A week ago, today, I lost a very special friend. His name was William C. Henning. Notice I didn’t say “old” friend, I said “special” friend—because Bill and I had only known each other for less than five months. That doesn’t make my loss any less profound. I believe each of us felt as if we’d been friends forever, which makes his passing even more painful.
This past June, I was fishing in the Catskills with three friends of mine, when we split up into pairs, and went our separate ways in two vehicles. Later that afternoon, we spotted each other at a fishermen’s parking lot, along the West Branch of the Delaware River in Deposit, New York, and reconnoitered. After a brief session of “who caught what on which flies,” we joined a small group of other fishermen, gathered around a gentleman who appeared to be “holding court.”
He was quite animated, and obviously well into telling a story that had everyone’s attention. Apparently, he was relating how he had been mistaken for Ernest Hemingway by a journalist, many years ago, when he was fishing down in Florida. The fellow had even written an article about Bill, which was published in Angler’s Journal. With his flowing gray hair, oversized mustache, and matching beard, it was hard not to see the resemblance.
After a while, my three companions migrated to the far end of the parking area to inspect a section of the river that was accessible only from there. I stayed with Bill. One by one, the few anglers who remained behind drifted away, until only the “Hemingway look-alike” and I were left alone. We introduced ourselves and broadened the conversation to topics other than fishing. I learned, for instance, that Bill was a semi-retired landscaping contractor, and that he had ridden motorcycles all his life, until just recently, when he had decided to give it up. I told him that I, too, had ridden some, but only in my younger years. Somehow the subject got around to the fact that I was an author, and I mentioned that I wrote a mystery series that was set in the surrounding area. We exchanged business cards, and promised to stay in touch via email. This wasn’t the first time I had made such an arrangement with a stranger, but to be honest, most never came to anything. For some reason, something about Bill told me that this time might be different—and it was.
Bill and I began to correspond almost immediately after he returned to Connecticut and I to North Carolina. Each of his emails was signed, “Friend, Bill.” I liked that, and began signing my emails in a similar fashion. After a time, he expressed interest in buying one of my mysteries. I autographed one, mailed it to him, and promptly forgot about it. About two weeks later an envelope arrived in the mail, containing more than double the cover price of the book in cash and a note saying “Take your wife for an ice cream on me.” I was flabbergasted. I immediately emailed him a thank you, and we continued to correspond throughout the summer.
Last month, Bill emailed me with some attached pictures of some fish he had caught, and one picture taken of his tent. I was immediately energized, because I have long wanted to return to tent camping, but didn’t want to do it alone. I broached the idea of planning a camping/fishing trip together the following year, and to my surprise, Bill eagerly agreed. I was elated. He gave me some good advice about tents, sleeping bags, etc., and within short order, I had purchased the basics. By now, Bill had finished reading the first book I had sent, and asked me to send the next mystery in the series.
This time, the money for the book arrived in a small, cardboard box. In addition to the cash for the book, there was a terrific LED camping light that Bill had had bought especially for me. I called him up and told him if he sent me another dime, I wouldn’t send him any more books. We had a good laugh. Not long afterward, I sent him a third book. And then, I had my stroke.
While I was in the hospital, Bill called me on my cell phone, unaware of where I was. He was shocked to learn of my illness. When I told him the details, his tone became very somber, and he said that if there was “anything at all” that I needed, or any way he could help, to please just ask, and he would be there for me. That was the kind of man Bill was. But I had already sensed that about him when I met him.
Last Sunday, I kept seeing Bill’s face in my mind’s eye—it appeared so many times that I finally decided to send him a text. “Did you get the new book I sent yet?” I texted. After a few minutes had passed without a reply, I went downstairs to join my wife in front of the TV. No sooner had I sat down then I heard the distinctive tone that indicated I had received a text. I went upstairs and checked my phone’s screen. “Is this Joe?” it read. I quickly texted, “This is Joe,” and thought what a strange reply that was, coming from Bill—but it wasn’t from Bill. Almost immediately, I was engaged in a text conversation with someone who identified herself as Bill’s girlfriend, Chris. “Bill passed away a few hours ago,” said the words that instantly brought tears to my eyes. I stopped texting, and called her immediately. She knew exactly who I was. She told me how Bill had had a massive heart attack, right after the two had finished dinner at a restaurant on their way home from a weekend in the Adirondacks. “He talked about you all the time, and about your books,” Chris told me.
After I got off the phone, I cried for hours. Only after I had swallowed a Xanax, was I finally able to drift off to sleep. The next morning, I searched desperately through my emails to find all the correspondence between Bill and me, so I could preserve what I could of his essence. But I had no photos, only the ones he’d sent of fish—and the tent. Suddenly, I realized I had never looked to see if he was on Facebook. I typed in his name, and there he was. Slowly, I scrolled through his timeline (he’d only been on Facebook for about three years) and discovered more and more about this man. I downloaded every picture I could. The more I learned about him, the more I liked him—and the more I realized how much I was going to miss him. He was a man who valued family and friends above all else. He was also a lover of nature. He loved everything about it, right down to the smallest bird. Bill was a gentle soul, and a loving person.
Sometimes in our lives, we are privileged to meet someone, and immediately we know that they are special. There is a kinship that is tangible from the start. “Friend, Bill” was one of those special people who God gives us as a gift. I am greatly saddened that he is gone, but I am comforted in the knowledge that we will meet again. Most likely, it will be on the shores of a Heavenly trout stream—and, of course, there will be a big tent, and a sign that will say something like, “Welcome home, Friend, Joe.”
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