When I first arrived at the halfway house, Bill was the second person I met. Tall and slender, I didn’t know his slim build was actually frail due to illness. Bill had been fighting cancer, alongside an equally brutal disease, addiction. Despite those battles, Bill was a man of his word and lived his life with rigorous integrity.
Bill was a retired police officer from northern Alabama and my perception of cops changed when I took the time to speak with him. Perhaps it was my numerous run-ins with police that had left me less than enthused by those previous encounters. When interacting with law enforcement it would often have a negative implication, I thought simply because of my name, but in hindsight also because of my dislike for authority.
Because of that, I was reluctant to tell a retired hard-ass police officer from Alabama that I was studying Islam, but I did. Never had someone been more accepting of my decision. “Whatever higher power you choose, that’s fine as long as it helps maintain your sobriety.”
Bill faced hardship from an early age. His mother was deaf and Bill could barely remember his father who passed away early on. Around 12-years old, Bill’s deaf mother also passed away leaving his Aunt to care for him. He grew up in poverty, didn’t have a vehicle, and was embarrassed he had to walk everywhere, albeit never without adult supervision.
Despite the obstacles from early on, Bill went on to college in Wisconsin and was a formidable athlete. Playing softball early on and bowling leagues later on in life. After college he was a member of the United States Air Force and a lifelong patriot with the American flag always hung proudly in his living space.
To understand his character, despite being a hunter and avid fisher he was gentle and tender. Men that knew him referred to him as ‘Ol Time’ as they recall him catching a ‘hoss’ of a fish while out with them. Bill simply kissed the fish between the eyes and released it. The men also recall seeing a 10-foot alligator while out fishing and how Bill never skipped a beat or blinked. He kept his eyes on the fishing rod as they nervously fidgeted. He was a real ‘Marlboro Man’ but also showed humanity and empathy to the world around him.
My first sit-down with Bill, brought me to tears. Here was a man fighting against all odds to maintain his sobriety and his life, but all he could talk about was the daughter he lost to addiction. In the same breath, you could read his eyes as he spoke about his other daughter that was still here. He was worried like any father would be, that our affliction would decimate our entire DNA lineage.
I remember leaping into his truck one day. Being an avid hunter and fisher, he was extremely proud of that truck and the camouflaged exterior. I asked Bill where we were headed, only to find he didn’t have a target but instead drove me along A1A in Florida showing me the golf courses he used to play on as well as Delray Beach. It wasn’t until about 25-minutes into the ride, I realized we were driving by the facility where his daughter was in recovery for her own addiction. He didn’t say it, but having a daughter myself I could understand it. Sometimes we just need to be within proximity of those we love. Words sometimes aren’t needed for those interactions.
Bill was old school, he wouldn’t pry into your life but waited patiently instead if you needed to talk. I have a hard time trusting people in general but after about two weeks I was facing a lawsuit from a previous employer. I knew it was bogus and I was ready to put up a fight like I had been doing my entire life. I showed Bill the supporting documents and messages I had, intent on proving to the courts that the employer’s claims were fraudulent. “Bill, I didn’t even sign the paperwork to officially be an employee”, I stated while almost giggling, proud that I could outsmart them when the day arrived.
It was at that point Bill said something that will resonate with me for the rest of my life. It changed the way I looked at the lawsuit in front of me, and it’s often something I now think of before expending energy on life events that just don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It was a simple question, one I had never thought of before he asked it.
“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?”
I quickly countered, “Bill, I want to be both.” He smiled and informed me that it would prove to be almost impossible. “Why don’t you just focus on being happy and try that for a while?”
Somehow despite everything Bill gave to me and to others, he was almost apprehensive when asking for help for himself. He was a giver. Battling cancer, I imagine at some point he had to give up his pride and humility. Actually, I know he did because on his wall, hung up like a trophy, was an eviction notice from before he started sobriety.
Like a harsh reminder, he hung the eviction notice contemptuously on his wall to remind himself where this disorder takes us. We often lose everything, and Bill made no qualms about ensuring he had that reminder, every morning when he woke up.
Bill and I had a routine. He was resolute and despite battling cancer, he would open his door in the morning and start his day with a cigarette. Because he was so frail, I would always ask him if he was hungry. I think at some point he just finally got tired of my persistence and told me he wanted a glazed donut from Dunkin’ Donuts. From that point on I tried getting him a donut every morning. I noticed a week later that some of them just sat there, never eaten. But I think Bill knew it was good for my soul, feeling like I had what little value that stupid act meant. Despite his battle, Bill loved helping others in whatever way possible. It remained so until he took his last breath.
We had plans to rent a boat, to go fishing, and to go to the beach when Bill was feeling better. We never had that chance. He was ecstatic the day his doctor informed him cancer had receded. On several drives afterward he kept saying that God wasn’t done with him yet, that he still had a plan for him.
Indirectly, I believe that plan was to ensure that the addicts he embraced knew how valuable it is, the time we have here. That we all only have one life and that each minute, hour, each day is a gift that we shouldn’t take for granted. Life is ephemeral, and our sobriety is just as fragile. Bill would give thanks for the small things in life, like just a drive, or to simply grab a milkshake with the ones that matter in your life.
The men and women that knew Bill before he entered my life always stated they wish I had known him when sickness hadn’t engulfed his insides. He was a bad-ass they say, a warrior till the end, but the Bill I knew was a gentle and a loving human till the day he departed.
Despite the memories of how tough he was, I choose to remember how that doesn’t mean shit when battling addiction or disease. They will leave even the toughest of men both powerless and drenched in humility should we care to find remediation. Bill chose to embrace that humility and he passed away with integrity, but more importantly with his sobriety and a sound mind.
When doctors at Bethesda Hospital East took Bill off life support they said he would be gone in 15-seconds. It took an hour and fifteen minutes for life to finally take a man that taught me, taught us, that it’s worth its weight in gold just being happy, being right is irrelevant, and not extraordinary at the end.
The world doesn’t judge us on how many times we are right, but instead, it remembers us if we constitute right, on light’s behalf.
In loving memory of William Noakes