Submitted For Your Consideration
Remembrance and Regret
A while back, I wrote a column about an old friend who was dying of cancer. He died recently. Now, I knew it was just a matter of time and he was suffering, so in a way it was for the best, but even so, it was very difficult and (as hard as this is to believe) unexpected.
Let's backtrack a bit. In early November, I got a Facebook message from his sister. She told me he'd been taken to a hospice in DC. I had no idea he was in such bad shape. She left me a number, so when I called her, she told me he was having trouble breathing and, at that time, he was pretty much out of it. Visitors told her he'd open his eyes, only to have them roll back into his head. She was having difficulty communicating with the hospice staff and determining exactly what was going on. I felt helpless. Should I go? What could I do? Would he even know I was there?
The call ended with his sister telling me she thought either 1) this could be "it" or 2) his condition could be caused by his medication. She told me she'd be in touch when she found out more.
The next time she called, it was to tell me when and where the services would be. I thought, "Oh, my God."
Then, I realized I hadn't read his online diary in weeks.
My friend, Bill Reitwiesner (I think it's okay to reveal his name now), kept an online diary of the effects the cancer was having on his body. (Don't bother to search for it. You won't find it. He made it unfindable by search engine.)
See, after a while, I got out of the regular habit of reading it. Much of it had turned into repetition. He was undergoing various trial medication regimens and having various bad side effects.
Bill was the kind of person who gave attention to every detail, from appointment cancellations to routine visits. So I fell out of the regular habit of reading his journal.
The last time I read it, he seemed to be doing okay. In fact, it had only been a couple of weeks before his sister contacted me that we'd last spoken. After getting the news of his death, I read the diary knowing, "This is not going to end well."
I made my way through the entries waiting for the inevitable, as if reading a tragic play, wishing I could change the course of events but knowing I couldn't.
In his last entry, he wrote about contacting the hospice because he didn't have the strength to climb the stairs to his apartment. They offered oxygen, which he accepted. His final sentence read: "All of this is happening much faster and is much more confusing than anything I had expected. It's very helpful, but very disorienting."
The entry following that (apart from a routine appointment) noted Bill's death at 4:45 AM on November 12, 2010.
I sat, staring at his last sentence. Could I have summed it up better?
But this wasn't supposed to be about me. I wanted to write about Bill Reitwiesner. So let's fast forward to a week after his funeral service on November 20.
It was at the service for William Addams Reitwiesner (his full name, in all its glory) that I realized what a remarkable person I'd known for so many years.
In her eulogy, his sister shared so much about Bill that I'd known, but told much more.
I knew, for instance, that he was a genius. He had a lifelong interest in genealogy that started at age four. What I didn't know was that he'd read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica before starting school.
In fourth grade, Bill's teacher Mrs. Brown asked the class, "Who discovered the Hudson River?" The entire class answered "Henry Hudson," except Bill, who said it was, "Giovanni da Verrazano." After being told he was wrong, the next day Bill brought the encyclopedia book to school to prove he was right. Several years later, when a stamp for Verrazano came out, he sent Mrs. Brown the stamp.
Now that story is so Bill. He was the kind of guy who not only knew the answer, but didn't mind sort of tweaking you about it. (In a good-hearted way, of course.)
I knew that Bill had learned sign language so he could communicate with a deaf co-worker. In fact, he often tried teaching signs to me. I picked up a bit, here and there. What I didn't know was that he also learned Mandarin Chinese "mostly to flirt with a waitress or two at Chinese restaurants," according to his sister's eulogy. "He then also taught these ladies English and, most importantly, American Slang."
I also knew that Bill was prominent in genealogical circles and that he'd written books about it and was even featured in media like The Washington Post and other newspapers, in radio interviews and so forth. However, until I heard the eulogy, I had no idea just how prominent and generous with this knowledge he was.
He not only loved genealogy, but he researched the toughest aspects of it. I knew his specialty was matrilineal descents (much harder to trace) because he talked about it a lot. I was vaguely aware that he checked lineages for the Society of Descendants of Illegitimate Children of the Kings and Queens of Great Britain. (Gotta love that.) I didn't know that his Web site had become "the go-to source for ongoing research of huge numbers of European royal persons; American, British and other politicos, and an equally wide swath of 'other' people of every sort of personality, including a number of mass murderers." (Again, so very Bill.) I had no idea how many genealogists he'd assisted and mentored over the years. I should have known this, actually, because he'd researched part of my own genealogy. I still have his worksheets with each preceding generation noted in his cramped handwriting. An unfinished work most likely destined to remain so.
And then there was his love of dance. Every Friday, he attended the contra dance at Glen Echo. (I was invited, but never went. My loss.)
Of course, it wasn't until his funeral that I found out that he didn't just invite me. He invited everyone he knew to come to the dance. He was not only a regular, but he would show up early to set up and/or stay late to close, dance with new dancers because he had a strong lead, and look for someone standing alone, to include them.
Again, this doesn't surprise me. Bill became my one and only close friend when I moved to Maryland. I was a new kid starting high school (tenth grade) and a misfit. Unlike most of the other kids who shut out "the strange new kid" or whatever they called me, Bill made me feel welcome. Bill was the kind of person who accepted everyone on his or her own terms. I can think of no one else who could talk with equal ease and interest about both a Bach prelude or a NASCAR race.
Not only that, but I learned that Bill became an active member of the board of directors for the dance. Like he didn't already have enough things to keep him busy. Because in addition to all these things, Bill held a full-time job at the Library of Congress. He'd worked there since graduating high school (Bill didn't bother with a college degree), working his way up through the ranks to eventually become its computer spam expert. So... plate full much?
According to his sister: "When his dancing days were winding down, Bill continued to go to the dance, helping out where he could or just enjoying being there. And he was known there (and everywhere) for his enormous collection of T-shirts, ranging from humorous to ...well, to things I will not repeat here in church. ..." (Yes, I know those T-shirts. And that sense of humor.)
"All of us laughed with Bill and his T-shirts. And he loved a laugh." (I know. Everything from limericks to bad puns to political humor to fart jokes.)
In her eulogy, his sister said, "I haven't even begun to talk about Bill's love of music and his broad collection of tunes from rock to opera, classical to bluegrass, to funk. He loved music - period. He shared his love of the annual Messiah sing-along at the Kennedy Center, taking different friends over the years. And often when he arrived at my house he would pull me aside, put headphones on my head and play some piece of music that would make me laugh out loud - either off-color or just unusual music. Christmas just won't be the same without some of Bill's selections."
On a personal level, I knew very well how much he loved music. Bill introduced me to a wide range of music from Scott Joplin (he taught me to play "The Maple Leaf Rag") to PDQ Bach. Back in my musician days, when I told him I wanted to start an all-female version of The Who, he taught me how to play "I Can See For Miles" on the guitar. When I sang second soprano with an a cappella chorus (faking my way through sight reading), it was he who attended my performance. When I flubbed my way through a jazz recital on piano, it was Bill who consoled me afterward. And I'm very pleased to say I was one of the friends who sang the Messiah along with him at the Kennedy Center.
Even if my most recent contacts with Bill were reduced mostly to phone calls and the occasional lunch, those contacts were precious. At the same time, his sister's eulogy put my own loss in a much larger perspective. It seemed like I hadn't fully appreciated the friend I had while he was here. A feeling I suppose isn't unusual, but even so, tough to deal with.
I knew this moment was inevitable. Even so, it seemed to happen (to use Bill's words) "much faster and ... much more confusing than anything I had expected." I don't want to sentimentalize these thoughts, as Bill wouldn't have approved. I'm just sorry I can't pick up the phone and call him once more.