A Year Later
Bill Henry died almost a year ago, on May 9, 2015, the day before Mother’s Day and just four days shy of his 56th birthday. As this awful anniversary approaches, I have been trying to put the past year without my friend into some sort of perspective. My thoughts took me to the last episode of “M*A*S*H.” One of the characters, Charles Emerson Winchester, was a classical music aficionado who would play his records whenever he could. On the finale he found a group of POW musicians and made them into a makeshift orchestra. Just as they were coming together, his group is sent back to North Korea as part of a prisoner exchange. On the way, their truck gets shelled and all are killed. When peace is declared, all of the characters say what their life will be like back home. Charles, still reeling from his loss, says “My life will go on pretty much as I expected, with one exception. For me, music was always a refuge from this miserable experience, and now it will always be a reminder.”
Now I certainly do not claim a miserable experience, let alone anything close to a war. Yet, in thinking about Bill, that line resonated. As I have written often before, film has long been my refuge from pressures, annoyances, and frustrations. No matter how low I may feel, I could always go to a movie theater to be reinvigorated. That’s changed now, at least to some degree. When the lights go down the pleasure still remains, and a good film can take me to all sorts of places. It’s when the lights go up again that I feel the void. This is especially true at the E Street Cinema, and even more so at a screening. I look at the front row, center seat and it’s empty.
Bill was the person I most wanted to talk to about a film, either to compare notes about one we had both seen or to get his take on something I hadn’t viewed. If we agreed the conversation would be fun, but if we disagreed it would be even better. We both loved trying, and failing, to convince, the other one. He may not have swayed me, but I was always impressed with his analysis and his clever, eloquent way of making his points.
It’s not too long after any film that I wonder, “What would Bill have thought of that?” Bill’s mother even asked me whether he would have liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I replied that I thought so. If I could have completely predicted Bill’s reactions he would have been much less interesting. Still, I do have some idea of what Bill enjoyed and appreciated in a film. I could see him recommending Spectre, while acknowledging its shortcomings. If I had to guess, he would agree with me that the last 30 minutes of The Hateful Eight went off the rails. However, he would have been much less forgiving than I of Batman v Superman, in part because he would not have had his expectations lowered like I did.
Most of all I’d love to get Bill’s reaction to Spotlight. Bill was a devout Catholic, who attended mass regularly and discussed dogma with ease. His strong faith did not blind him to the Catholic Church’s serious problems. Bill addressed those freely, and I could see how much the reports of abuse and misconduct upset him. He had no tolerance for those whose actions did not match their words, or for those who would use the religion he valued so deeply to hurt others. Philomena struck a chord with Bill. He told me that Philomena’s capacity to forgive the nuns who had stolen her son exemplified what Catholicism should be. I think Bill would have recognized the skill and precision in how Spotlight told its story. More than that, he would be the first one to hope that the film would help shine attention on the victims who could not come forward, the perpetrators who got away with their crimes, and a system that swept the issue under a rug.
This past year, I cannot count the number of times I wanted to get Bill’s reaction to what was happening, going well beyond film. Last August, a Jets player punched out his own quarterback. In October, the Mets made the World Series for the first time since 2000. Then, in December, the Jets, surprise contenders, narrowly missed the playoffs. All of this would have been prime Bill Henry material. I try to imagine Bill’s take on the Presidential primary season. I don’t know what he might have said about Donald Trump, but it would have been gold.
Bill permeates more than specific topics. My wife Sarit and I will be in a situation or say something that will out of the blue remind us of Bill. A couple of weeks ago, Sarit went into DC to meet me for what turned out to be a disappointing film. Walking to the car, I told her I was sorry for having her come out. Instantly I thought of Bill getting me into a screening. If the film did not measure up, he would often apologize and then quickly add, “Although the person who really should apologize is [INSERT NAME OF BAD FILM’S DIRECTOR].”
I would be more likely to call Bill during the day as he usually had screenings at night. Before I knew it 20-30 minutes had gone by, and it was long past time for me to get back to work. Now with Bill gone, I wish I had called him more, which I suppose is only natural. Sometimes weeks would go by without us speaking, not because of anything more than busy lives and procrastination. In fact, I let the last ten days of his life go by without communicating before I sent him an e-mail that he never had the chance to read. I try to avoid getting myself stuck in regret, but it’s difficult sometimes. Shortly after Bill died, I talked with a childhood friend who works as a hospice chaplain. He told me, “You never get over it.” I figured, given his wisdom and his line of work, that he knew what he was talking about. Time has certainly proven him correct.
My attempts to put all of this in perspective have failed. I do not have any epiphanies, and no sense of what this all means, other than that I miss my friend and wish he was here. Many times Bill cited a quote from “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels: “We don't go on because we're ready. We go on because it’s 11:30.” At first, I just laughed at that line. Over time I eventually understood its relevance, not just in its context, but in life. A year later, I am not ready. Not even close. But it’s 11:30 now.
May 1, 2016