Rich Willis and I first met in the 1980s while working as performers in the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Entertainment Division. We only worked together for roughly four years, but over the following six years we ran into one another on numerous occasions around the Disney property despite our divergent career paths.
Fifteen years later, I returned to Orlando after a decade-long stint in Los Angeles. My homecoming very much resembled that of the Prodigal Son, but with no fancy robe, ring for my finger, or fatted calf roasting on a spit in my honor. I kept a low profile and told friends of my return only when I ran into them at social gatherings. I learned of Rich’s illness at one such get-together.
In May 2006, while making a hurried exit from a coworker’s wedding reception, a friend and I saw a man and a woman off in the distance. The woman waved at me, but I didn’t recognize her.
“Who is that?” I asked my friend.
“That’s Connie Willis,” my friend said.
“Hey, Connie,” I yelled and returned her wave in kind.
The guy with her waved at me as well, but I couldn’t place him as his posture seemed a bit stooped which led me to believe that he was several years older than Connie and someone other than Rich. My friend and I waved back, got into the car to escape the heat, and drove off.
“Who’s that old guy with Connie?” I asked my friend.
“It’s not official, but we think he has cancer.”
The speculation about Rich’s health saddened me. I wished I had stayed at the reception a little longer. Rich and I weren’t best friends, but we worked together several years and discussed our immediate post-Entertainment career plans (mine graphic design, his photography). On the way home, I couldn’t shake the fact that I missed the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend.
June 25, 2009.
I walked out of the movie theater steeped in that cheery feeling I get from watching romantic-comedies. The state of my union: sunshine and lemonade from sea to shining sea.
A tweet that appeared on my cell phone from CNN ended my rose-colored disposition.
Michael Jackson is dead.
I trudged across the parking lot and sat stunned in my sun-baked car. I didn’t know Jackson personally, but I knew his music very well. Who didn’t? My own mortality came to the front of my mind. The King of Pop was only two years older than me.
My phone vibrated as it lay on the passenger’s seat. The message—
Rich Willis was sent home
from the hospital with hospice care.
Hospice? I knew what that meant.
My car shielded me from a passerby’s gaze and freed me of any inhibition to sob from the depths of my soul. I didn’t care who saw me grieving over the inevitable loss of my friend.
Two weeks earlier, Rich and I sat in his living room and chatted. Sure, he seemed a little tired, anyone would with all he endured over the last three years; but he was fully engaged in our conversation. Yes, I was surprised only a few days later when he rolled into a Cracker Barrel restaurant on a newly-acquired motorized wheelchair—with an oxygen tank strapped to the back of it—and Connie at his side to have breakfast with a cadre of old friends, which included me. I remembered thinking how much older he looked since the last time we got together, but he still had that unmistakable twinkle in his eyes.
It all made sense. The disease had progressed further than he let on or than I noticed.
And nothing made sense.
Why? What was God thinking? No good could come of this.
No one deserved to die of cancer, least of all Rich. He was a husband to Connie, and a father to two kids. I imagined what lay ahead for them. The news about Rich sliced open the emotional wound of losing my own father fifteen years ago and I found myself awash with abject grief. Every thought pounded the tears from my eyes.
Within two days, Rich died.
Three years later . . .
We, former Disney performers—or anyone in the entertainment industry, for that matter—have never needed a reason to get together. For as long as I can remember, a mere mumbling of the words “let’s go to” motivated people to gather en masse. So a special occasion like a dear friend’s surprise fiftieth birthday party gave everyone ample cause to schlep over to Daytona Beach from Orlando to see one another.
I reached the waterfront bar-and-grill long before the guest of honor arrived and found the party well underway.
Amidst the chit-chat, clatter, and middle-aged bodies, I scanned the room to see who made the guest list and spied John Beck, a former coworker, across the room. I winced, an appropriate reaction given our history, but before I turned away, he spotted me.
I smiled, nodded, and raised my glass in acknowledgment in his general direction, then spun on my heels and dove headlong into the nearest conversation.
“Sailor Jerry?” I asked. “No, I don’t think I’ve heard of that rum before. Is it any good?”
“Have a sip,” Dawn, an old friend and former coworker, said.
I took a swig of her Sailor Jerry and Coke. I felt like the rum ate away the lining of my esophagus as it went down.
“Oh, that’s smooth,” I coughed. “You can barely taste the Coke.”
Carl, Dawn’s husband, flagged down a waitress. “Excuse me, Miss. Could you get my friend here a Sailor Jerry and Coke?”
“Easy on the Jerry, heavy on the Coke,” I said.
Before the waitress could respond, John had bolted across the room and elbowed his way into our group, knocking her off balance.
“John!” Dawn said, scolding him.
“Excuse me, hon,” John said.
“Not a problem,” the waitress said and left, very much annoyed.
“Clay Rivers,” John said.
“John, good to see you,” I said, wondering if he could tell I was flat out lying. It didn’t matter to him because he went on to tell me about all the new developments in his life; namely his new marriage and new job. I noticed a change in him. Nothing as obvious as a new haircut, but something in the core of his demeanor came across as different. And disarming. Sort of.
“You ready to start on that book about Rich?” he asked.
