Some time after my Dad died, my Mother introduced me to her new boy-friend Bill Bauer. Both Bill and my Mom had lost their first partner to cancer. Both were about to retire and were looking to start a new chapter in life. They met at a Jazz club, they both had a background in public education and both loved Cleveland. It was a mid-life Midwestern baby boomer dream.
Bill was the polar opposite of my Father. My Father was cerebral, distracted, intellectual, and in a word; complicated. Bill was smart and successful, but he also knew how to quietly appreciate the best of any moment.
When my Mother was telling me about her new guy Bill, she led with his successful career as an executive administrator in the challenging public school system of Cleveland. For dinner the first night we met I came prepared with interesting questions to spur discussion over different education philosophies. Bill politely ducked every attempt I made at getting him to engage in debate. Instead he abruptly asked Emily, my (then) fiancée, “do you like cherries?” She replied, “yeah, I guess…” and that was the end of that.
I learned the wisdom of this technique from Bill as I grew older and became a father myself. The total non-sequitur that shows some genuine interest in the other person, but is mostly there as a disarming change of topic. “Do you like Jazz?” was one of Bill’s favorites. He would then proceed to turn on his iPad/Bluetooth speaker and play something he liked, loudly, over any music that was already playing. He didn’t ask to turn the other music off, he didn’t ask if you wanted to listen to something new. He had the idea that it’d be nice to listen to something specific he was thinking about, so he did.
Bill’s attention was equally intense and random behind the wheel of a car. The two hour trip from Cleveland to the lake house could get pretty terrifying for anyone in the back seat. If he found a passing cow interesting, he’d point at that cow, fully turn his head to look at that cow, and he’d nudge you to make sure you we’re looking: “See, see?” — as the car steadily veered across the yellow lines. “YES, BILL! AMAZING COW, WHAT’S THAT AHEAD OF US ON THE ROAD?!?!”
When Bill looked you in the eye, you could see he was sharp as a tack and could instantly cut through any bullshit you might throw. He never abused that power though. He always played along, always wanted the best in people to shine. If he thought you had more to offer, he’d look for ways to ask questions or find stories to tell that would press you forward. His heart was full and he knew the power of sharing his love without expectations in return.
I only knew him as an adult, he wasn’t my Dad, and he wasn’t my school’s principle, so I’m sure our relationship had fewer challenges than many. I don’t know what it was like to have Bill angry with me. I bet there’s precious few people on earth who have felt that.
Even facing brain cancer this last year, Bill never was angry or resentful at the world. He personified the saying our kids hear: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” He knew that this journey called life is our own story to tell. Fill it full of preaching and pushing and it will be a long painful journey. Fill it full of being helpful when asked and choosing the best emotion you can for any situation, and it will be a joyous celebration of adventure. He looked for adventure.
Bill was a fan of saying “Try this!” and then just sticking something in your mouth as you turned your head to see what he was talking about. He never seemed to acknowledge the social awkwardness of two grown men feeding each other finger food. He just wanted you to experience the same taste he was, right now.
One time at the airport on our way home after a summer trip to the lake house I got tagged for the complete search after testing positive for the hand swab residue test. Before long I was in a closet sized room with two men patting me down and looking through my carry-on asking what might have possibly caused a false positive. “Man, I’ve been hanging out with my step dad from the west side. With the amount of Indian reservation fireworks, whiskey, and smoked jerky I’ve consumed in the last 3 days, it’s a miracle I’ve still got 10 fingers.” After investigating the extra bag of jerky from the West Side Market that Bill had insisted I take home, the guys decided this could very well be the culprit as they knew that vendor and “yeah — your step-dad is right, this shit is the bomb.”
I miss Bill Bauer right now, I wish I could mix him a Manhattan and ask how his grilling was going. I know I’ll miss him many times in the future. I believe we keep the best parts of the spirits of our loved ones in our hearts to call on any time we need their energy. I am proud to have known Bill Bauer. He was a rock in the storm of life. He left people better than he found them. He was no sucker, but he chose to believe in the best in each of us. I hope I can live up to his example, and I’m thankful I got a chance to learn from it. I love you Bill.