For Gary J. Phillips, Rest in Peace

Gary with Santa 2016

 

So this is how our friendship began…..

Part 1 – Busted!

In the first three months of 2011, I lost my natural father, my daughter’s best friend, and my adoptive mother, in that order one each month. That started the downhill trend of one or two deaths per month after that; my aunt, friends, parents of friends. By the time the summer of 2012 arrived, I was beyond depressed.

To relieve the stress, I re-joined the Y, hoping to firm up the flab while detoxing my mind. As I stared at my thighs in the mirror (why do they put mirrors in front of exercise equipment anyway?) I made a pact with myself to work out two hours a day until I can fit back into my jeans.

But I didn’t want to talk with anyone. At all. I just wanted to block out the world, hide and work my ass off. So I completed circuit training before moving on to a treadmill and an elliptical, saving the stretch mats for last. There were small groups of people chatting with each other, which made me feel even worse. They were happy; I was the one who didn’t fit in. I was afraid that if I interacted with them, then they’d see what a mess I was. Or, I’d prove it by crying. Even the slightest bit of interpersonal interaction frightened me. I managed to keep some sort of false-face with polite eye contact, nodding and smiling as it was unavoidable moving from machine to machine.

In the evenings, I drove around the neighborhood, pulling into parking lots of stores that I’d never been to. In an attempt for distraction, I walked up and down the aisles of colorful household items, looking for something interesting. When boredom set in, I left to find someplace else in which to escape.

A drive along the Niagara River brought me to Old Man River, a popular summer eatery, to watch little kids eat hot dogs and ice cream with their parents. Tears welled up as I remembered that Mom and I sat right over there at that table last summer. And Old Man River was the same place Mom and Dad, my adoptive parents, took me when I was a kid. Dad was gone now for 30 years. Realizing how long ago that was made me think of my natural mother who died when I was an infant 56 years ago. Then I thought of how I screwed up my relationship with my natural father the last few years of his life because I was upset over an insulting comment he said to me. With a little bit more patience, I could have saved our relationship. My thoughts spiraled out of control. All four of my parents were dead. I was alone and had no clue of what to do for the rest of my life. Would I ever be able to enjoy the river again?

What could I do? Drinking did not appeal to me, except for the occasional Guinness, so I turned to my next drug of choice. Hot fudge sundaes. Over a period of about two months, I hit every Dairy Queen in the Town of Tonawanda – Kenmore area, at least twice. I was in denial and grieving.

In complete contradiction, I dutifully held to my schedule at the Y each morning. The same people were there, day in and day out. I was fine as long as no one spoke to me. But we had eye contact. I certainly didn’t want friends. I wanted peace of mind.

One particular evening, I parked my car in the lot of the closest Dairy Queen, the one on Elmwood, and got out to order a hot fudge sundae, feeling guilty. What am I doing? This isn’t helping my thighs any. With the sundae in my hand, I went back to my car, defeated by my own self-sabotaging behavior.

I sat in my car with the windows open, mindlessly glancing in front of my car as the hot fudge and cold ice cream swirled on my tongue. A man got out of his car parked next to mine on the right side, walked up to the trash can directly in front and to the left of me and deposited his trash. He turned around to walk back to his car. Just as I lifted another spoon filled with the intoxicating sweetness to my hungry lips, he looked right at me. In an instant, we recognized each other from the Y! We both laughed. He caught me red handed, gorging on fattening delights at dusk. But he wasn’t innocent, either. I didn’t catch him in the act, but that didn’t matter. Sneaking away from the trash can was evidence enough. We were both parked at the scene of the crime.

He shamed me off of ice cream.

The next morning, I went to the Y, still hiding behind my defensive wall. As I strode on the treadmill, a hand reached out, waving a photo in my face. “This is me and my band in the 60s!”

I’m out of breath, bobbing up and down and this clown wants me to look at a photo? I tilted my head and lifted my eyes to see the guy who spotted me at Dairy Queen the previous evening. That did it. He just had to tell me stories of his band. Crap. Now I have to interact with him. He talked practically non-stop, one funny story after another. He said his name is Bill. Then he introduced me to his friend, Gary. Now I knew the names of two men who had secretly made me laugh inside as I listened to their conversations from my wall of silence. Bill and Gary broke me of my defensive wall. Over time, the two of them helped me realize that there was life after death. Whatever time I had left, I decided to make the best of it.

In the days that followed our initial meeting, we gathered like clockwork in the hallway leading to the exercise equipment room. One morning, as we passed Sam standing behind the staff desk eating his breakfast with a spoon, Bill saw a smooth creamy white substance in the bowl. He pointed at it and asked me, “What’s this?”

I didn’t even have to sniff it. “It’s yogurt!”

“You sure it’s not ice cream?” Bill turned with a grin and bounced off to hit the machines. Sam looked up from his bowl. “What’s that all about?”

I chuckled. “Just a friendly reminder that he caught me eating a hot fudge sundae at Dairy Queen the other day. And I caught him throwing away his empty dish!”

Sam shook his head with a smile. “You are both so busted!”

