A king and a lionheart. *update*

I like telling stories. I like sitting down at a computer and creating elaborate worlds and wild characters. At parties or get togethers, I am that girl standing in the middle of a group, a beer in one hand, the other hand wildly gesturing, acting out something that happened in real life. This is what I do. I tell stories. Real, make believe, fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. Some people simply live it and that’s enough. Then there’s people like me. Who find the joy in the retelling.  
 
But not all stories have happy endings and those I find no pleasure in repeating. But sometimes the most painful stories are the most important to tell, the ones that need to be heard the most.
 
This is one of those.
 

I met my Betty at 15. He was a junior. He was gorgeous. A football player. The all-American boy. I couldn’t figure out what he saw in me. A freshman who played freshman softball. Who had plenty of friends but wasn’t exactly popular.
 
Whatever it was (he’ll tell you it was my ass in my softball pants), we started dating and the first time we went out, it was with his parents. That’s right. I met the parents on our first date.
 
 
 
Good Lord. Talk about awkward.
 
I barely knew this boy, whom I’d one day marry, not many years down the road, in fact, and right off the bat, I’m being introduced to his mom and dad. His mother intimidated me. Back then, I was desperate to be approved of. I lived a life of a preacher’s kid who knew that what people thought of me, the image I portrayed, reflected back on my dad and his ministry. As a result, I walked around constantly second guessing myself, full of insecurities, desperately wanting to be liked by all, but not sure what to do to achieve it. I knew instantly this was a woman who was fiercely protective of her son, who believed that no one would ever be good enough for him. She was nice and polite, said all the right things at all the right times, but underneath that, I knew I was being judged and not coming up to par. I might have been a nice girl, a girl they picked up from church, but I was nowhere near good enough for her youngest son and that knowledge made me a shaking, tense mess.
 
His dad on the other hand, I took an instant liking to. He joked and teased and made the whole nerve-wracking situation lighter. Even though a hot rock of nerves had settled into my stomach, this bearded, biker looking man that sat across from me kept me from sprinting to the bathroom to puke my guts out. He was his wife’s opposite. Said what he was thinking and damn social etiquette. I liked this man. I liked his genuineness and the way I never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next. I spent the entire dinner pushing my food around my plate, trying to avoid eye contact with Betty’s mom, and focusing all my attention on his dad.



I found out, not too long after that, that Betty wasn’t their biological son. They adopted him and his brother when they were 8 and 9. Before that, they had raised my mother-in-law’s 4 younger siblings. I had growing respect for this man, who saved my man from a dismal foster care system well past the age most get saved. A man who had no kids of his own, yet raised more than most parents ever have. I found out how hard working he was, that he went from barely having anything when he and my mother-in-law first married, to successfully building a thriving irrigation company. He wasn’t a hero, my future father-in-law, but yet he was. He was an every day one. One that worked hard, played fair, lived clean, and cared a hell of a lot beneath his rough exterior. He didn’t play games. He wasn’t a crook. He was an honest, hard-working guy who did what was right even when he didn’t have to and usually had a joke ready to lighten tense situations. 
 
As time went on, as I started clashing horribly with Betty’s mom, due to us both being stubborn wenches and her feeling like I was stealing her last child, his dad was still that guy that would show special attention to me at family gatherings and uncomfortable dinners. He’d tease me or come sit next to me in whatever corner I had tucked myself into that time. He made me feel welcome, eased the anxiety that took over every time I was around their family. He wasn’t a big talker. He wasn’t affectionate. But he was real and in his own way, he showed that he cared. Even when the news of mine and Betty’s runaway wedding broke at my mother-in-law’s birthday party and a wicked fight broke out between family members, he stood in between his nephew and I and announced that I was one of his now. He hugged me when I was so angry that I could do nothing more than shake and cry and he cracked jokes while the rest of the party blew up around us. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, he and I. We’ve disagreed on trivial things, as daughter-in-laws and in-laws do. But through it all he was always the man I admired, always remembered as the guy who had his arm around me and said, “Welcome to the family” as his sons almost came to blows a few feet away.