I felt like I walked in on the middle of a movie. “I’m not working on a book about Rich.”
“I know. That’s why you need to start. Last I heard, Rich’s friend in North Carolina was working on it,” he said. The veins in his neck started to plump up. “She’s had it for a couple of years and nothing’s happened. You need to talk to Connie about writing it.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. “I’m not talking to Connie about writing a book.”
“She’s around here somewhere,” John said. “You’ve already written one book and from what I hear people like it a lot. You know her. You and Rich were friends—”
“John, I’m not asking Connie anything.”
There had been no change in John at all. My optimism about his transformation downgraded itself to wishful thinking.
His eyes darted around the room in search of Connie. He found her, a few tables away.
“Connie, Clay’s here,” he called out.
She turned and gave an enthusiastic wave. I shrugged my shoulders and cocked my head to the side as if to say, that John, this is why we love him. No bigger lie had ever been pantomimed in the history of man. I wanted to crawl into a hole, but not before I pushed John off the nearest pier. I ran for the men’s room.
I dreaded the inevitable interaction with Connie the close surroundings would bring. We crossed paths only a couple of times since Rich’s memorial service three years prior. As far as I could remember, I hadn’t openly expressed my condolences about Rich’s passing. Grief was a messy emotion for me. I didn’t know what to say to her, let alone approach her, even if I wanted to write about her husband, which I didn’t.
I ran our inevitable exchange in my head—
“Hi, Clay. John says there’s something you want to speak with me about.”
“No, I don’t … well, yes. John says I should speak with you about writing a book about your deceased husband.”
Connie breaks down into tears. The world stops spinning on its axis. The party jolts to a stop and all eyes bore holes into me. My words are all wrong. The time is all wrong. It’s too soon.
On my way back to the party, I decided that scene would never play out.
The waitress returned with my Sailor Jerry and Coke. I felt the burn.
Soon after, the guest of honor, Fog—an apt nickname for a 6’5”–tall guy with a booming voice who regaled stories much like Foghorn Leghorn, the boisterous Warner Bros. cartoon rooster—made his entrance with his wife, daughter, and son.
“Surprise!” Everyone said.
For the first time, at least as far as I could remember, Fog was speechless. I relished seeing someone else at a loss for words.
After taking a few sips of my Sailor Jerry and Coke, my apprehensions relaxed their choke hold on me about speaking to Connie. We went through a few uninterrupted rounds of What’s New in Your Corner of the World. She updated me about her work and her kids—Aimee and Trek—now twenty-one and sixteen years old. I mentioned publishing my first book and all that the process entailed. All the while, John stalked us a few feet away, ready to elbow his way into the conversation if the need arose.
I took control of the situation.
“I guess you know John wants me to ask you how Michelle is coming with the book about Rich,” I said.
“I don’t really know where she is with it,” Connie said. “I haven’t heard anything.”
“John seems to think that Michelle hasn’t done anything with it and that I should ask you about writing it.”
There. I said it. I shot John a look of ‘mission accomplished’ and moved my thoughts on to placing an order for Buffalo wings.
“That sounds like a good idea to me,” Connie said.
Wait! Say what now?
Connie continued. “I’ll check with her and see what’s going on. If there’s been no movement on her end, you’re more than welcome to write it.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Sure. Why not?”
“What?” Connie said.
“I wasn’t expecting that response.”
“What would you need to get started?”
“I’d guess I’d need to re-read all of Rich’s blog posts.”
John approached. “That wasn’t that hard, was it?”
“No,” I said. “Not at all. Thanks to Sailor Jerry.”
The week after fog’s surprise birthday party, Connie reached out to Michelle. As it turned out, Michelle had her hands full with a recent relocation, not to mention caring for an ill parent. Between the two, she had no time to even think about working on a book. Connie checked links for Rich’s blog only to find the bookmarks inoperative. Her daughter’s search for back-up copies of her father’s writings proved fruitless. In short, there were no copies of Rich’s writings to be found.
Then it hit me. I knew exactly what happened to Rich’s online posts. And it wasn’t good.
I spoke with Connie and told her that Rich hosted his blog on Apple servers. I hosted a photoblog there, too, and remembered that for the past six months Apple sent copious notifications to service subscribers to back-up or find alternate hosting for blogs and websites as they were discontinuing their web-hosting services at the end of June 2012. All data left on their servers at the end of the following month would be erased. And chances were no one else in Rich’s family knew of those notifications.
My heart sank. If we had only started this process a month earlier, we’d have had access to copies of Rich’s writings.
The next day, during a conversation with Connie, Michelle revealed that not too long after Rich’s passing, Aimee forwarded her all of Rich’s blog posts compiled into a single Word document. Michelle gladly forwarded them to Connie who in turn forwarded them to me.
If not for Michelle, Rich’s writings might have been lost.
My friendship and firsthand experience with Rich provided the context for me to fully appreciate his writings and compelled me to undertake telling his story. I knew the best way for those who did not know Rich to gain a better understanding of his compassion, his sense of humor, and his faith was to share his posts in the context of his life. And that is what I have done: interspersed Rich’s blog posts (written by his own hand, in his own parlance, and labeled “Update,” followed by a number, and title) with interviews I conducted with those who knew him best, his family and close friends.