is easier to grasp than the pure emotional loss of close family and somehow less related to our own existence. We occasionally glance at the obituaries and recognize a name. We look in the paper and someone we grew up with or knew, but haven’t seen for awhile dies. Right then and there, our world closes in on us. Suddenly, life becomes both real and short. The how and why of it is a lot less important than the mere fact that it happens.

Bill was my age and had just retired. I hadn’t seen him for at least three years and the telephone rang innocently. Another person with whom I had lost touch was on the phone telling me when and where Bill’s Memorial service was going to be. Bill had shot himself.

He had an old, brightly painted red tractor that sat in his front lawn as a welcome beacon to the neighbor kids and a symbol of what the perfect grandfather could be. A couple of times a year, Bill would fire up that beast and take all the kids on a neighborhood parade around the cul de sac. Anybody who needed help doing anything could count on Bill for guidance, counsel and craftsmanship. Bill knew how to build things the right way and he delighted in taking anyone along side and showing them the right way too. Bill seemed to like everybody. He had time for everybody. He had room for everybody in his life, except apparently for Bill himself.

I think the last time I saw him was when I was in the local pizzeria picking up a Friday night pizza. I was doing take out, he was having a family night out with his wife and two high school aged daughters. It seemed only typical, not special. And yet, it was special in the way that intact families are special these days. Bill saw me first. He stood up and we talked.

We talked about nothing really as I waited for my pizza. Our families had stopped being social a few years ago, but never stopped being friends. The busyness of our everyday lives, soccer, basketball, school, church, vacations – you name it -- all drive wedges into the slices of time we have to give to each other. Whatever forces existed that drove each of us into our own social circles were not relevant to our families, only to our social calendars. That’s the sad part really…that we didn’t continue to carve out time. We all know about that “elephant in the room thing” that makes keeping up difficult, but it seems trivial.

Bill and I talked about nothing really as only old friends could. Not a missed step in the intervening years. We chatted with a familiarity and ease that is usually reserved for closer friends. Bill made everybody feel that way. We made false promises to each other to meet again at the pizza parlor some indefinite Friday night weeks hence. We left it with a warm handshake and that irrepressible smile that spoke almost as much of Bill as Bill could say himself.

Bill was my friend. He was in the prime of his life with retirement ahead to do projects only of his own choosing. He had successfully raised his children into young adulthood. His next steps included all the “grands:” grandparents, grandchildren, more grand family vacations, more grand pizza nights. Now, these dreams were gone. This was what I thought about as I studied Bill’s wife across the room at his service. She didn’t need me to remind her of these things. Only that they are what I would miss too, and I can’t help but miss them for her.

One day, when he had the house to himself, he sat on his bed contemplating the unthinkable, and suddenly there was nothing left for him to think about.

“If only….”

I know that I am not alone with this thought. For everyone who knew Bill and was close to him, I can’t imagine the guilt they must have for having missed the clues that had to have been there. The room that held his memorial service was overflowing with Bill’s friends and family. Did he know they would have been there for him in any other circumstance too?

“If only….Maybe….”

It is nothing to offer these thoughts. They don’t go anywhere. There is no place for them to go.

I liked Bill and I regret his passing. His death is an incentive for me to live life harder somehow, although it is hard to imagine cramming more into a life than Bill had managed to do.

© 2008 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved