If you knew you were going blind tomorrow, what would you make an effort to see today? An eagle soaring? Or maybe the waves as they crashed on the beach? Certainly you would drink in the smiles of your children, memorizing their faces to help you through the dark days to come. Billy had no such warning, and even if he did, he wouldn’t have had any such list.
Billy was the son of an unwed mother who died in childbirth. He spent the first thirteen years of his life in forgettable foster homes and most of the next seventeen on the streets of New York. If you asked him why he chose the name Billy, he would tell you that William always seemed too formal and that no one likes Bills. In truth, what name he went by wasn’t important because he had no real friends.
Lest you think I am here to tell you Billy was a saint, I can assure you he was not. He was a thief, an addict, and a drug dealer. No one cared about Billy, and he didn’t care right back.
He carried a gun with him wherever he went, and it’s only by the grace of God that he never ended another person’s life.
What would you make an effort to see if you were going blind tomorrow? Billy didn’t have the chance to make a list because as in cases of most sudden blindness, he didn’t know what was about to happen.
The details aren’t worth rehashing—it is enough to know that the incident occurred during a drug deal gone bad. You see Billy wasn’t the only one who always carried a gun.
The bullet that changed Billy’s life entered his cheekbone at a slightly upward angle. It destroyed his right eye and severely damaged the tissue and nerves behind his left. His right eye was removed during surgery, and the left was instantly useless. He was totally blind.
When Billy woke up, he wasn’t angry that he was blind; he was angry that he was alive.
Then Billy met Kay. I’d like to tell you Kay was a beautiful young doctor with whom Billy found everlasting love. I’d like to tell you that, but we all know that's not the case.
Kay was a cantankerous old nurse with a raspy smoker's voice and bony cold fingers. She had no bedside manner, and she didn’t suffer fools gladly. To her, Billy was a fool.
She never told him he was lucky to be alive. She thought that too obvious to waste her breath on. She, however, gruffly told him he was lucky to be blind. She was also the only one who would visit with him regularly.
It was more than three weeks after he woke up before Billy realized Kay had been to see him every day. She worked five days a week, but she came in the other two just to see Billy. Those who worked with Kay, at the time, will tell you she never came in on her day off before Billy or after.
She was the first person who ever authentically cared about Billy, even though you’d never know it by how she treated him. She called him lazy when he wouldn’t get up and try to walk around the room. She called him a coward when he refused to meet with a social worker. She called him foolish when he would confide his desire to die.
But if there were only one reason Billy was able to turn his life around, then it would have to have been his overwhelming desire to shut Kay up.
Twelve weeks passed as Billy was in the hospital, just shy of three months. Miraculously, other than being stone cold blind, Billy had been unharmed by the bullet. When he left, with Kay’s help and annoying encouragement, Billy was able to move into a halfway house to continue his journey towards sobriety. Billy was careful to avoid using the phrase “rebuild his life,” as before the accident he had no life worth rebuilding.
A funny thing happened at Billy’s new home. He became both a celebrity of sorts and the living embodiment of encouragement. Everybody in the house wanted to hear the story of the man who was shot in the head and lived to tell about it. It was also hard for any of the other residents to feel sorry for themselves because no one had it as bad as Billy. Yet with the help of Kay, Billy didn’t feel sorry for himself.
Billy was supposed to be in the halfway house for three additional months. Three months is a long time when you’re trying to hold your breath, but devastatingly short when it means facing a world you can no longer see. Whereas other residents counted the days until the court would allow them to leave, Billy found the approaching end of his stay to be mentally overwhelming.
It wasn’t until years later that Billy found out Kay had been working behind the scenes to get him a job as a lay counselor at the very halfway house he was dreading leaving. It’s a little known fact that someone who has an eye removed can still produce tears if the tear ducts remain intact. If Billy didn’t know this already, he learned it the day he was offered a job that would allow him to stay and work with residents as they efforted to re-enter society.
Billy was thirty years old the day he received his first actual paycheck, and that paycheck, still uncashed, can be found in his Bible to this day.
Over the next few years, Billy did more than just work at the halfway house. He devoted himself to its transient residents.
When you lose your sight, Billy would say, you see things others don't. There was no time, day or night, that Billy was unavailable to listen or give advice, or even offer a much needed hug. The man who spent his life caring for no one now cared for everyone.
Billy worked hard to master the use of his cane, becoming so proficient that he didn’t need a seeing eye dog. He didn’t need one, but he got one all the same.
Over the last forty years of his life, he had three of them. The last one, Max, is here with us today.
Billy also did find love, just not with Kay. He was in a supermarket looking for tomatoes, and, just as he was wont to do, he asked the closest person to help him select the finest two.
That’s when he met Millie. Yes, Billy and Millie. Outsiders chuckle at the coincidence but those of us here know it was more like destiny. Millie as it turns out had a servants heart and was more than happy to help with the tomato dilemma, and for reasons unknown liked Billy instantly.
The day before he met Millie was the last day of his life he spent apart from her. They went for coffee and dinner and talked until it was the next day. Billy always said he could see voices, and then he’d turn to Millie and say hers was the most beautiful one in the world.
Less than a year later, they were married. Billy, for the first time in his life, moved into a home of his own. They had three children, two daughters and a son. They never got rich, but they spent their lives helping others.
If you ever asked them how many people they helped over the years, they would always say just one. It was their way of giving each wayward soul their full attention. Whenever they had the chance and the money, they would travel to see the sights of the world: Millie with her eyes and Billy through Millie’s descriptions.
If the question is ever asked if one person can change the world, anyone who knew either Billie or Millie would answer quickly and enthusiastically—yes.
If you knew you were going blind tomorrow, what would you make an effort to see today?
If it were me, I would want to see that young man who shot Billy so I could tell him, from Billy, he was forgiven.
I would want to see Kay, so I could hug her and tell her thanks for loving Billy enough to change his life.
I would want to be here today to see something no one thought possible forty years ago: a church overflowing with Billy’s family and friends and people who he and Millie helped as Billy had been helped. Oh, and Max.
Legacy is a word over and misused. But not in Billy’s case. Millie is his legacy. My sisters are his legacy. I am his legacy, and all of you are his legacy. We are all proof of what my dad always said about life: it’s not how you start, but how you finish.
I find it ironic that my dad lived his life in darkness when he had sight yet saw the light only after he became blind.