Bill Busing was a well respected man in Oak Ridge, TN. Heck, anywhere he went he was thought highly of because of his chemistry knowledge, his humanitarian efforts, and his advocacy for people with mental health issues. He was a positive ask-anyone-about-him type of fellow. Because of this, I don’t want to tell you about that. I’d like to tell you about my friendship with him.
Each Sunday at ORUUC (Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church), I would seek out and find those that needed hugs. It was my thing. Some people, like my dad, for instance, bring candy to church for the wee ones. I brought hugs in abundance. I hugged the old, the young, the feeble, the in-betweens, but I always sought out Bill. Not because I preferred him above others, but because he was born decades but days from my birthday. I felt a special bond with him that I can’t really explain.
When he didn’t show up for church, I’d miss him something awful. When he gave me his phone number so I wouldn’t worry about him, I felt like I’d been given the golden ticket. It wasn’t long before we decided to go for coffee. He seemed both pleased and genuinely surprised to discover that I really did seek his company.
We arranged and met at Starbucks on the Oak Ridge Turnpike. I got there first and I scored the corner seats with a table in between them. When he arrived he insisted on paying because he bought special fund raising cards from the church and he wanted to make sure they got used. I thought that very philanthropic, he thought it very practical.
Coffee in hand, we sat down in the corner and chatted for nearly two hours. We covered topics such as family, life events, careers (mine far shorter and less stellar than his), marriage and faith. He was not one for easy laughter, even with me. But when he did, it was rich and full-bodied and worth the effort to coax it from him. He was quite serious but not really; more like a human paradox (like we all are).
After that initial meeting, we met frequently at different venues around town. Sometimes we’d go to Panera Bread where he’d bring his close friend Cherie with him. It was always a delight to see the two of them interact because she was far more vibrant than he, but he seemed to find her antics amusing. Our conversations never stayed on one topic for very long. We’d cover a gamut of issues from politics to religion. He never shied away from anything. He was a brave conversationalist in that aspect.
Once, after I’d moved away, I had returned for a visit. After I walked him to his car, I hugged him extra tight, his hunched shoulders seemed to melt as he held me warmly.
“Bill, I’m so glad I got a chance to see you again. I want to make you a promise.”
“Oh, you don’t have to promise me anything. It’s okay.” He rebuffed me gently.
“No, really. I want to promise you that as long as I’m able, I’ll write to you every time I get a letter. I won’t forget you.” I said with earnest and sincerity.
“Oh, I thought you were getting serious on me.” He chuckled. “Then I will promise you the same thing. As long as I’m able, I will write you letters.”
From that day on, a card would arrive about once a week, most commonly bi-weekly. I replied as soon as I got one as did he. His favorite way to write letters was on the inside of various greeting cards. He talked about his daughter, Lesley, and his growing concern for her but also his joy that he could have dinner with her during the week. He told me about his adventures with Miss Cherie and the people he helped along the way.
During a particularly rough patch of grief, I wrote to Bill and lamented my despair. “I’m lost. I just feel like giving up some days. I miss my people. I miss my tribe. I miss my home.” Those aren’t the exact words, but they are close. His reply was gentle.
“Knowing grief is just a part of life. It comes and it goes. There is only one way to deal with it, just keep living. Being sad all the time isn’t going to make it better. You have to live. You have a new place to be with your husband and family. Don’t give up when there is life to live.” (again paraphrased).
At that time, I remember just crying harder because he, and people like him, are the very reason I was grieving in the first place. I held on to that March letter, in essence breaking my promise, pondering the words he’d written. By early April I’d decided he was right and I was not going to give up easily. I wrote him a letter telling him as much. I wrote the letter up and sent it out on Monday the 11th of April. He got the letter on the 12th. He passed on the 14th. No letter returned.
As I sit here on the first of January 2017, I think about how many times I’ve cried about giving up in this past year as I’ve battled a scary bout of depression. Even with people I love cheering me on, how he signed his letters is one of the key elements that keep me going. He really did teach me something better than chemistry.
Your friend for life, Bill.
