What would you do if you knew that your friend was going to pass away an hour after you were just holding his hand? Would you say more? Do more? These were the questions running through my mind, when I got the call that my friend Bill had crossed over.
Bill had been in ICU you for over a week. I kept trying and trying to go see him, and between him having a bad day and me having a bad day, (the later nowhere near comparable to the first) the schedule just didn’t line up.
But yesterday morning when I woke I felt the pull or the push.
You know, when God sticks his big toe down and nudges you to do the hard thing, or the right thing, like call your estranged brother or give five dollars to the man on the corner or not eat the donut.
I felt the push. Today’s the day to go see Bill.
We weren’t the best of friends, but we worked together for as long as I’ve been in Nashville and most recently on the Pickler and Ben show. I saw him almost every day. We sometimes sat next to each other in the morning production meeting. And we often stood together at the craft service table, always joking about the unlimited supply of sugar, as he encouraged me not to indulge.
Bill was a television icon in Nashville, and one of the best Stage Managers in the business. I can’t remember who, but someone said once, “Bill Turner is such a great stage manager that not only will he be able to tell you when the wheels are about to fall off the train, he can tell you when that train leaves the station.” He was always ten steps ahead of everyone and had an eye for spotting and fixing the problems. But mostly he took care of people. He’s stood by and guided more “A” list celebrities than you can count, keeping them calm and relaxed and informed before the red light went on. And when the said wheels did in fact fall off, (as they often do in TV) everyone could and would be rattled, except for Bill. Hands down, Bill was always the most solid person on the set.
I knew I wanted to take him something when I went to visit, but what? A balloon? A card? Chocolate? These were all things that I of course would want if I was in the hospital, especially the chocolate, but what would Bill want? I walked through the store searching, thinking about the countless hours we spent hanging out in the wings, Bill sometimes holding a paper cup filled with coffee.
And as soon as I had that thought, I looked and right in front of me was a beautiful, uniquely hand-crafted coffee cup.
The bottom half was rough, with a raw pottery finish, and the top half was smooth and soft gray in color. It had a strong thick handle with a special divot carved out for your thumb.
When I arrived at his room, holding a black and white gift bag overflowing with purple tissue paper, his sister met me at the door. “He’s not doing well. He took a turn last night, and he’s probably going to die today.” Wait. What? Die? Today? I just read on Facebook that physical therapy had him up and walking yesterday.
How could he be walking yesterday and dying today?
She continued, “You can go in and talk with him, but he probably won’t respond.”
As I entered his room I thought, “I am not prepared for this moment.” I have had the privilege of being with a couple people when the veil between this life and the next gets thin, and I am always humbled and scared shitless and not prepared. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Surely sitting with someone at such a precious time requires a full belly and someone more spiritual than me with tons of faith. But the writer Anne Lamott says,
“Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness, the discomfort and letting it be there.” And so, I sat.
I placed the gift bag next to a stack of cards. A bright yellow smiley face balloon waved in the air above. Monitors beeped and blinked. I held his hand. In the silence, I relived our many conversations through the years, Bill out on the stage and me in a control room or TV truck, “Hey Lynn, you in there?” “Yep, I’m here, what do you need?” He’d continue, “Hey listen, I’m thinking that…” which meant, you or someone in the control room should listen carefully to what I’m about to say, because the wheels are about to fall off. I held his hand a little tighter. His breathing was deep and loud, but I could tell that he was at peace. I tried to get him to respond, and when he didn’t, I started rambling. I told him how many people were praying for him and believing in his return to the studio for season two of Pickler & Ben. I told him that his friend Mike was really missing him and that he needed to get back to work to keep us all in line.
I told him about the coffee cup I brought and why it reminded me so much of him. A solid vessel.
I talked about all the cards in his room – and the obvious lack of chocolate – but I promised to fix that the next time I came to visit. And before I knew it, faith and peace filled both me and the room.
An hour later I got the call. I was with a friend I hadn’t see in a while when the news came, and I loved her more deeply in that moment.
The only good thing about death is that it brings life to those left behind.
On my way to pick up my son James (who has special needs) from school, I cried. I will miss Bill. I will miss his presence on the set for the rest of my life. This is the sucky part about death.
James is way more aware and in tune than I could ever hope to be, so my sadness wasn’t lost on him. I wanted to sit in silence as we drove and mourn my loss.
But death, and God’s big toe, and James always push me to be more present. To keep living in the moment, even when that moment is grief.
James wanted to have a polka dance party in the car, and so we did. For Bill.
I’m am so grateful that I got to see my friend one more time before he left. And I’m grateful for the potter who hand-crafted the coffee mug. I don’t know where it will end up – maybe his sister or one of his beautiful daughters will use it and know that his work community of friends loved him beyond words.
And as Bill said too many times to count in his career…