Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Beautiful Boy

I haven't posted here for quite some time.  From henceforth this blog will include not only my thoughts and observations on creativity and education, but also on issues surrounding drug addiction, which claimed the life of my son, William Head Williams.  A number of people have asked to read the eulogy I offered at his memorial service.  Herewith, what I had to say about my beautiful boy:

Thank you all for being here with us in this elegant, landmark church, in honor of our beautiful son and brother. Thank you to Reverend Douglas Ousley for his counsel and generosity.  Time, because there are so many who have done so much for us and most especially for William; and my memory, which will doubtless falter under stress and cause me to omit an important name; time and memory prohibit me from listing by name everyone who has aided and comforted us in this, our greatest time of need. You are in our hearts.   
A eulogy:  to speak well of a person.  Given my years of encouraging young people to speak well, I pray I may now emulate their success. In offering consolation, many of you have mentioned the inadequacy of words to describe the loss, the frustration, the anger, the heartache, and the grief we all share.  I find myself mired in that inadequacy now.  I resort to three words from the most articulate of all named William….Shakespeare:  “Action is eloquence.” 
But for this moment, at the beginning, as it was in the beginning, the word.  Over 35 years ago, with Doug Ousley presiding, Margot and I exchanged a vow to have and to hold each other…”from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…” Some among you celebrated with us that day.  Part of the beauty of that vow is the strength and grace Margot has shown in confronting challenges put in our path.  Eloquence in action.  That same vow offered us the opportunity to love and to cherish, not just each other, but also the arrival of two remarkable gifts, Elizabeth Hope Williams and William Head Williams.  Evidence that a vow sincerely honored may yield beauty of the highest order.    
A eulogy: to speak well of a person.  That does not mean exaggeration, to extol a person who never was.  William would abhor the hypocrisy inherent in such embellishment.  William will never become Saint William.  He will remain a young man tormented by the self-doubt, fear, frailty, and fragility that confront us all in some measure.  Try though we might, we will never know the measure of William’s shortcomings.  Nor will we ever know the full measure of William.
To the naming:  William Williams.  People often make fun of the name.  “Who named you that?”  “ Who did THAT to you?”  On the telephone it goes like this:  “Last name….Williams….first name….William…..no, first name….William…William Williams?”  And so it goes. There are many variations on this name game.  Trust me, I’m a veteran player. 
In September of 1946, a short two months after I was born, I received a letter from two relatives, Uncle Jim and Cousin Will French.  They wrote in part:
“Dear William:
This is written to help you to some day recognize your distinction as the Fifth William Williams in direct descent from your great-great-grandfather William Williams, born in Groton, N.Y. on February 20, 1816, just 130 years, 4 months and 22 days previous to your arrival; and further, that while the name of the father of this William was Benjamin, his grandfather was another William Williams, born in Taunton, Mass. on November 11, 1749, who was a soldier in the war of the American Revolution of which it is hoped you will learn much in the future.  Going back to your great-great-grandfather William Williams of Groton it will some day be of interest for you to know that as a young man he taught school in Port Republic N.J. “
So when William’s greeting on his cell phone went, “You‘ve reached William Williams the Seventh, please leave a message”, he wasn’t just being a wise guy, he was correct, or at least cleverly correct.  Of the seven of us, our days, but never our names, have been numbered. 
A eulogy, to speak well of a person.  I’ve too little time to speak of too little time.  Certainly, for much of his time, William was nourished by what we call “The White Diet”.  Yogurt, rice, and pasta; yogurt, rice, and pasta; pasta with butter only.  “What’s for dinner?,” for William meant, what shape was the pasta?  Even now, a quick glance at our cupboard yields spaghetti, medium shells, fusilli, wagon wheels, stelline, medium tubetti, more shells, and rings.  On a family trip to see the World Cup in France in 1998 Margot would carefully instruct waiters to bring the pasta plain, only with butter.  French cooks couldn’t resist a little garnish, perhaps some parsley to enhance the presentation.  William would either pick his way around the parsley contaminated pieces, or we’d send the dish back to be laundered.  A baseball bat given as a Christmas present was engraved “Iron Will”.  Flexibility and William seldom met in a single package. 
One of William’s resolute stances had to do with religion.  He eschewed orthodoxy and authority of any stripe.  On the matter of religion he announced to his family, “I don’t want God at my wedding or my funeral.” Today, we honor that request in the main, albeit here at The Church of the Incarnation.  However, if we’ve disobeyed him ever so slightly, he spent a fair amount of his time disobeying us, ever so slightly.
School upped the ante on disobedience.  Or at the least, resistance.  As those who knew him know, Will did not suffer fools gladly. The older he got, the more he hated school, the more trouble we had getting him there, the more trouble he got into once there.  His list of schools is like the list of pasta in the cupboard.  Varied with lots of twists. William disliked teachers who were in love with their power as opposed to their teaching. There is no short supply of this breed in schools; hence there was no short supply of opposition for him to engage with. School administrators tend to be less subtle about their affection for power.  And, no surprise, less subtlety returned on William’s part.  Once, in sixth grade, a principal called his new student William into his office.  Some other boys had apparently been involved in some prank or malfeasance in the boys’ bathroom.  William, as a bystander, saw it happen.  When pressured for details by the principal, William’s response was, “I know, but I won’t tell you.”  The man was enraged. William stood his ground, not letting the principal intimidate him into ratting someone out. 
