Although I’d never met them, I had no trouble spotting Billy’s friends and family gathered on the bridge over the tidal stream at Good Harbor beach. As I joined the group, I noticed the metal box containing Billy’s ashes that one of them grimly held. Though she’d never seen me before, Billy’s mother picked me out. “You looked like a guitar player,” she said greeting me with a hug that revealed the source of Billy’s ability despite great struggles to love unconditionally.
I asked one man about his connection to Billy. “He was the only one there for me when everyone else had turned their backs,” he said with that unmasked vulnerability people “in recovery” often exhibit. We worked to hold back tears for the moment we looked each other in the eye.
One man I recognized. “Were you related to Billy?” I opened. “Not by blood, but otherwise yes.” I told about Billy having been in a counseling class I helped teach. “Oh yeah!” he lit up, “Billy raved about that. He used to call me up each time he had another break-through.”
Billy and I had seen little of each other after he’d returned from Georgia. Then one day I was out walking with a man from church who was hailed by another, “See you at Billy’s memorial?” I felt a jolt in my gut that told me which Billy.
This was not a group easily given to ceremony. Glancing downward, I realized that the man who had held the canister was now standing in the water and with hardly a word dumping the ashes from a plastic bag. Upon hitting the stream they became a long white eel, swimming quickly out to sea. I noticed a woman holding a framed poem with Billy’s name at the bottom. “Are you going to read that?” I asked. “You mean out loud?” she replied, looking surprised. “Yes, out loud,” I said.
The poem was about having the innocence of childhood taken away from us. While in our counseling class, Billy had shared that it wouldn’t be much longer before his liver gave out the price to be paid for his years of substance abuse. Although he always tried to put on the best face, I imagine he must have longed to start over again in a child’s body. Another of his poems was read.
With the group still focused, I pulled out my guitar. “I have a song for you and Billy would like you to sing along. He may not have known this song, but I can imagine him singing it when he got into his old car and headed for the job in Georgia. I picture the wind streaming through his hair as he thought of himself making a difference in lives of troubled boys down there. “
Billy’s mother and another woman, perhaps an aunt, did their best to sing looking me straight in the eye much the way my kindergartners used to straining to form new syllables with their mouths while, at the same time, offering the song an open pathway to their hearts. Hearty applause followed, though no one smiled. Billy’s mother led the “Our Father” to close.
From somewhere, I heard Billy’s voice, “Thanks, buddy,” and felt his firm grasp on my shoulder.