A cold rain fell. Great sheets of heavy drops blew hard and fast sideways across the gray cemetery. The canvas of the bright green canopy erected over the grave snapped in the wind and the ropes holding the tent stakes arced sideways with the force of the gale. Water stood in large puddles on the saturated ground, and even on the unrolled astro-turf, under the canopy where the family stood, the rain gathered, threatening to soak any misplaced foot. The wind fought with my umbrella, tried to tear it from my hand as I stood waiting.
In the distance, dim lights pushed through the wall of rain. I squinted through the downpour and watched as the lights moved first toward me, then at an angle away from me, then back toward me again. As they drew near, brightening as the distance decreased, I realized they were the lights of the hearse approaching, rolling slowly past the hundreds of graves of those already passed.
We were waiting for the arrival of Bill Stevens.
I first came to know Bill Stevens when he appeared at our front door selling insurance. I was just a boy but I well remember opening the door and standing staring at a man who was unable to keep still. His body shook, his arms trembled and his head jerked back and forth. He spoke in a nearly unintelligible voice but eventually managed to squeeze out “Are your parents home?” Then he smiled.
As he drove away, sale not made, I recall my mother shaking her head, patting me on the top of mine and saying, “Poor boy, he’ll never be able to sell anything.” I would never want to blame my mother for that judgment, but I’ve certainly been glad these many years that she was wrong.
Bill Stevens was not the best door to door insurance salesman the world has ever seen. He was not the best brush salesman, the best vacuum cleaner salesman or the best encyclopedia salesman. However, he might have been the best Bill Stevens salesman who ever lived. He never gave up. When boys hollered at him, “Shaky, shaky, shaky!” he just waved at them and rang another doorbell. When people laughed at his ancient green Plymouth Savoy he just smiled and nodded at them and said: “It is old.” Then he started it up again, and drove to another part of town to make another sale.
Bill and I attended the same church from the time I was twelve or so. For one year – when I was thirteen -- he even taught my Sunday school class. Thirteen is a difficult age to live through, and I can only imagine how difficult the class must have been to control. More than anything, I remember Bill sitting there calmly, patiently as the class exploded around him. Eventually, you could hear his voice rising over the din, demanding our attention and finally, the palm of his hand smacking the table. No matter how much trouble we were, how much grief we caused him, he smiled and returned to the topic, certain that a combination of life’s lessons and the Bible would calm any breast, no matter how savage.
I would like to think that I always appreciated him. That somehow even when I was thirteen or fourteen I understood that he had wisdom within him at which the rest of us could only guess. I would like to think that, but certainly that is not the case. I was no different from the others. When he was not around we laughed and mimicked his palsy, and I remember staggering across a shopping center parking lot in a horribly crude imitation of his stride while my friends laughed.
But more than that, as ashamed of that as I am today thirty plus years after the fact, what I best remember about Bill comes from a few years later. When I was nineteen after a few hours of a terrible stomach ache my appendix burst. Unaware of the seriousness of the problem, I kept waiting for the pain to subside; it never did. When I finally went to the hospital I was closer to death than I had ever been. They operated immediately and put me into intensive care. My family sat vigil over me for the thirty or so hours I remained in intensive care and with them sat Bill. When they needed something to eat, when they needed something to drink, Bill provided it for them. When they were especially worried he found the hospital chaplain to comfort them. But when it was apparent that I would survive he visited briefly with me in my new room, then vanished. He did not hang around to be thanked, that wasn’t Bill.
It might not sound like much. It might sound like something any decent person would do. I don’t buy that. Life is not a series of improbable rescues carried out by super heroes. Instead, the little things we do for one another are the fabric of community which makes living tolerable. We are all faced every day with choices between fulfilling our wishes and desires and doing what will help others. Most of us, unfortunately, choose our selfish desires. Bill, faced with more problems than most of us, chose to help. Did he make this decision to ingratiate himself, to try to turn aside the laughs and imprecations his physical condition inevitably brought him? Perhaps. I don’t believe it, but perhaps. However, in the end, all we are left with are the things Bill did for us.
That day at the cemetery was one of the most miserable I’ve seen in years. The rain never let up, the wind howled, and the temperature dropped throughout the brief service. When it was over and the casket had been lowered into the ground I turned to the stranger standing next to me and introduced myself. I started to explain why I was there when he interrupted me and said, “Bill helped me when I needed it.” The stranger’s friend stuck his hand out and said, “He was there for me, too.” I smiled, nodded and choked out, “Me too.” The stranger had to speak loudly to be heard over a sudden gust of wind. “He was always there.” I nodded again, and took down the umbrella. Then we all looked up into the sky to let the rain wash away our tears.