Part 2 – What’s Phillip’s First Name?

Bill, Gary and I have been hamming it up every day since we met in early 2012. During one particular gaggle of giggles, Bill wryly dubbed us “The Three Musketeers.” In answer, Gary howled, “No, we’re more like The Three Stooges!”

But it wasn’t just fun and games. We had shared interests, talked of our families, and were concerned when one of us had to take care of a hospital visit, or different problem.

Gary’s wife, Sharon, brought in their three year old grandson several times. Bill’s wife, Barb, came in to walk on a treadmill. Barb, Bill and I chatted about our favorite music venue, exchanged some emails, and ran into each other at the Scottish Festival.

But mostly, it pretty much was the three of us, Bill, Gary, and me.

When Bill didn’t show up for weeks at a time, Gary and I wondered if he had gone down South to visit his grandchildren without telling us. Sometimes, it was simply the time of day that we missed each other at the Y. I quickly tired of circuit training, so I joined exercise classes, which left little time together in the Wellness Center’s exercise machine room where we first met. If we didn’t see each other there, we caught up later in the morning in the member’s lounge.

In April 2014, Bill joined pickle ball. Gary took time out to handle medical problems. We didn’t see much of each other for long periods of time.

One day, when Gary was peddling on a bike before having coffee with The Old Farts, Bill stopped by to chat with me as I took a break in the member’s lounge. He poked fun at religious cults, and then prattled on about pickle ball. Usually quick witted, Bill paused as he tried to tell me something about someone. He looked at me with a grin and said, “For the life of me, I can’t remember the guy’s name! You know, what’s his name?”

“Bill, I don’t know the pickle ball people at all. You do!”

“Sure you do! You see him all the time. Oh, come on! I can see his face clear as day! He’s uhh, uhh…Oh Darn! Oh, what’s his name? What’s Phillip’s first name?”

As soon as he asked the question he realized how absurd it sounded. Slapping his forehead and slumping to the tabletop, Bill collapsed in laughter.

“You okay?” I smirked, trying to hold back a snort as I watched Bill’s performance.

“Yeah, yeah. I just figured out Phillip’s first name! It’s Phillip! Phillip is Phil. Phil is Phillip. I got it now! What’s wrong with me? One third of The Three Musketeers is losing his mind! ” Bill got up and laughed all the way down the hall to the gym to continue playing pickle ball.

When Gary showed up, I relayed the entire scene to him.

“Who is this guy Bill’s talking about? Do you know him?” Gary asked.

“Nope, don’t have a clue,” I answered as I looked at my coffee cup.

“It appears that Bill has an imaginary friend. Alright, then. Oh, wait, maybe he means me! My last name is Phillips. See, the name is embroidered on my shirt.”

“Oh, that’s great!” I said. “Here’s what we’ll do. When Bill comes back in here, we’ll sit straight faced and ask him, “Hey Bill, what’s Phillips’ first name?” At the same time, I’ll nod at you, and point, if he still doesn’t get it.”

“And I’ll just sit here. Maybe I’ll wave.” With a squeal of delight, Gary added, “I don’t think I’ll be able to contain myself! I can’t wait to see Bill’s face when it dawns on him that this Phillips’ first name is Gary!”

We waited over another cup of coffee. It was fast approaching high noon. Gary had to leave. Bill didn’t come back that day. I headed for the shower.

The very next day, I joined several new hires as Strength Instructors in a four hour job training at the corporate office. This was serious business, but I couldn’t get Bill’s antics out of my mind. As the Director of another local Y went over YMCA history, mission statement, and our function at the Y, I giggled to myself. The Director glanced at me several times in an effort for me to focus, but that just made the stifled giggles continue. I couldn’t get Bill’s question out of my mind. Each time I saw his face, I cracked up laughing.

Driving home that afternoon, I felt humiliated. I made a nuisance out of myself during my first job training. Once I reached home, I called that other branch YMCA to speak to the Director. I apologized and told her that I meant no disrespect, but there was this funny situation that I couldn’t shake from my mind. She understood. “That’s quite alright. We all have moments like that. I admire you for calling to talk with me.”

I was grateful that she wasn’t irritated over my rude giggles. I could have lost the job before it even started.

Back at the Y on Monday morning, Gary and I came up with more scenarios with the question, “What’s Phillip’s first name?” And each one was at Bill’s expense.

Reminiscent of Gary’s time playing the saxophone and clarinet in pit orchestras, he called out, “And that’s it, Ladies and Gentlemen! The evening is almost over. To conclude our show, here’s Bill with his rendition of “What’s Phillip’s First Name?”

It was the perfect set-up. Back in the day, Bill was the lead singer of his Beatles’ band in the 1960s. Now he could sing his own special song.

That image just sent the two of us into hysterics. Missing Bill, the two remaining Musketeers kept on goofing off.

Over time, the joke was lost. Bill disappeared into the netherworld of pickle ball.

Just two weeks ago, nearly three years after the incident, I asked Bill if he remembered that moment. “No, I don’t.”

Sigh.

That was such a good routine.

