12 September 2008


I lost a friend this week.

Anyone who knew us in high school knows that Billy Johnson was more than a friend to me. We were the best of friends, so far as such things can go with high school kids. I was at his house so often that I started referring to his mother Cynthia as “my other mom” and she called me her “other son”, something I appreciated more than she ever knew. For several years, the two of us were inseparable.

I used to joke that we shared the same brain. No, wait…now that I think of it, we used to make that joke about other people. But we did often finish each others’…well, you know.

We did everything together, including going off to volunteer at week-long camps for the handicapped in the Poconos, where we often got in trouble, as young boys do. We also spent a whole summer together in the Catskills working for Word of Life Inn, a summer I still count as the best of my young life. We got into some trouble up there, too, as you might expect.

Of course, Billy was proud of all the trouble he got into. It was just his nature. If you told him to go left, he’d go right. If you told him to crouch, he’d jump. He wasn’t maliciously spiteful, he just didn’t like being hemmed in. For example, punishment for “bad behavior” at Word of Life was to scrub the nasty pots and pans in the Dish Pit, but Billy wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of thinking they’d gotten to him. He would literally dive in, turning himself upside down in the huge sink, beating the caked on lasagna and sloppy Joes off the pots with a Brillo pad while the blood rushed to his head. He made it fun imself, and for everyone else.

Nearly every weekend for four or five years, I would walk or ride my bike over to Elmwood Park, or he’d come over to where I lived in Lodi. We’d spend the day playing pickup basketball and trying to scrape together enough change to go to Burger King and get a small soda, which could be refilled about 17 times before the paper cup got too soggy. Then we’d spend Saturday night playing chess or video games and inevitably staying up until 4 or 5 AM. If we ever seemed a little “spaced out” at church on Sunday morning, now you know why.

Billy was not the most punctual of people. He’s the only guy I ever knew who could somehow show up late to his own house when he had already been there. Trouble seemed to follow him around, like a neighborhood stray that kept expecting some milk, and Billy just embraced it. It was what made him so much fun to be around.

As is often the case when someone goes off to college, we lost touch after high school, or at least weren’t all that close for about four years, though Billy and his family came to my college graduation, and even took me and my mom out to dinner the night before. Despite having seen each other just a handful of times over the next few years, Billy came to my wedding as well, and was, not surprisingly, the life of the party. A few months later, when he was looking for a fresh start after a rough patch, he moved to Bethlehem, hoping I could help get him back on his feet. Not that I deserved such an honor, but I appreciated that he still felt such a connection. Or maybe our friendship was all he had left.

Billy’s troubles, like that darn stray neighborhood cat, followed him to Pennsylvania. He lived with me and my wife, on and off, for the better part of the next eight months. It was crowded in our small house, and challenging, with just one of us working. Sunny and I were still trying to figure out how to live as a married couple. Meanwhile, Billy was just trying to figure out how to live, and none of us was really having much success.

So we got a dog. “It was crowded…so we got a dog”? Well, that wasn’t really the reason, but that clumsy segue allows me to tell one of my favorite stories about Bill. He was home all day while I was at work and Sunny was taking classes, but we were trying to crate-train the puppy, McCartney, to get her used to being in there while we were away.

Well, McCartney was smart enough even at 15 weeks old to be able to tell when there was a person in the house, and she was not happy about being stuck in the crate while there was fun stuff like “napping” going on in other parts of the house. So Billy, unable to take said nap with the dog making all that noise, and unable to let her out for fear of what she would destroy when he did nod off, laid down next to her crate and promptly fell asleep that way: On the floor, halfway in the bedroom, half in the hallway, with one hand inside the bars so the puppy could touch him and be quieted. His excuse, when my wife found him that way (and woke him up with the camera flash) was, “She just wouldn’t stop barking.”

It was during this time that I realized how little I had known this man, whom I had referred to as my “best friend” so many hundreds of times. I learned about some of his deeper struggles, things we’d never discussed before. In high school our relationship had consisted mostly of sports and games, laughing at each other, and seeing who could punch the other one harder in the shoulder. He usually won those, of course.

But as adults, we had much deeper conversations, and he shared with me some of his struggles, some of the pains and trials that had marked the years we were apart, and really, most of his life. He opened up to Sunny even more than he did to me, partially because he got to spend a lot of time with her while I was working, and partially because she’s such a good listener. I admitted to him once that I never really understood why someone as cool as him would take so much interest in me as a friend, and to my great surprise, he said he had felt the same way about me. I got to know Billy better in those few months than I had in the 15 years we’d spent growing up together, and I treasure those memories now more than I ever thought I could.

I was sad to learn that he had a wife and two children I didn't know about, and I'm ashamed that I did so little to check up with him after he mved to New York. We all assumed that we had more time for that. We could always do it later.

There’s a hymn called “Jesus Paid it All” that talks about trusting God in our weakness, about God’s power being the only thing that alters anyone’s character, that softens anyone’s heart. Jesus’ blood covers all of our failings, and washes away all the myriad of ways in which we fail. My voice would fail to do this song justice, but those lyrics express our great hope for Billy, and for ourselves, that God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice will pay for our many sins.

I don’t pretend to understand this, to know why God would take someone so young, seemingly with so much life ahead of him, with a family to support and so much left undone. But I do know that God is ultimately in control of everything and everyone, and that nothing happens outside of his design and purposes. I’m not saying I agree with him on this one, but eventually we just have to admit that God knows a lot more than we do. He sees the whole of history at once, and he will not fail to accomplish his goals. One of those was bringing Billy home to be with him.

He must have heard how much fun Billy was.

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