 

It took me a long time to tell him this, because he’s not one for tender, emotional conversations, nor am I, but there were many times he was the only reason I could muster up the courage to go around their family, whom I felt blamed me for Betty’s decision to move to another state. They probably never did, but sometimes some parts of us never mature past that 15-year-old girl with a heap of insecurities who clings to the person who made us feel most comfortable first.
 
 
Through all the years I’ve known him, nearly 14 now, to be exact, he’s always remained that same guy. Hardworking. Honest to a fault. Fair. He and my mother-in-law opened up their home to us, back when our oldest was 6 months and our world crumbled financially around us. We weren’t the first. He might have a smart quip about it, he may have good-naturedly complained about running a hotel, but he was right there making room in his house for whoever needed it. Once upon a time, he took in his sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law and raised them as his own, then went out and adopted a couple of kids for good measure. He and my mother-in-law continued taking in people, adopting them into their lives, even when it ended badly for them. That’s just the kinda people they are. Not perfect. Not always right. But caring. Honest. Good people who deserve good things and worked hard to achieve them then shared the benefits with others.
 
Then he got cancer.

 
 
 
We, those who know him and love him best, have been forced to sit and watch him waste away. He’s shrank, both in height and width. The same man who’d once lifted me over his head can barely hold a cup without violently shaking. He went from working 60 hours a week to being forced into a wheelchair courtesy of the tumors that litter his spine and make walking a painful impossibility. My mother-in-law, whose been married to him since she was 17, has been forced into a front row seat as her husband of 40 years disappears in front of her eyes. Every day she’s had to function under the knowledge that no matter how organized she keeps his medical records, no matter how much she reminds him to eat and exercise, it doesn’t matter. Her husband, her best friend, is dying in front of her and all she can do is witness it.
 
They’ve gone through bouts of extreme poverty while the cancer has spread throughout his body, turning it in on itself. There’s times where they had no income at all because my father-in-law can’t work. He can barely keep his food down most days. My mother-in-law, who hasn’t been able to work in years, has been forced to push through her own health issues and find a job in order to have some kind of money coming in. Social Security, disability, SSI, has all been dangled in front of them only to be snatched away when their fingers were nearly close enough to reach it. They were given food stamps, only for them to be lowered to 15 bucks a month. They’ve sold cars and possessions, gave up their house on the lake that they’d always dreamed of retiring to, and my MIL, a woman who has always loved her jewelry, has had to pawn it just to get by. Every month has created a new financial challenge for them, every week a new emotional one. The family they forged has pulled together and helped out wherever we could, because this is a man who deserves to be retired, not struggling both for his life and with his finances. He shouldn’t have to stress about bills while he’s stressing over his life expectancy. These should be his golden years. They should be the years where his grandchildren gather around his chair and babies bounce on his knees while he explains the secrets to life and how to rebuild an engine. Instead he’s wondered if radiation would give him another few months and if next month would find them out on the streets. He can barely move himself from his wheelchair to the couch, let alone bounce a baby or show his grandsons how to change a spark plug.
 
So often we complain that life isn’t fair because it’s not. Life is many things, so many things, but it’s never fair. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. Living is a roller coaster with highs and lows too steep to understand and too unpredictable to ever make sense of. But there’s little crueler and harder to understand than cancer. Because cancer doesn’t discriminate. It’s ruthless and unforgiving and it doesn’t care if you’re nice or mean or good or bad. It takes and takes and is cruel. And even though it hit once in his family, taking his mother, slowly and with no remorse, it attacked my father-in-law too. The same kind that killed his mother. Stage 3 bone cancer, multiple myeloma, that progressed to Stage 4, with a mass in his lung that shrank only to grow rapidly again. But my father-in-law kept going. God, he just kept going, refusing to give up or in. Even the doctors would ask, “how are you still alive?” and my father-in-law would just shrug. Cancer is relentless, but so is he. He has the heart of a lion.

