The white clouds seemed to scrape the mountaintops and the boat rocked gently on the waves. At the end of my fly-fishing line a 20-inch rainbow trout rocketed upward and danced across the sun-specked water. It should have been a great moment, but I only felt a quiet sadness.
In a few hours, a lot of people would gather in a church to say goodbye to Bill Renfrew, who was my neighbor and my friend.
Bill died last week. He was 48. He had a degree in nuclear engineering and was, I think, the smartest guy I ever knew. But for a few years he had been out of work and out of luck. And on a quiet Sunday morning, he took his own life.
We met in the 1990s, walking toward the community mailboxes on a rainy spring day on the dirt road we shared. He had moved from Santa Barbara, and I from Los Angeles. We were both glad to be here, away from California, and we stood in a light spring rain and talked for five minutes about our new lives.
"This is a great place," he said.
Our kids became friends, too, our daughters face-painting arriving guests at Bill and Michele's memorable Fourth of July picnics in the woods behind their house where the men heaved horseshoes — one of Bill's favorite things. And we all drank beer and wine and laughed too loud, and oh my goodness, how we devoured Bill's hot chicken wings. A hundred of them would be gone in an hour, and Bill would smile and head back to the grill. "I'll just go make some more," he'd say.
Soon, Bill joined me and my long-standing elk-hunting group, heading to the mountains for a week each October where, mostly, we did little more than make the elk run from one mountain to another.
Russ Meyer was in the hunting group, too. He's my next-door neighbor and has been a good friend for a long time.
Russ broke the news to me late on that terrible Sunday afternoon. We sat down on my front step and he said, simply, "Bill Renfrew is dead." Our eyes filled with tears and for a very long time we didn't say a word.
Russ wrote a note about Bill. He gave it to Bill's wife Michele after the funeral.
"During hunting, Bill and I ... would start early in the morning, before light. Bill would head north and I would head south. After many hours and many miles, no roads or trails, just traveling through ravines and across streams, our paths would often cross. Against the odds. Like a needle in a haystack."
Bill and Michele and their three kids had moved a few years back, but not far away, just two miles away or so. But we saw less of each other. A month ago I saw Bill at a gas station.
"Let's have a beer," he said. "Call me."
I said I would. I did not. I guess I thought I was too busy.
Two weeks ago, my wife's father died in Oklahoma. He was a kind and generous man and the church in Tulsa was filled. The day after I got back from that funeral, Bill and I drove past each other near his home. He stuck his hand out the window and waved. I did the same.
That was the last time I saw him.
On the day of Bill's funeral, I was fishing with Ken Martin and my oldest pal, Rob Bresciani, whom I've known and laughed with for more than 40 years now. Rob had scheduled the fishing day weeks earlier and on that day, more than ever, I wanted to spend time with friends I don't see nearly enough. Rob had heart bypass surgery a couple of years ago. Doctor said he nearly died. We don't talk about that very much.
And so in the early morning light we caught some trout. And then I had to leave for the funeral. Outside the church I saw Russ and we hugged. In his letter he wrote this about his old hunting pal:
"In the future and after many more miles, I believe our paths will cross again. I will keep the memories in my mind and my heart until that time. Bill was my friend."
Bill was my friend, too. Today, and forever, I'll wish that I had told him that.
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