Tribute to Billy

When we first met Billy over 13 years ago, we said to each other: “He’s Captain Jim!” (from Anne’s House of Dreams) Billy really was like a story book character, and looked the part with his grizzled beard, knee-length britches, and long stockings. He grew up in Waterford, but spent most of his life in England, and developed a most impressive, distinguished English accent. He married Sarah from there, a most patient, smiley, competent lady. She must have heard the stories of his escapades a million times, but as we’d listen, she’d always sit there smiling and nodding knowingly at him and us. I would so like to know what kind of person he was in his days with the RAF and in the class room as a teacher.

His turn of phrase and insight and story telling was unlike anyone I know. He was a perfect gentleman, tipping his hat when he saw me, asking how I was. When we asked him, he’d favour us with a song or poem. His scratchy, gravelly voice would recite “The Sea is a Dog” and make it come alive. Billy is infamous for having checked himself out of the hospital and walking 10 miles home. He did things his way. When the doctor told him he’d lose his legs if he didn’t stop smoking, Billy stopped smoking. To do it right, he walked all around Ireland as a fundraiser for the Life Boats.

Billy lived by the sea and in his boat. When he was diagnosed with cancer some years back, he kept his boat as long as he possibly could manage it. This spring, he and his wife came to church for a service, and I sat beside him. Instead of staying for tea afterwards, he politely told me he’s not feeling well, and left immediately. Billy died in July, and it was a huge honour that he had asked us to sing a particular plain chant rendition of Psalm 23 at his funeral.

My sisters and I sang it from the balcony of the little country church. We had learned the song from a recording Billy had made of himself singing it. The antiphon: “His goodness shall follow me always, to the end of my days.”

Billy and Sarah had a lively, lovely family, and Ben, the youngest, shared this story at the funeral. I share it here as I remember the account as a tribute to a rare soul who I was privileged to have for a neighbour.

When I was 11 or so, my siblings, along with our neighbour’s children, would meet the school bus at the end of our lane, and it would take us to the village to school. One morning I had the great idea that when we heard the bus coming, we would jump behind the hedge, and wait out of sight until it gave up waiting for us and go on without us.

It was a great plan and it worked. The bus came, waited, and waited, and waited…and drove off. And we were free from school for the day! But the eagle eye of the neighbour lady saw us and reported us to our mother, who was VERY cross with us. My mother told me that my father would have some words for me when he came home.

When my father came home, I was terrified, and as he walked toward me, I wondered which limb he would tear first from me. But all he said was, “Get in the car, son.” He drove to Dower’s grocery on the corner, and bought two cans of Coke and a packet of crisps. Now, a packet of crisps in those days was like winning the lottery!

We sat outside the shop at a table, and we ate our crisps and drank our Coke, and my father said, “So tell me what you did today.” I told him, and he said nothing. We finished our treat, got back into the car and went home. He never said anything more about the escapade, but I can tell you that I never again tried to skip school. That was the genius of my father. I never knew a man who could think outside the box like he did, and have a solution when no one else had one.

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