I originally wrote a good portion of the above when I put out a desperate call for help for my in-laws. I wanted to introduce my father-in-law, explain who he was and why he was important as well as tell his story. When I originally hit “post” I was swamped with doubt and self-loathing because as hard as I tried, it still didn’t feel like enough. I didn’t properly capture this man who meant so much to so many. Because he deserved that. He deserved to have his story told in the very best way possible and I hadn’t done that. But people responded. They came out in droves and blessed my in-laws in more ways than I can begin to describe. Across the internet people shared his story told in my stumbling words and they reacted as if he was theirs too. In a way, he was. Because they became invested, whether financially or emotionally. They rallied around him and us. They reached across the space between us, grasped our hands, and said, “we see him. We see his life and his fight. He’s ordinary, yes. He’s an every day guy, sure, but we care because he matters.” They adopted this stranger who’d adopted so many himself and held him close to their hearts. I will forever be grateful for that.
 
I’ve edited this a million times since I reposted it. I’ve added and subtracted and tried, like hell, to find a way to transition from the words, “I’m grateful” to my next ones. But God, there’s no good way to say it. There’s no perfect set of words arranged just so that makes it easier. Because today we got a call that came like a fist from the shadows aimed at our guts. We’re still clutching them.

The doctors are giving him a week to live. Maybe.
 
He’s always been tough, my father-in-law. He’s a bear of a man with a spine of steel who fights until he wins, no matter the opponent. And even hearing this news, I still don’t believe the cancer is winning. I don’t. I refuse. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that death is afraid of him and his lionheart. And when it comes, it won’t barge in and just take him. It’ll knock, and it’ll be Bill who opens the door. 



And death will flinch.
 
 
 
 
Thank you to everyone who invested. To everyone that shared. And thank you, Bill, for letting me be one of yours.




UPDATE 3/27/14:

Last night, around 8pm, Bill passed away.
 
We’d known it was coming, of course, but that didn’t mean the blow came any lighter. It didn’t make it any easier to accept. There’s a grim gratefulness that his suffering is over, that he’s no longer in pain, but it still hurts. It’s still hard to understand.
 
There have been times in the past that I’ve spoken on behalf of the Wyllys family, and this time, I am and I’m not. I’m speaking for myself here, and, it’s safe to assume, whatever I’m feeling is tenfold for them. 

Bill was a constant for me. He’s been apart of my life for nearly half of it and I never, not even knowing that he had cancer and the type of cancer he had, imagined a world that he didn’t exist in. It just…didn’t seem possible. 
 
Things constantly change in the world. Everything is always in motion. It never stops. But there are a few definites, a few things you never doubt, that you know you can always count on. There’s the sky above your head filled with the sun and the moon and the stars. There’s the earth beneath your feet and the air you breathe. And, for me, there was also Bill. Even in my own family, things felt like they never stopped shifting, but Bill didn’t. He was always there, always felt permanent and sure. There is something so incredibly reassuring about knowing you never ever have to doubt someone. That while you can’t count on anything else, you can count on them.
So, today, now that he’s gone, everything else feels a little less solid. I’m squinting at the sky and eyeing the floor because they don’t feel as true and steady as they did yesterday. I don’t know if I’ll ever see a day again where I’m not at least slightly suspicious of them.
 
 
Rest in peace, Bill. God, you were brave and you were sure and dependable and probably the only man I’ll ever know who didn’t look absolutely ridiculous in tie-dye. You touched things and always fixed them and though you didn’t talk a lot, what you said was always worth remembering. The world will forever be less now that you’re not in it.
 
I hope the cars up there are loud and sweet, the music is rockin’, and there’s not a speed limit in sight. And I hope as you’re flying down smooth, endless roads, probably with the top down and a grin on your face, you know how very much you are loved and missed down here.
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