What is now lost to time is very fresh for me. Whenever I’m feeling down, I ask myself, “What’s Philip’s first name?” and I’m back into the giggles.

The Three Stooges indeed.

Part 3 – This is Good Bye

Gary, we buried you today. Tuesday, August 7, 2018. You died Sat August 4, 2018.

I’m glad I saw you one last time last Thursday. It was brief, just twenty minutes, but we saw each other again. Your eyes sure sparkled when I told you I’m taking up boxing! It was good to hear your soft voice, to hug you, to hold your hand, to tell you how much I love you.

I remember in the winter of 2016-17, when I caught that horrible sinus infection, the one that lasted two straight months. I coughed continuously, feeling as though I was choking to death, and feeling very weak. You kept me alive. It was you, no one else, who texted me all throughout the day, and most of the evening, telling me to breath, to not give up. You gave me encouragement. You cared. When the snow hit and it seemed that the area would be snowed in, you texted me, saying, “Gary’s Bingo Hall is now open.”

Then there was Christmas. “Happy Festivus!” you texted me. Because we are both atheists, Christmas didn’t mean much, but Festivus did.

I felt bad. I missed the holidays, and my birthday in January. But you were right there, cheering me on, keeping me going.

I can’t thank you enough. Even when I went back to work, I coughed for weeks.

But you weren’t there. Your health declined. And on the rare occasion that you came in, it was a treat to see you! Such a bright, warm smile! And when we asked how you were feeling, your answer was always, “So far, so good!”

So, I’ll pretend we’re talking in the member’s lounge…

Oh, hey, Gary, what’s up with that speech pathologist who says that your grandson has to go to speech therapy to unlearn your Providence, Rhode Island accent? Come on! That’s a lovely accent you have! Tell that speech therapist you’ll move Jackson to Providence where everyone talks like that! Then, you watch, Jackson will fail speech classes over there. They’ll send him back to Kenmore because he’ll be speaking with a Ken-moron accent!

Oh, hey, Gaarrreee, I got another one for you! See, this foot surgery I had in January, well, it’s healing up ok, but I walk on the side of my left foot still, which is knocking my right hip out of alignment. Let’s go dancing! I’ll hop around lopsided, and you can keep the beat by shuffling along with me. The two cripples will hold each other up.

By the way, thank you so much for singing Happy Birthday to me this past January. That was so sweet of you. And yes, just like your son said at the service today, I saved that voice message. I think I will email it to myself to listen to each year on my birthday now.

Did I ever explain why I stayed away from visiting you in the nursing home? I thought you didn’t want me there. I thought you were too depressed and didn’t want me to see you sick. I shouldn’t have stayed away. I thought of you every day. I missed texting “Good Morning Garreeee!” I missed your texts to me, “Good morning Dorrissssss!”

So good of us to find a way to keep your Providence, Rhode Island accent going through texting!

Oh, back to today’s Service. Yes, your family was there, Sharon, of course, and your sons, Gary and David. But, your daughter, Amy, wasn’t there. I think I know why. More on this later… Your friends from work were there. And from the Y, all except Bill. Bill hasn’t been the same since Barb died. So the Old Farts – Jim, Don, Guy, and the other Don – and their wives were there. Sandy from Zumba and Buff State, she was there, too. You would have loved the stories we told!

So, this is it.

After the service at Congregation Shir Shalom, we all drove to the cemetery. Everything was so very quick, no time to think. The funeral director ran out of roses, so I bent down and snapped off a small purple flower in the grass. I placed it on your casket, and said through my tears, “I love you, Gary.” Did you hear me?

Then, they lowered your casket.

One by one, we shoveled dirt on top of your casket. One shovel upside down, and then three more, to take responsibility in burying you.

My thoughts swirling in my mind…Gary, I’m sorry we had that falling out in April and May of 2016. That was such a hurtful time for both of us. I couldn’t believe you were so angry with me. You read my memoir and then wouldn’t tell me your thoughts. Why? Because you didn’t like how my life turned out? Because you didn’t understand my adoption? That day you made snarky comments at me in the Wellness Center, around Easter time 2016, you told me that I was too smart for you, that I knew big words, and that I knew more than you did. Gary, you didn’t make sense. Was that the cancer talking? Were you mad at me because you were jealous of me? Because I wrote a book? Because I am taking action against the negativity in my life by being a social change agent – being the social worker I went to college to be? Or, were you angry at me because you and your first wife adopted Amy? You kept saying that she has her original birth certificate, that she doesn’t want to search, and that she’s fine. I wish we could have talked it all out. It was so hard to see you every day in the Wellness Center after that and avoid each other. For six months. Or was it eight? I’m so glad that you timidly came up to me one day and asked if we could put the past behind us and be friends. You don’t know how much that meant to me, to have you back.

But then, I think you can. You once said, “I love you more than you know.”

It’s that rare friend who comes along and changes your life. You are that friend to me. I will love you forever, and, I love you more than you will ever know. I will see you on the other side someday, Garrreeee.

2017 Gary J. Phillips
Gary posing as Keith Richards 2017