His eighth grade year, at the end of the year, at the end of a particularly difficult day, he sat in an orchestra rehearsal. When a teacher chided him for having a button undone on his shirt, he’d had enough. He took the shirt off and when told to leave, did cartwheels out of the room. 
On the other hand, even with minimal schooling, he got a perfect score on one of his college boards, the writing and grammar section.  If he was ever around Margot when she was writing about him on the computer, and saw that she wrote WM as short for William, William would scold her and say, "Mom write the name William out; otherwise you just look LAZY." 
Ultimately the question became not what school was right for William, but whether school was right for William.  Ironically, on the day he died, The New York Times Sunday Styles section ran a cover story on young people who consider college an option, not an obligation.  “…a vanguard, committed to changing the perception of dropping out from a personal failure to a sensible option, at least for a certain breed of risk-embracing mavericks.”  William blazed their trail.  He was in many ways an autodidact. His mother says that sounds pretentious.  Okay, he was self-taught.   He’d spend hours on the computer investigating various enthusiasms. He’d download books on economics.  He subscribed to The Economist. On one car trip Margot slept, I drove, and William listened to a lecture on quantum physics.  By far, his consuming passion was the trading of stocks.  The summer he was seventeen, while peers were struggling with college essays, he wrote an incredibly compelling letter to several trading firms, asking for work, or at the least the opportunity to come in and to learn. In two cases he was invited in for interviews. In each he persuaded successful businessmen to take him on.  One, his first mentor, Rob Falco, joins us today.  By the late fall, as soon as he turned 18, he was trading for real. The boy who couldn’t get out of bed for school, was up and out the door faithfully, returning home late following after hours trading research and review.  Fellow traders nicknamed him “The Filter” for his ability to quickly recognize trading opportunities. He acquired another important mentor, Frank Accardi. He proudly earned his first positive day, his first day in the black; then his first week in the black, than his first month. When he realized his hard work was putting too much money in someone else’s hands, he boldly negotiated better deals for himself and switched firms.  At nineteen, he’d hit his stride.  Trading at home he looked like the commander of some spacecraft, four or five screens flashing away, headphones on talking to other traders, sometimes training newcomers online.
Flush with success, William announced he was going to travel.  Singapore, Thailand, Italy, England….Amsterdam. Then home and insistently off to live on his own.  Boy/man of many talents and passions: trading, hockey goalie, martial artist, mathematics, politics, philosophy, soccer, writing, entrepreneurship, …ladies man.
And then, gradually, trading waned.  Drugs intruded rudely and William went from day trader to trading his days.  It is customary to speak of drug withdrawal as part of one’s recovery.  I think of it differently, withdrawal as the inexorable advance of the disease.  Excessive time spent sleeping with no regard for the natural rhythms of day and night, lack of interest or motivation for former passions, less and less time and contact with friends, lack of concern about personal hygiene, deception to oneself and to others in service of a habit, avoiding engagement with family, outright hostility when confronted.  A retreat from outstretched hands.
I would exchange Withdrawal as we now use it for the term Reentry.  A physically, emotionally, spiritually painful engagement with the world as it is.  A painful engagement with one’s true self.  A process that allows others back into one’s life, truth as a tool, and the recognition that the task cannot be accomplished alone.  William tried.  Part of William’s Reentry included this reflection on “Good Things about Myself” written in a rehab setting.                         
I am handsome/good looking.
                                    I can have a future/my life is ahead of me.
                                    I am a problem solver.
                                    I am gaining back the weight I lost from abusing drugs.
The process of recovery is long and hard.  William’s reentry was partial, denied by heroin’s Siren call.
We have been robbed by a disease called Addiction and its criminal accomplice Heroin. Robbed of playing catch on the lawn, bocce ball, dark humor, cigarettes on the stoop, building with Legos, fierce and courageous loyalty to friends, right on the money analysis of people, situations and numbers, snow forts, a flash of the pads for a save, and the sweetness, strength, inspiration, and love of William.  
So now, more than thirty-five years since we first made a vow in front of Doug Ousley, Elizabeth joins Margot and me in this pledge to William in front of you all:  We promise to do everything in our power to educate and inform people about drug abuse and its prevention, to provide ever more enlightened treatment for addicts, to help make treatment options for addicts more readily available, and to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease.  We ask you all, as witnesses, to give us the same kind of strength and support you have so lovingly offered over the last several weeks, as we strive to honor our word.  Action is eloquence.

Where There’s a Will
Through The New York Community Trust, William’s family has established The Where There’s a Will Fund to educate and inform people about drug abuse and its prevention, to provide ever more enlightened treatment for addicts, to help make treatment options for addicts more readily available, and to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease.  Charitable donations may be made to:
Community Funds, Inc.
fbo The Where There’s a Will Fund

The New York Community Trust
909 Third Avenue
New York, NY  10022