By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO | Published March 14, 2013
One of the first monks I met when I came here in 1994 was Brother William. He worked and lived in the retreat house. I soon found out he was from Harrison, New Jersey. We had a few chats in those few days I stayed in the retreat house during my interview process. I liked him.
He was refreshingly himself, a man of no pretense and a man who obviously loved life. I can still see him using a broom to sweep the floors in the church and our refectory, wearing a knit cap, singing as he moved the broom back and forth. He loved Coke. Loved the paper edition of The New York Times. Loved Elmore Leonard. He always called me “Fadda,” a Jersey-esque rendition of “Father.” He called everybody “Babe.”
Brother William had an interesting life. He served in the Army. Worked in the Harrison Post Office. He played the saxophone in a jazz band and played in clubs in Newark, New York and Las Vegas—he once backed up Elvis Presley for a Vegas show. He also played in bands that provided the beat for Martha and the Vandellas and the Four Seasons. He rarely spoke about those days and, in fact, never played the sax again once he set it down to follow another call in life. His beginnings in religious life were as a Franciscan brother. He spent many years on missions in South America. He then followed a call to enter the monastery in Conyers.
Brother William died a few weeks ago. He touched the lives of a lot of people in his years with us. A lot of notes and letters came in from people who got to know him through the retreat house. William gave a lot of love away to those who passed through our doors. And he received as much, if not more, love in return.
He was on a home visit about nine or 10 years ago—up in New Jersey—when he became disoriented. He knew something was wrong. He was brought back here and was diagnosed with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease.
The early stages of the disease were slow. William could speak, enjoy his meals, drink his Cokes with gusto. But he gradually began to show signs of loss. Eventually, the disease took everything away from him.
I remember times I would go to the infirmary and hear William singing away, a kind of bee-bop tune. He would sing like that for hours. In his own way, he was happy—the tunes must have come back to him from his earlier years. He never spoke much of his time with the jazz band.
I don’t know—I suppose he felt he had to let that go once he took a very different path in life.
He was well cared for here by our nurse Rose and her staff. Brother Mark watched over him at night.
We all hope that heaven is a place of glory. A place of light and peace, a place, too, where music resounds through the heavenly spheres. Yes, angelic choirs. And, I hope, a jazz ensemble. Maybe they have been waiting for a good sax player to add a smoky, boozy bar of notes.
They will surely spot William. His walk is unmistakable. And so is the way he sings. When St. Peter gives William the key to his mansion, perhaps he will hide it in a case, a case that when opened will reveal a shiny new saxophone. And Peter will smile, and tell William to hit it,