Bill McKeen’s Dream

Reader’s Digest used to have a feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” When Sonny Bono died, Cher delivered the eulogy and said that Sonny was her nominee for that role.

This is Part 42 of my Asshole memoir.

Mine is Jerome Laizure. I knew him for only four years in the mid-eighties. We wrote or called only sporadically in the years after I moved away from Oklahoma, but he was always on my mind.

He ran the printing operation of the Oklahoma Daily during my years teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. His office was on the other side of the building, and we’d often hang out in the no-man’s-land in between, in the journalism school’s main lobby.


Jerry was fearless. The man had no filter, and I loved him for that.

“Hey, Jerry,” I’d say. “Ed Carter wants to talk to you.”

“Well, he can just kiss my cracked ass,” Jerry’d say in that deep-gut twang.

Didn’t matter who was standing within earshot. Jerry was Jerry and he said whatever was on his mind. He never worried about what people thought. He was ill-disposed to kiss any ass on the planet.

He was one of the strongest, most ethical people I ever knew.

I realize that this kiss-my-cracked-ass thing doesn’t endear him to you, but context is everything. You had to be there. He was a Picasso of profanity. I should solicit our shared friends for more examples of his brilliance with blue language, which put him in the same rarefied and profane air as Hunter S. Thompson. But even if I compiled a three-volume catalog of his swears, it would detract from what I want to say.

Rough on the surface, he was unsentimentally sentimental. He could go zero-to-60 with curses in record time. Above and beyond these theatrical qualities, he was an intelligent, sincere and wise dude. He shepherded scores of students into careers as journalists and was, during a difficult time in my life, my conscience and my great friend.

He left the university and started a weekly newspaper in a nearby small town and later went on to a distinguished career in photojournalism. I was gone by then, but could still admire his work. If anything happened in Oklahoma — and lots of things did that made the national magazines — look at the photo credit. Good chance it was Jerry’s work.

He and I were about the same age and so I have to say that when he died some years back, he was much too young. Much.

He’d been dealing with a number of health issues and in our infrequent communiqués, he’d tell me of all the things he could no longer do.

His death was a shock to me, but perhaps not so to those closest to him. He was not tall, but still managed to be a towering figure, larger than life. I didn’t understand how fragile he was.

He was deeply loved. When he died, his Facebook page turned into a tribute, a virtual temple of bouquets left by those whose lives he touched. In the days after his death, I’d look at his page every few hours, to read the new bouquets left by friends. The family posted pictures of the funeral, and his children wrote about how fortunate they were to have him as a father.

A week or so after his death, I checked his Facebook page on a Sunday night. Peggy, his wife — now widow, I suppose — had posted: “Damn it, Jerry. Where’d you leave the remote?”

Man, they loved each other, and they set a high bar. We should all be so lucky to have a relationship like theirs.

Jerry in 2012, near the end

Back in the old days, back in the eighties when our children were small, I used to love to hear Jerry talk about his kids. “I got three,” he’d say. “One of each: a boy, a girl, and Jackson.”

Maybe that’s a subliminal reason I have a son named Jackson. (I’d been pushing for Elvis, and the family history is murky on how he became Jackson, but Jerry’s son might be the reason I didn’t put up a fuss when the name was suggested.)

Jerry’s death shook me as much as a death in my biological family. There were few pre-cancer times when I had such a sense of fragility.

I hadn’t seen him in years, but he was there, in my head, and at the other end of the keyboard when we’d exchange messages.

I’d moved away to Florida and always wanted him to come visit, telling him to bring the family, to stay at my house, and have a cheap-ass trip to Disney World. He said he’d come, but it never happened. He was always working.

I wanted to take myself back to the old days, when Jerry would saunter across the lobby to my office. I was doing a term as assistant director of the school, stuck in an windowless box in the administrative suite. I’d hear the outer door open, but couldn’t see who was there. Then I’d hear him gently growl at the receptionist.

“Is that useless dipshit in?” He was from Bartlesville and had an oilfield twang. The receptionist giggle would follow, no doubt accompanied by her finger pointing toward my office.

