Death and Life and Flying Little Boys

Written by Lee

He wasn’t my uncle by blood. But it doesn’t matter. He was family. He is the brother of my step-mother-in-law. Is there such a title? She’s been with my father-in-law for over seven years. And she has a brother. And his name is Bill.

When I first met Bill it was like meeting someone I’d known forever. He reminded me of my Polish relatives from Chicago. Open arms and an open heart and feet planted firmly on the ground. A ground that was familiar to me. There was an instant comfort when I met him. And so it began. Family. In the best sense of the word.

This past Saturday, it was my dude’s birthday and in the middle of a mellow evening of kids and ice cream scoops in plastic party dishes with candles burning, we got a phone call.

Bill was gone. He was brain dead, my father-in-law told us. He had been in a motorcycle accident.

No one knows the details of the accident but Bill was alone when it happened. Having just finished a weekly ride with his Harley bike group, he was headed home to his wife, another soul I adore and don’t seen enough of. It was some mystery of an accident where a state trooper found him on the side of the road with his motorcycle 75 feet away from him. Hours earlier he was riding with the wind blowing against his face invigorating his soul and then – he was gone.

After everyone had done all that could be done in a situation as grave as this, Bill passed away in the middle of the night as the sun shone on another part of the world.

I woke up Sunday to the official news of his death and I’ve been feeling sunk. Like I’m living with a blanket over my head. And a surge of feelings swirl within my being and I’m stuck on how abruptly life can leave us. Like a moment in time with happy thoughts in your head and love in your heart and things to look forward to and then…. what? Where?

You know. All of the stuff that you think about if you allow yourself to think about it. Death. And life. And the space where the two meet.

I put on my running shoes and grabbed my iPod and left to clear my brain on Sunday afternoon. I cranked the volume up loud, too loud, in my ears and as my feet pounded the pavement and my heart sped up and the tunes played, the tears welled.

“Funny the way it is, if you think about it
Somebody’s going hungry and someone else is eating out

Funny the way it is, not right or wrong

Somebody’s heart is broken and it becomes your favorite song”

Dave Matthews Band

And the instruments welled with my tears and the words spoke to me and I crunched hard on the thought of “Hell yeah, funny the way it is…..”

Funny the way it is…..

How life can throw you such juxtapositions…like my kids doing a funny dance for a video camera on Sunday afternoon oblivious to the pain that so many were now feeling that Bill was gone. Lives altered. Plans instantly changed. The world felt different just knowing that Bill wasn’t walking on the planet anymore.

But all my kids wanted to do was ride their bikes.

“Funny the way it is, if you think about it
One kid walks 10 miles to school, another’s dropping out
Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
On a soldier’s last breath his baby’s being born”


Boy, their clothes look colorful, I thought. Bright pinks and deep purples and why does it seem like they’ve always coordinated their outfits even though there is nothing the same in each of their own eclectic ensembles?

Hairbands and homemade necklaces, tights under skirts, winter gloves and bike helmets, a orange dress over a pair of brown and pink patterned pants, freckles, rosy cheeks, wide eyes, and wider smiles.

I sat on the grass alone with their bikes by my side and watched as they ran over to the playground and started climbing. My girls were the most vibrant pictures of life right then and there. In that whole park. Climbing together over a netted bridge, talking and laughing and is anyone else as blinded by their light as I am? Does anyone else see it? How come no one else in the park seems to notice these fluid, alive, colorful, bubbles of love and light climbing over the monkey bars?

And those life feelings within me surge and my heart swells and the tears well and how can this be? Life is so big and it beats huge within my chest and inside I am filled with a million, zillion thoughts and feelings that define just one life. Just one life. Mine. All of this swirling stuff inside is just. me.

Bill had all of that swirling inside of him too. His. And only his. And I am thankful for the time that my life crossed his. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long. But it was enough. For him to have a real impact on me. He was an exceptional soul.

And then in a flash of color, those pink and purple creatures of light are running toward the tire swing.

And my sorrow is mixed with boundless joy.

It was in August when I left our week-long extended family vacation on the lake leaving my man and my kids behind as I drove back home to perform in that show I was in. And Bill was with me. We had quite an adventure on our trip down the mountain as I drove him to the airport to catch a flight home. For the first time in my life, I had a tire blow out on me on the freeway and Bill was right there.

It was freaky pulling over onto the shoulder in the middle of the insanely busy I-10 West and waiting there for 45 minutes for help. I told Bill over and over again after the ordeal, “Thank God Bill. Thank GOD you were here. I would have totally freaked if I had been alone.” And that was the truth.

Bill, in his calm and assuring and understated way, did all of the things you are supposed to do when you have a tire blow out forcing you to sit on the shoulder of a busy freeway with big semis looking like they are headed right for you. Bill popped the trunk, set out the orange emergency thing that I guess all trunks have? and started working on changing the tire. I kept yelling through the traffic noise, “Bill, why don’t we just wait for AAA? And “Is there anything I can do Bill except stand here and freak out and pray that something bad does not happen?”

He was cool and calm and collected and I was nervous and scared and useless.

A broken jack and 45 minutes later, AAA arrived and set us up to get back on the road. Within the safety of a driving vehicle again, I laughed and said over and over “Thank God for you Bill. Wow. I am so glad I wasn’t alone.

I hugged him goodbye at the airport 30 minutes later never thinking for one second I wouldn’t see him again.

I just couldn’t get out of my damn pajamas today. It was noon and I was still sitting under that figurative blanket and I just couldn’t get excited about anything. I was motivated for nothing. Which is weird for me.

Staring at the muddy paw prints of three dogs drying on my bamboo floors and catching a glimpse of those orange ice-cream sticky hand prints that have been on our back glass doors for a week now – I could do nothing but stare some more.

This isn’t normal for me. I am known to keep myself busy with a never-ending to-do list that can pop out of my brain at any time of the day or night calling me to action but today – nothing.

Just life. Inside our home. With the sun shining brightly outside and the Southern California fall air with a hint of crisp calling me out to play but I stayed inside. In pajamas. With my Tommy boy. My two-year-old devil of love and carnage. Swinging a stuffed USC baseball bat around the house at anything that moves or doesn’t. Boys, I thought. How different than my girls. Swinging a bat and growling.

I put on some tunes, walked into my girls’ bedroom with a basket of clean laundry, dumped it on the floor and started folding. It was motion at least. That felt good.

And as I folded and the minutes passed and the music played, I looked up to the bed to see my heart boy playing with his “bat tub” and his “cage.” Oblivious to my gaze, he played. A joyful play filled with bursting imagination and wonder and just two-year-oldness.

And I stared at him. And the tears started to well. And I grabbed my camera.

I felt life swirling around in the space of that room – in the space that binds us all really. Whether we are breathing or not – or whether we can be seen or not – the life we live and lived is one in the same.

And I peeked out from under my little blanket and smiled.

Uncle Bill, we love you and we will miss you.

Lake Arrowhead, California – August 2009

One Response to “Death and Life and Flying Little Boys”

  1. MaryCay says:

    LeeAnn, While I never met Bill I have shared in Barbara’s tears at the loss of her brother and felt the heartache of a man loved deeply. Each time I visit I look at his pictures in her office and wonder about who he is. I will never have to do that again because thanks to you I now know him. You have a gift for sharing the essence of who we are at our core. I am so glad to know you and know Bil through you.

    I am also deeply grateful as the holiday of abundance and gratitude approaches that I can take this tender post of family love and MidWest roots back to the time with my siblings. I can promise you there will be more tolerance for the idiosyncrasies and maybe even a few tears at how precious the moments are.

    Thanks my friend, MaryCay

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