If there were ever a contest for the most unique person, I would enter my father, Bill Deguire. He moved through the world with such brash assurance, you had to like him, even if you weren’t inclined to. His voice was loud, his sneeze was thunderous, his laugh was a lion’s roar. He didn’t care if you thought he was too loud. He didn’t even notice.
Bill was the only child of adoring parents, and he lived his life assuming that you would adore him too. He was charming, chatting easily with strangers in line, and playing peek-a-boo with their babies. He had a wide toothy smile and was a constant flirt. He was blessed and cursed to be the life of every party.
“Bill, play the piano!”
All his life, Bill responded enthusiastically, perching on his piano bench, and pounding out every song the guests requested. My dad could play any song by ear, having only heard the tune once. He could adjust the key of the song instantly, accommodating a less-than-stellar voice of a party guest. He would play for hours, grinning, thumping his left foot in delight.
There came a time when it burdened him to play for parties. There came a time when his energy sagged, and when he could no longer instantly play the chords. I would have never thought this light could dim, but it did, in 1993, when my dad contracted AIDS.
Perhaps it is worth stating that in 1993, contracting AIDS was a death sentence. We all knew men who had wasted away into emaciated skeletons, howling in pain, and often dying without family comfort. My dad knew many of these men too, but he did not spend time feeling sorry for himself. He didn’t even get angry at the man who deceived him about his HIV status. My dad just got on with it.
In the face of his approaching death, Bill traveled the country, visiting old friends. He flew to Iceland. He threw himself a massive 66th birthday party. I never heard him complain or bemoan his fate. He kept going cheerfully, engaging in the activities he loved for as long as he could.
When his world began to shrink, Bill accepted the changes, without complaint. His vision became impaired, so I was forced to tell him that he had to stop driving. Instead of yelling at me, he listened carefully and said, “all right,” handing over his car keys. When he spent his last December in a hospital, he was resolute. He brightened up when we took him out for Christmas morning, and did not complain when he had to return to the hospital that same night.
My dad kept playing the piano, but you could see his gift fading. That Christmas, he sat down to play “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” from his beloved Meet Me in St. Louis. We sang it together, like we had for so many years. But then… His hands paused mid-air. He looked at me, his eyebrows knitted, his face looking like a child’s. He had forgotten the chords to a song he had known all his life. We stared at each other, aghast.
A moment passed. Eyes locked on his, I sang to him, “Someday soon we all will be together…” Instantly he smiled, head nodding vigorously. His hands found the chords again and we finished the song, for the last time. To this day, I cannot bear that line, “someday soon we all will be together”. It was, in fact, our last Christmas, together. And I don’t know if “someday soon” we will ever "be together" again.
I hope so.
Even dying in hospice, my dad was a model of resilience. With the last energy he had left, he charmed his nurses. He was a kind patient, never whining or taking out his distress on others. When it was his time to go, he let go of his life quietly, without complaint or fear.
My dad was not a perfect man, nor was he a perfect father. Bill had many limitations. However, he lived the end of his life admirably and I learned a lot from watching him. Here are some of the lessons on resilience that I think Bill Deguire would want you to know:
1) Tragedies happen. Do not waste time roiling against that which can’t be changed. Accept your lot and keep going.
2) Focus instead on making the most of what you have.
3) Do what you love. If you love music, listen to it. If you love nature, get outside. If you love travel, go for it.
4) Value the people in your life, spend time together, and have fun.
5) Try not to complain much. It will put you in a bad mood and nobody likes a whiner.
6) Throw yourself your own damn party. Enjoy life as much as you can, and when it’s done, let go with grace.
My dad isn’t here to throw his own birthday party this week, when he would have turned 90. I celebrate him, and I hope you are inspired by his story.
Now, go have some fun!
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.