Then he’d darken my door: “Are we going to eat or what?”

So we’d amble across the street — Jerry never went anywhere with dispatch — to our local burger joint, the appropriately named Mister Bill’s. We had the menu memorized and each day had a different special — the California Burger, the Grandma Burger, the Salsa Burger and so on. We ordered in kind and, now and then, committed that work-day sin of a lunch-time beer.

Those long lunches and conversations were my graduate education in human studies. Jerry was so much smarter than me when it came to understanding our fellow beings and their psychology. I wrote about people and what they did, but Jerry seemed to know what people would do before they did it, before even they knew what they would do.

The beautiful University of Oklahoma campus

Those afternoons at Mister Bill’s were my Paris in the Twenties or my Algonquin roundtable, but with a limited cast of characters. Jerry and I never tired of talking or ran out of subjects to consider, or world problems we were called upon to solve. We were fine on our own, but now and then we’d ask someone else along.

Of course we’d eat, but the point of the meal was to share time, that most precious of commodities.

When I think of childhood dinnertimes, I don’t think of the food — though both of my parents took great pleasure in cooking. I think of the time spent.

At the time, lunch with Jerry was lunch with Jerry. Only later, decades later, did I realize what Lunch With Jerry had meant.

He always busted my chops. He’d see my empty plate and do a double take worthy of Curly in a Three Stooges two reeler.

“McKeen, you don’t fuckin’ eat — you inhale.”

Mister Bill’s, now out of business

What I wouldn’t give to have him good-naturedly berating me right now. He always used the expression “stacking shit.” So he would want me to say what I miss is him stacking shit on me.

Yeah, that’s more Jerry-worthy.

What I want to say: Eating is more than nourishing our bodies. We show our humanity across the table, and over food. We break bread. We dine with friends. We talk. We show our love.

I find myself thinking of the song “Bob Dylan’s Dream”:

How many a year has passed and gone?
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like tha

Jerry has been gone for years now. I’m here in the kitchen. The boys are with their mother tonight and this large house is too quiet. It’s raining outside and I stand over the sink in the pathetic dance that we single men do — eating, standing up, trying not to make a mess, trying not to dirty a dish. Now, with my innards rearranged, I no longer have the capacity for a meal. I eat only to stay alive.

The gastric surgery has changed my life, and quickly. Eating too fast or too much means pain. My new body can’t do the job my old body used to do. I must retrain this carcass yet again.

I’ll figure it out, but these first weeks are hard, especially as I stand there at the window, doing the single-man dinner dance I thought I’d left behind.

I think about the great meals of my life — at an open-air bar in the Florida Keys, a table in the courtyard of Joe Garcia’s in Fort Worth, the upstairs at Commander’s Palace, or a long-gone burger joint in Norman, Oklahoma — and think about those moments and those friends and think those are the moments that will unspool (assuming I get the chance for that final midnight showing) on my deathbed.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain that we could sit simply in that room again

Yet here I am — standing over the kitchen sink, alone.

What I want to say:

Eating is more than nourishing our bodies. We show our humanity across the table and over food.

We break bread. We dine with friends. We talk.

We show our love.

My Mother

This is an episode from my cancer memoir.

Symmetry does not exist in nature, but sometimes the curves and inclines of life lead us back to the starting point. As a storyteller, I’ve always liked cyclical structure — to end where we began.

(If I start singing Elton John’s ‘The Circle of Life,’ you have permission to shoot me.)

I had these thoughts a few months before the cancer diagnosis, when I sat by my mother’s bedside massaging her legs. She was in her “assisted living facility” — Jesus God, I hate those antiseptic euphemisms — the place she called “the old folks home.” She was 92 but did not consider herself old.

She was right — in a lot of ways. Her body was giving out and she was entertaining a guest late to the party: Parkinson’s Disease. But she never saw herself as old and hated the sloth and inactivity her body’s betrayal had brought upon her.

In August 2014, Nicole returned from the Philippines and so I took a late-summer weekend to see my mother for the first time since the spring.