You can throw me down beneath my homeland
The earth beckoning my bony flesh
Glorified and holy as the stable creche
There I will deny your victory fresh
As I bloom again within my familial heartland
You thought me shallow, but I am buried deep
within the tributaries of river roots overflow
deep enough to honor the woman of indigo
I raise my fertile froth as surging archipelago
As I rise in my power, return to your garden to weep.
I am an untended garden, riddled with forget-me-nots and weeds
My earth has not been furrowed asunder; tilling life to the topsoil
I have grown fallow, un-supporting of life, but yet, there are some
perennials that cling to a hope of return, of vibrancy dallying
But I can only roll over in my floral nightgown, whimpering in my bed
allowing the blistering son to scorch my once glorious stance
I admit, I’ve become self-watering. I needn’t wait for the gardener
My groans of grief roil the soil, creating bitter roots exposed as lies
Everyone knows that when the earth laughs, people die.
She accepts their bodies back to her world, but I could still breathe
so I am not granted respite from the overabundant fertilizer spewed
over my once lush landscape. But, I will rise, for the weeds can’t hang on
when I forbid grasping of my rooted passion for life. Here she comes
the one that removes the rot with compassionate hands.
Here he comes, the one that scratches that spot in the very middle
She tends to me while singing lightly a childhood song forgotten
He digs deep with his grip, releasing the tainted, blighted plants
She opens the earth to expose me to the warmth of attention
He plants perennial seeds to grow through the coming seasons.
I inhale deeply, knowing that my rebirth will again grow fruitful.
My cycle continues in ample countenance to their loving attention.
I await my own fruition. I will grant only the very best of myself
to create the most beautiful garden I can create. This, is why I weep.
We are gathered here today in peace
We honor the truth of the word love
We strive together to build a better community
To promote and create our neighborhood
That takes care of one another through
Respect, compassion, courage, and vision.
For anybody that would not honor our covenant
We will lead them by our actions to the light of love in your name.
Hear our prayer so that we may be one people, your people.
The moldy crust of forgiveness lay on your counter forgotten.
When I first baked it, brought it to your table, broke bread with you
We ate with greedy abandon. The suggestion of freedom beamed
like a hearth fire we’d built together, but you abandoned our haven
Though guilt didn’t lay a head on my pillow, nor did shame,
I wonder if you ever wonder about whatever we became
I built my oven with encouragement towards success
You kept blowing out the embers, dumping water on the heat
Leaving my bread unleavened, flat, and eventually, I also left.
I eat my dinner, more than bread, at the table of successful abundance
I hope, someday, you will understand what I gave to you
in that warmly baked, love filled loaf of doughy comfort food.
I was told that I’m not allowed to offer family advice.
Twenty years gone but I made it out alive.
Let me tell you why you’re wrong, because you are.
what it’s like to hold bitterness
what it feels like to reject those who love me
what holidays, loneliness, and anger tastes like
what Christmas morning looks like without oranges
what Thanksgiving is like without mincemeat pie
what birthdays feel like without shared history seeping
what anguish unsupported loss endures
what it took to wake me up (although I’m sure you think it was you)
what I had to realize before I could bolster my courage
what it is to ask forgiveness for being a fool
to walk into the unknown with hat in hand
to step cautiously to the edge of the cliff and
how much damage I’ve done but not to the extent
what rebuilding a bridge with still smoldering lumber is like
that sometimes bitterness takes the form of pride
that abuses of history, privilege, and birthright exist
that time goes faster than a blink
that it’s far later than you’d think
right now, (not that you’ll read this) you’re lost
you blame me for not having money, not loving him, but
most of all for loving you and not choking on your pride.
You are so far in the darkness that the light feels like an insult
I love you despite yourself.
I’ll still be here when you’re ready.
I made my six year old vow to always be there for you,
you didn’t and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t and didn’t for him
you won’t believe me.
I’m okay with that.
you need to return home before you’re too afraid to come back
you’re a better man than you’ve become
I believe in you even if I don’t understand why you chose this way.
I KNOW. I see. I LOVE you anyway.