I didn't process what had happened for a few seconds. I had turned away for just a few seconds, and when I looked back, Willie was looking at me, his long, slender fingers still wrapped around the dice cup, with six aces sitting in front of him. He was smiling like it was just another day.
"One flop? You did that in one flop?" It was a stupid question. Of course he did; I had only turned away for a matter of seconds, only heard the dice cup slam on the bartop once. True to his word, he split his winnings with me right down the middle. If there was one thing to be said about Willie White, it is that he had integrity.
But there's much more to say about Willie. Since I returned from law school to work at The Wright Place, Willie is the closest thing to a grandfather that I've had. Our closeness was a quiet one - He was a private man with a backwards way of showing his affection.
"You know that song 'Hard Hearted Hannah'?"
"You know that line about Hannah pouring water on a drowning man?"
"They wrote that song about you, didn't they?"
"I'm guessing this is your last beer, Willie. Am I right? Because you're at about 85.5 right now."
Willie teased all of the bartenders, used the same lines on all of us, I'm sure.
"How you doin' today sweetheart?" he'd ask.
"I didn't ask how you look, I asked how you're doing."
But I don't think there was any question that our relationship was special. During my first week of my first maternity leave when I was out for Gabriel, he tried to start in on Natalie one night while she was covering my shift.
"Look Willie, I'm not going to be your Andrea while she's out."
After three maternity leaves at The Wright Place, I'm pretty sure he missed me for every single one of them.
"Are you and Andrea mad at each other?" someone asked Willie one night.
"Well, you guys are being nice to each other." Our banter was well known, but most people didn't know the personal moments between us.
"That must have been really special," he told me one night as I shared what it was like to bring Gabriel home on hospice care, when we thought he would die before we ever left the hospital. Willie had cared for his late wife in her dying days, before she passed from cancer years before. We also had an unspoken bond - That of parents that have lost children. Though Willie was in his 70s when his adult daughter passed away, and at 29 years old I had buried my 10 day old son, Willie and I both walked around every day with a part of hearts, a part of our core, missing. But we both loved life.
On the one hand, when Willie was diagnosed with cancer himself a couple of months ago, I was stunned - Willie had retired when he was 50, but never did slow down. He was up early every morning and walked three miles every day. He met with friends for coffee at McDonalds and somehow found a way to fill the days with activity. He saw a doctor on a regular basis, and he ate well, and weighed the same thing he'd weighed his entire adult life. But, he was in his 70s and more importantly, I've learned that sickness and death are a part of life, and no one is immune to either.
In the days after he was first admitted to the hospital, his death was reported to be imminent, and I thought I would never get to see him again. When he survived the weekend, I went to the hospital to see him on a Monday morning before work. This 6'5" tower of a man filled the hospital bed with his length, but his already-lean frame had become thin, and frail. He invited me to sit in a chair next to his bed and when I did, he reached across his blankets and took my hand. His long fingers looked even longer, barely more than bones. We talked casually about who had visited and which members of his family were in town, and then a nurse came in to take him for an x-ray.
"He'll be right back, if you want to wait."
"I-I-I don't know if I can. . ." I hated to leave for the pile of meaningless work on my desk, but duty called.
"She has to get to work. She's a lawyer." I could hear the pride in his weak voice. I knew it could be the last time I would ever get to see him.
"I'll come back soon, Willie. You take care of yourself, okay?"
"Okay, see you soon."
"Willie. I love you."
"I love you too, sweetheart."
I darted back to the elevator, trying to outrun my tears.
I did get to see Willie one more time. But although he survived another 6 weeks or so after that, I kept finding excuses not to go. I knew I would regret not visiting again, but increasingly I heard that he was struggling with lucidity and I wasn't sure I could handle if he didn't recognize me. Another friend went to see him and told me how bad it was. "The only time he smiled was when I mentioned you."
Without question, our relationship was special, because Willie was special. I suspect just about anyone that knew Willie well enjoyed a special relationship of their own with him.
I don't usually find myself at a loss for words, but just as I didn't know how to say goodbye to Willie, I don't know how to end this blog entry dedicated to his memory. I will miss Willie terribly. I look forward to seeing him again someday, to hearing him say one more time, "Cut me some slack, Jack!."
Thursday, July 21, 2016
In our backyard in Bakersfield the morning sun was already baking our lawn, but in Oregon the sky was overcast and the air was wet but cool when we pulled into a parking lot at Sirrosis Park in The Dalles. I was drawn right away to the playground, a sophisticated complex of tunnels and bridges and stairways. As we unloaded the girls from their car seats Marcos' mom approached us and we all walked to the playground together, the sight only getting better the closer we got. Eden sprinted ahead to begin climbing to the tops of the various slides while Marcos' mom took a seat on a bench.
"Would you mind holding Delilah? So I can go play with Eden?" "Grandma Nichols" happily obliged, reaching for the sweet smiling baby that charmed her Oregon family, and I dashed off to one of the structure's towers. Eden was already engrossed in the slide and laughing with every attempt while her daddy waited for her at the bottom, so I worked my way through the maze. I unsuccessfully tried the suspended balance beam, scaled two side by side tires, tried my hand at a set of monkey bars and parallel bars, and attempted a stack of tires meant to serve as a ladder.
At some point I overhead my mother-in-law say to Marcos, "She said she was going to play with Eden, but it looks like she's the one doing all the playing!" It was true. Though I intermittently watched Eden as she played with her cousins or even by herself, or took a few moments to observe Delilah in the swings, I was lost in my own adventure. Here and there I caught shadows of the 5 year old little boy that should have been with us, doing all of the things Eden just isn't old enough or coordinated enough or tall enough to do yet, sneaking up on his sister one minute, then holding her feet to assist her on the monkey bars the next. Gabriel's memory, or more accurately, his hypothetical, is always there, a part of every experience. That's my normal.
Around us the trees stretched high and park-goers weaved between them with their dogs, but not a trace of litter could be found to indicate that anyone had ever been to the park before we got there. Other families arrived, their children racing up and down and across the child-sized fort. Eden would stop to laugh or smile or shout orders at them, then pick right back up with whatever activity she happened to be performing.
While in Oregon we toured The Bonneville and Dalles dams, went on a cruise on the river, saw Multnomah falls, watched the trains dart by on their extensive railroads, and waded in the Columbia River - Just a few of the sights that Oregon has to offer. But of all that we squeezed into that trip, in my memory our visit at Sirrosis Park will remain the most vivid. There, I felt like we had a moment of Heaven, everyone there, happy, playing as they like, but together. My heart felt full. I couldn't see my son, but at times, I even had to search for Eden and Delilah. No matter where I turned, no matter where I went, there I felt like every one of them - Gabriel, Eden, Delilah, Marcos and even Baby Cude - were just a bridge away. There I felt surrounded by everything I could ever want. I felt whole.