Friday, February 20, 2009

lunch hour

This is my Thank You letter to Bill Taylor who died on October 21, 2006. I wrote it not too long after his funeral which drew in law enforcement officials from all over the country. The sound of the twenty-one gun salute at the conclusion of his graveside service still makes my bones rattle.

It had been months since I’d seen Bill. Last year I promised him that I would bring my father out to the Plantation one afternoon so the three of us could have lunch together. I kept putting it off and was a master of excuses. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have lunch with Bill. I just had to be in the mood. My lunch breaks at work were pretty much filled with studying for my college algebra exams and eating a variety of microwavable crap. A $5.00 shrimp basket with a large sweet tea from the Surf sounded damn good to me, especially after eating all of that microwavable crap. But my algebra exams were more important. Bill even said so himself.

It was because of Bill that I had my face stuck in an algebra textbook everyday. I might as well have been studying a foreign language because I couldn’t tell the difference between a theorem and Chinese slang. A few months earlier, Bill had sat down with me and helped me hash out a college plan of sorts. I was so far behind in the game of obtaining any worthy degree but he was patient enough to work with me, to find out my strengths and weaknesses, and basically be the college advisor I could never find time to officially meet. Bill pushed financial aid in my face and put the whole college experience into terms I could understand: Do it for your daughter, he said.

Bill also didn’t laugh at my neurotic and analytical personality quirks. In fact, he found these traits to be quite useful in the field of law enforcement. My father was in law enforcement, my brother was in law enforcement, and Bill himself had been a sheriff’s deputy for many years. You carry the makings of a great forensic researcher, he said. Though Bill tried to encourage me to pursue a degree in criminal justice, I decided to become an English major. Grammar police are just as necessary as “police” police and there would probably be less blood involved, unless I decided to become a high school teacher. In that case, I wouldn’t be allowed to carry a handgun. Considering my career options and my inability to feel comfortable carrying a firearm, I stuck with the English degree. Bill was pleased.

Bill and my father were very good friends while they worked for a short time together at the Plantation. The two men were like a much older, balding, badge-wearing, male version of the twins from “The Patty Duke Show”. They walked alike, they talked alike, and as required by company policy, they always dressed alike. Bill thanked me with nearly every breath for recommending my father as an employee. My father, in turn, shared his “Bill” stories with the whole family practically every night after work. If they had ever been given the chance to grow up with each other as kids, these two guys would be the types to take a sucker-punch in the gut for each other, reintroduce their teachers to the whoopee cushion at the beginning of every school year, and generally cause all kinds of town mayhem. Then they would both grow up to be police officers and serve side by side in the name of justice.

After six months of keeping the peace at the Plantation and protecting the old, crabby millionaires from the kids (most likely the old, crabby millionaires’ kids) who were growing up with each other and causing all kinds of town mayhem of their own, my father moved on to a new job at the local community college to protect the staff and students from…well, I don’t know exactly. But my dad loved this new job of his. Bill asked me about him on a daily basis. My dad asked me if I had any “Bill” stories every night after work. Most of the stories I would tell my father involved Bill standing at my office door and saying, in his weakening Texas drawl, “Boy, I sure do miss your dad. He’s a good guy, and smart, too!” Most of the stories I would tell Bill involved my father sitting in his recliner and saying, “Boy, I sure do miss Bill. He’s a good guy, and smart, too!”

This went on for four months until the day after Easter. I headed into work that Monday morning burdened with the task of telling Bill that my father had been diagnosed with cancer. My family didn’t want anyone to know about this but my father had considered Bill a close friend, so my job was to pass on this news. It’s one thing to hear it, that someone you love has cancer. It’s another thing to say it out loud and have it be put out there into the world because then, at that moment when the words spill out, it’s official. Bill was saddened and, like any good friend, he was concerned. My family has never been especially religious but when Bill offered to keep my father and my family in his prayers, I didn’t argue. It was all Bill could do and I think we all understood that. Bill put his faith in God while my family put our faith in advanced medicine. I don’t know if the hands of God or the hands of doctors healed my father but three months after his diagnosis, my father underwent surgery and within six months was deemed cancer-free.

It was during this period of time, after his surgery, that I started thinking a lot about cancer. Actually, I started thinking about what happens after cancer, when it’s finally gone from the body. Does it really go away? Is it hiding somewhere that the doctors didn’t think to look for it, like in the left earlobe or behind the ankle? What about in the webbed spaces between all ten toes? I know of cancer patients going into remission and suddenly discovering that the cancer has returned to gnaw away at their vital organs with more gusto than ever. My dad was fine. Really. I wasn’t worried that his cancer would come back…well, not completely. But I was still curious to know what happens to the cancer once it’s supposedly “removed”. I rummaged through my brain, tearing apart the files that held a plethora of useless facts I would probably never need to know unless I was selected to appear on Jeopardy!. I gave up searching for the answer once I realized I had stopped paying attention in science class well before the 3rd grade. Remember, I’m an English major.

Bill was over the moon to hear that my dad was back in good health. It was late fall and the weather change had me fighting a sinus infection and I accepted the fact that I would suffer from allergies until the summer. Bill was still fighting with his ailments, these constant attacks that shortened his breath and made his body rattle and cough until he threw up. My morning office-door visits from Bill were not happening everyday because he was spending more and more time at home in bed, supposedly recovering from recurring bouts of pneumonia. His doctors were constantly running him through test after test after test after test until they finally discovered what was making him so sick and I discovered that I wasn’t carrying around useless information in my brain, after all. I felt it in my stomach almost as soon as I realized what had happened when my father’s cancer was removed. Somehow, and for some awful reason, it fell on Bill. And now I was burdened with the task of telling my father that Bill had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.

The roles were reversed now. My father had started attending church a short time after learning of his diagnosis and I started praying for Bill and his family. We were all aware that Bill had been fighting off something for almost a year, probably even since last Christmas. Bill was too sick to get out of his house for any reason other than doctors appointments. After my father moved on from the Plantation and took his new job, the three of us planned on having lunch. That turned into the three of us planning to plan on having lunch. Cancer came in and ruined it for all of us. I kept my hopes up though and figured I would just wait until Bill got better, until the doctors removed his cancer and it fell onto somebody else. It was only a matter of time and I thought I had all the time in the world. I thought Bill had all the time in the world. How wrong we were.

Eight weeks after Bill’s diagnosis, I received a phone call. That phone call. “Bill’s gone.” Those two words were all I needed to start me off in a shouting match with God and curse his name for causing Bill and his family so much pain, to make him suffer so badly that I couldn’t even have lunch with him. That he and my father would never be able to laugh together at each other’s stupid jokes. That Bill would not be around anymore to encourage me to finish college, to get that degree, to do it for my daughter. I just wanted one hour to take him out to lunch. I had promised this to him and I hadn’t come through, even when he probably needed it the most. My only hope is that he knew how much he meant to my father and me, how much it meant that he would spend his lunch break poring over college classes and degree audits for me. And I wasn’t even his daughter. I was just someone he happened to work with.

UPDATE: My father receives consistently positive (as in Yay!) test results during his cancer screenings. I received my associate's degree in December of 2008. Once I had that piece of paper in my hand, I looked up at the sky and gave a little smile to Bill. I haven't given up on a bachelor's degree. Thank you, Bill.

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