Photo of Willie Williams in French Polynesia by Pete McBride, National Geographic
“Keep death upon your shoulder, it will remind you to love.”
Eve Decker, from her song Cemetery
June 18, 2008
“Wait. Can we just sit here for a minute? I need to let this pass.”
I respond by taking the key out of the ignition as Willie opens the passenger door for fresh air. I roll down my window for more. He closes his eyes and concentrates on taking slow, deep breaths. The cars roll past where we’re parked on the busy street.
Willie has just had his blood test, the one that will determine if his counts are high enough for the next medical procedure in his clinical trial. He is having another wave of nausea. I sit quietly, focusing on my own breathing to be present for him, pulling away from the thoughts that want answers: Is it from the cancer? The chemo drugs? The pain medication?
He leans back into the seat and says softly, “I’m visualizing rolling on the waves in my kayak on the Sea of Cortez. It’s first light, my favorite time to be on the water.”
I feel the world slowing down. I stare forward through the windshield but I am elsewhere. After a few moments, I quietly ask, “What color is the water?”
“Kind of gray in this light.”
We are silent again. Breaths. Images. Then, “What color is the sky?”
“It’s orange, and there are still a couple of stars.”
A wave of grief rolls over me, knowing he’ll never be in that boat again. I turn my face away in case he opens his eyes. “What sounds do you hear? Are there birds?”
“It’s incredibly quiet. Just the sound of my paddle in the water.”
I am with him in the kayak, where there is no disease and no pain. Paddling at dawn on the Sea of Cortez.
Photo by Pete McBride, National Geographic
July 21, 2008
Willie is in hospice at home. We are taking shifts beside him all night while he is unconscious in his hospital bed in the living room.
I have just a small light on at midnight. I let go of his hand to quietly play my dulcimer and share the song we used to sing together—Kate Wolf’s Give Yourself to Love—the one he and his wife asked me to sing at their wedding soon after his cancer reappeared last year. It is the perfect song for reflecting back to Willie the loving soul that he is and the love he inspires in us. This is the gift that is intertwined with accompanying someone on the journey of dying—the great opening of the heart and letting go of all but being loving to someone else.
I honor Willie as I have every year on the anniversary of his death, in awe that such a wise, open-hearted person graced my life. He embodied love, joy and endless kindness even as he was dying.
I keep his words where I can read them frequently. At his 2008 memorial, a friend read aloud an excerpt from a letter that Willie had written to her, words to live by:
“It all comes down to my personal belief that the earth and all the interconnected life and consciousness here is a huge cosmic stroke of luck and beauty; and somehow we’ve been lucky enough, privileged enough, to be here now and to be aware of it. The power and depth of reflection, to realize this place in the universe, awes and humbles me. For me, the rightness of life centers on extreme gratitude and appreciation. To share these feelings, to acknowledge this amazing gift with other living creatures, is a large part of my faith.
“To navigate the hardships, I try to breathe, return to the joy that I get to breathe, cry in the joy of awareness, thank everything. When I finish sitting or meditating, I like to raise my hands above in an arc and express love… this is love for the earth, for my family and friends, for the spiritual bond with living things and for myself. This always makes me smile big! I often thank the endless line of my ancestors and visualize them stretching back to the birth of all life. This connects me to all living things as we truly have the same relatives if we choose to look far enough back.
“The impermanence of things, the duality of life, the suffering, only brings me closer to the feelings of gratitude and appreciation for the simple beauties and happiness we receive.”
Thank you, Willie, for reminding me.
Listen to Kate Wolf singing Give Yourself to Love, 1980s. Eve Decker’s lyrics to Cemetery are beautiful as a stand-alone poem and the song with her band Rebecca Riots is here.
Photo by Pete McBride, National Geographic
Dearest Woodswoman, thank you so much for sharing this memory of you and Willie and for honoring your love and friendship. I love you dearly and am so grateful for this and for the photos. Thank you so much for being the love-light you are!
A beautiful tribute!
I always remember Willie for his grace and living an example of positive attitude no matter what situation I am in. He reminds me that it is our mind that limits our capacity to embrace love, joy and kindness. Thank you for this article to celebrate how lucky we are to know Willie.
Thank you for that reminder of Willie, truly someone we were lucky to know.
This was a beautiful post! Thanks, Beverly.
So beautiful Beverly! Wish I knew Willie.
Such a moving memorial to your friend, and a true way of writing. I will be very happy to meet you soon!
Willie, you are sorely missed and forever loved. Thank you for your amazing presence, mindfulness and energy.
Beverly – thank you for sharing and the wonderful reminder of our dear friend x
Thank you, Beverly! Beautiful. With tears in my eyes I am so grateful to remember Willie, and all he shared with this world and taught us.
Thank you for remembering our friend so well. He was such a beautiful spirit in every way.