With my mother during the years we lived in Germany

I surprised her. My flight landed just before five and I rented a car to speed down to Bloomington from the Indianapolis airport. I got to her open-door apartment at Hearthstone Health just after 7 that evening. She was already asleep, but I stood over her for a moment, then reached down to touch her cheek. She opened her eyes and the look on her face is one of those memories I will take to my grave.

She was surprised, elated, loving — this was the one person I could always count on to love me, and now my appearance at her bedside had brought her joy. I was aware that waking her was selfish, but her reaction made me realize everything was all right.

“Bill — oh, Bill,” she said. “You’re here.”

“Yep, I came in for the weekend. I’m sorry I woke you, but I wanted to surprise you. It took a long time to get the rental car and then the traffic was crazy.”

“You’re here,” she said again.

“Yep. And I’ll be back in the morning. You need to get your rest, but I couldn’t get in town and not immediately come see you.”

Her health and her memory might have faded, but I could see the love I’d been lucky to know all my life.

“I promised the nurses out there I wouldn’t stay, so I have to go. I just wanted to see you.”

She couldn’t pull herself up, and her head remained nestled in her pillow as she looked at me. That smile. That moment will be on my death-bed highlight reel.

That weekend, I made a feeble effort to pay her back for the splendid life she and my father had given me. Her legs pained her and so I massaged them for her. There was an anesthetic ointment that provided relief but the nurses said the supply was gone and the new order hadn’t arrived. I drove to a pharmacy and found a tube and massaged it into my mother’s legs. To hear her sigh with comfort, to see that she had some respite from pain, gave me pleasure. Later, at mealtime, I fed her. Her arms were useless to her, so I repaid my debt. At the beginning of my life she nourished me. Now, at the end of her life, I got to repay her, even if it was in such small measure.

I thank God for the opportunity to help my mother.

My father and mother on their wedding day in 1943

We were close. My father died when I was 20. I spent that last day with my parents.

I lived across town in a decrepit shack with a friend from my newspaper days. He had left the paper and taken over a bar downtown — Bloomington, Indiana, one of the nation’s greatest college towns — and turned it into a hugely popular hangout in a ‘burg with a lot of them. When my newspaper went out of business, he took me on as a roommate and doorman.

But every Sunday I’d go home to my mother and father — to do laundry, help with yardwork, watch football and consume a great dinner.

That particular Sunday, the three of us watched The Last Picture Show together. Afterward, I recall turning around on the front porch to say goodbye. My father was standing there, and the door closed — dramatically in my recollection — in front of him.

I was back in a couple of hours, summoned by a phone call. My father had died next to my mother in bed. When I got there, the medics were removing his body from the house. My mother couldn’t return to the bed. She took up residence on the love seat in the family room and I lay down on the floor beside her. Eventually, we slept.

I moved home. This was a difficult strategic move for me — a randy 20-year-old man — but she was my mother. I stayed there for more than a year and it was hard. My father’s physician friends showed little true sympathy for my mother’s enormous grief and wrote ‘scrips to keep her in a drugged haze. She was difficult, sometimes irrational. And I was a selfish young asshole.

But we got through it. I dealt with my tremendous grief with silence. My mother didn’t understand why I wasn’t talking about him. She was a vessel of incoherence and pain, constantly asking why my father had gone.

Eventually we found rapproachment, and began to understand each other. She removed herself from that tissue of grief and pharmaceuticals and again joined the living.

My mother — second from left, standing — with her brothers and sisters during the Second World War. This was the last time she saw her brother, Richard — right, front. He was killed in the Pacific not long after his visit home.

She traveled, she made friends. Eventually, she started dating one of my father’s oldest friends.

They ended up dating more than 30 years, until his death. But the poor guy suffered by comparison. Superficially like my father in many ways — a physician, a lover of literature, a raconteur and deeply witty man — he still was not my father. He became my mother’s regular companion for trips and television, but when he died, she did not cry. She’d had only one love and never allowed herself to love again in that way.

