backhand stories the creative writing blog

Bill was my best friend from college, where we were both studying to become High School Math teachers. We were both in our late twenties, we both had wives and small children and were struggling to get through college and on to a better life.

We met in Calculus class and hooked up the first day because it turned out that we were in the wrong Calculus class and shared a bonding moment of embarrassment. For the next three years, until we graduated, we were Ray-and-Bill, never just Ray, never just Bill.

I tutored Bill in all his math classes and dragged him through his ignorance to graduation. Bill tutored me in life.

A quiet man, Bill taught me that it takes courage to be a father and faith to be a husband. He taught me that I’m not beneath anyone, but it costs nothing to say, “Yes, sir” or “Yes, Ma’am.” He taught me that friends are more precious than things and that the truth is the only currency between friends. He taught me how to love a woman with my eyes, even in a crowded room, and that fish are a gift of laughter.

Bill was not an outwardly sentimental man, but he understood, and he made me understand, that he was my friend. When we graduated and wound up working at schools a hundred miles apart, we got together as often as we could and took our boys camping and fishing, or cooked out at his house or mine. He definitely taught me the proper way to grill a good steak.

Just before Bill died, I hadn’t heard from him in a few months and I had begun to question the genuineness of his friendship. As I stood next to his bed in the hospital, his face ravaged by the stroke, and waited for some word from him, some chance to apologize for not calling him, he taught me with silence the terrible price of love. And when he woke for the last time and asked me with his eyes to please let him go, I learned more about my own selfishness than anyone ever should.

At Bill’s funeral, with hundreds of his students, friends and family filling the tiny church and the grassy parking lot beyond, his widow took my hand and asked me to stand with her at the casket. As countless strangers filed by to pay their last respects, so many of them shook my hand and called me by my name and told me how Bill had always talked about me, and how obvious it was that he had loved and admired me. In that moment, that long, mournful moment, Bill taught me a final lesson in humility and shame.