Eventually, Bill got old and died. He just couldn’t help it. Didn’t make it to 138. In the long run, I think I failed him as a friend. At one point, when he knew he was getting downright ancient, he asked my wife and me to come live on his place, and help keep it and him up; we’d build an apartment in his lovely barn. But the great circle of life wasn’t aligned for that, not at that time. He considered selling his place, but keeping some acres of the big meadows on the other side of the road and building a small, efficient house on the hillside. None of us thought that was a good idea, a stop-gap measure at best.
A bit later, I went on to the Iowa Writers Workshop and some very successful publications of my own. Got back and went through a divorce, during which I sometimes lived at Bill’s place. He took good care of me in my loneliness, guilt, self-recrimination, and general misery; he made me nutritious dinners and good breakfasts of raw oats soaked overnight in cider. Every night, he prepared a pot of boiling water and poured it into a huge hot water bottle that he instructed me to take to bed with me.
“It makes you feel better,” he explained. “Subconsciously, it’s a little like having a woman in your bed.” I took the sloshing, rubbery thing out to my cold bunk every night, and yes, it was very comforting, a surrogate mammal presence under the covers with me.
Bill got older; he shrank, got wrinkly, got balder. He considered his options and eventually selected one I wouldn’t have expected of him: a military retirement community in Florida.
My wife and daughter visited him there. The streets were named “Constitution Boulevard,” “Freedom Drive,” “Patriot Way,” “Marine Corps Circle,” and the like. I am a patriot; of course Bill was; but I found the ambience a bit military for my taste, too many flags and insignia. Worse, perhaps, it was suburban: the houses were modern split-levels, evenly spaced on flat, golf-course-smooth land. They struck me as sterile and ordinary, while to me Bill was more of a Robert Frost guy — a solitary curmudgeon in an old, country house, a man of the granite-ribbed hills, and all that.
He brought us in and showed us around his spare, spotless, modern house, seeming at once proud and apologetic. What, I wondered, was he so shy about? The suburban style? Living with a bit less than total independence? His getting old?
Dear Bill, we all knew that last part long before you did, and we love you for resisting it.
He told us about the herons and other exotic birds he encountered in the stream behind his house; an alligator had come up on his lawn and he was damn glad those bastards were sticking it out despite all the development.
The time came, a few years later, when I called him and realized he wasn’t quite sure who I was. He was as robustly friendly and loquacious as always. But, at that time I was coping with my mother’s own slide — she was six months older than Bill — and I recognized the signs. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.” Bill had always been able to charm and to fool people, and as my mother did he used those talents to let courtesy prevail.
I stopped calling him after a time. Sometimes I feel that I abandoned him, but in fact our conversations had become a lot of work for both of us. My writing career and kids were keeping me very busy. Bill was valiant but getting rough around the edges and didn’t really know who I was much of the time and thus didn’t know what to say.
He died in December, 2009, at the age of 97, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Through the years, I have often returned to a series of conversations we had during several days that I spent out at his place in the mid-1980s. It was summer, and I was spending nights in the lovely little bare-wood cabin that he’d built at the top of the meadow’s bluff, across the road from his house. It was entirely open on the downhill side, floor to ceiling, just screen to keep the bugs away. The wind combing up through the meadow grass and over my sleeping bag bathed me in a lovely, sweet, wild scent.
He and I were talking a lot about Buddhism. I had been raised as an atheist-Quaker-Buddhist and had been a practitioner of Zen; my father, returning from one his trips to Asia, smuggled in a slip from the Bodhi tree — the very tree beneath which Gotama Buddha had attained enlightenment. My mother raised it and took slips from the first, so I grew up surrounded by many Bo trees in pots. My mother and Bill discussed Buddha’s life when they got together, and were pleased to find that mutual interest.
But in those special days, when I slept in the summer cabin, Bill and I worked hard on two, possibly conflicting, central tenets of life, of Buddhism. To be truthful: yes, we knew that truth was essential. Face into it. See it as what it is. Accept. Recall the Noble Truths and the Lion’s Roar. Certainly, Bill’s ostensible mentor Ernest Hemingway was a tough-love advocate and had argued for finding “one true thing” to write about, and Bill could be quite blunt.
On the other side, though, was Buddha’s admonition to be kind. And truth and kindness are not necessarily congruent. We discussed it for several days; I think even Bill was not quite sure what he thought until we’d chewed it pretty thoroughly, including a couple of nights that involved more than a few martinis (one of his projects was to teach me how to drink).
I look for explanations of why this remarkable man took the time to befriend me, and to care for me. Can’t figure it — I was just a kid, really, 40 years younger, obscure, solitary, full of unresolved yearning, contrary, uneven, stubborn. But perhaps it’s explained by where we ended up after our several days of discussion. As fiction writers do, we juxtaposed hypothetical circumstances in which a person chose between kindness and truthfulness.
And we ended up confirming a mutual belief that kindness trumped truth. Yes. Only kindness will lead a person to discovering truth on his own — and, through self-acceptance, encourage him to attempt that discovery. Ultimately, only loving kindness brings about the transformation of the soul.
“It it comes to choosing between being kind and being truthful,” Bill concluded, “be kind.”