In my divorced-guy years, I saw her monthly. I’d drive up from Florida for weekends with the kids in Indiana — my ex-wife moved to the same town — so I’d stay with her and we’d have coffee and long talks and spend time together with the children. She never told me how to run my life but did offer advice now and then, especially when I let my girlfriend — a devoted and charming divorced mother of two — get away.

But she did what a parent was supposed to do: she believed in me. I saw myself as the black sheep of the family. My brother was a physician and he and his wife built a wonderful life with five children, right there in Bloomington, where my mother lived. My sister, a nurse, married a superman and together they raised two nearly perfect children and built yet another handsome life, outside Washington, DC. Her husband John had been in my life since I was nine, so he was more brother than brother-in-law. He stumbled at the start of adulthood, got drafted and served in Vietnam, returning home to build a career that ended with his retirement as a respected aerospace executive.

My mother found this picture in an album a couple decades back and gave it to me. “When I die,” she said, “and they need a picture to use in the newspaper, give them this one. This is how I want to be remembered, not as a little old lady.”

Then there was me. I chose paths — journalism and education — that traditionally did not lead to great wealth. I did all right, but then came the shame and embarrassment of divorce and my feelings of failure. But my mother always stood by me and encouraged me.

So it meant so much to me to be able to repay her. I hadn’t visited as often since the older kids were grown and I remarried and had little ones at home. Visiting just three or four times a year, I could see the changes in her more dramatically than I did when I saw her monthly.

She had rebelled when it came time for the “assisted-living facility” and when my brother told her, at age 90, that she could no longer drive. He and his wife took a lot of her wrath because they were there — their farm was a five-minute drive from Hearthstone. They took the heat and took care of her.

And despite my sister’s great distance from Indiana, she — often with husband John; always with husband John after his retirement — came monthly. A parent could wish for no more devoted and loving child than my sister. Yet she too was sometimes on the recieving end of my mother’s anger.

She was angry because she had always been so independent and active. As her body and mind betrayed her, she’d sometimes take it out on the ones around her. As the old song said, you always hurt the one you love.

Now I was the distant child, the one she saw only two or three times a year. I got the pass. Still, we talked once a week by phone and I felt I could tell my mother anything and everything.

But not this.

During that visit in August, my mother’s hospice nurse, Mary Ann Iracliano, took me aside and told me it was time to say my goodbyes. My mother could be gone at any moment.

“Think about those things you’d want to say,” she told me. “When she’s gone, what will you wish you had said to her?”

I’d tried to always be straight with my mother. I remember that years before, we were watching terrible afternoon television talk shows while waiting for the kids to get home from school. On the television, some guy in his forties was screaming at his mother about what a lousy parent she’d been and how she’d ruined his life.

“Don’t worry, mom,” I said. “I’ll never turn up on one of these shows.”

She laughed.

“I mean it,” I said. “I have no complaints. You were great. You and dad made me feel loved. And I always loved you.”

“I know,” she said. Her eyes held a whisper of a tear.

So was there anything left unsaid? I didn’t think so, and I also didn’t think I was ready for the final goodbye.

That August visit was among my last lucid moments with my mother. I sat at her bedside, fed her, massaged her legs, and talked to to her about my life. But I did not talk to her about what was going on with my body.

I was back a month later for son Graham’s wedding — my mother could not attend — and spent most of my non-wedding time with her, but could tell she’d slipped a lot in just a few weeks. I could not talk to her about what was happening to my body, about how my problems were worsening weekly.

I planned a quick trip home before Christmas – to see her, to see Graham and his new bride, and to see my brother’s family. But then I got the diagnosis and canceled my travel plans.

I called my mother and said that work was just too crazy — which was true — and that I had to cancel. She understood; she always understood.

Now I remembered the words of Mary Ann, the hospice nurse: “She needs to let go. You need to let her know that everything is fine, that you’re doing well.” Mary Ann didn’t know about my cancer; I didn’t even know about it when she told me this. But now the words took on meaning.

All of my life, I’d told my mother everything. But now, I couldn’t tell her this.

Of all the secrets I had to keep, this one was the hardest.