My brother died on a Monday. It was unexpected. He was supposed to get better, but he didn’t. We were left reeling from this new reality and aware that we had to plan his Celebration of Life service. It would be small–immediate family only. But good friends made it possible for us to offer a Live Facebook of the service as well as a You Tube video available now at the bottom of this post.
Following is what I shared. I have much more to say about this experience and what God is showing me through the sadness, but not yet.
Bill Gray – 1954-2021
I want to thank all of you who are joining with us on-line how much your prayers and encouragements have meant to our family these last 5 weeks. It has been one of the hardest seasons we’ve faced and you have helped carry our burden. Words seem inadequate, but it is all we have to give. Thank you.
I am Debi Walter, Billy’s little sister, and Bettie is Billy’s older sister. I am sharing today on behalf of both of us what my brother means to us. Bettie was born in 1953, Billy in 1954 and I was born in 1959. My Dad was a pharmacist with his own store and soda fountain. It was a great time to grow up.
Billy took great delight in teasing both of us as often as he could. But I still believe I got the brunt of most of his attention. He made up all kinds of games with the excuse of being able to tease us. Like “Flinch”. If he acted like he was going to hit you and you flinched, then you had to let him hit you. Being 5 years younger I usually let him and had the bruises to show for it. I’ve heard he was a lot like my grandfather. They both loved to fish and loved to tease those they loved—unmercifully.
Billy and his good friend invented the group hug. But it wasn’t a pleasant experience when it first began. If you were caught in the middle between the two of them it always hurt. But they laughed and I learned to laugh too. Now the group hug has become a tradition in our family whenever we are saying goodbye. No one ever knows who will end up in the middle, but the younger ones fight to be caught in the center of it all. Lots of love goes into those hugs. Like holding on tight because we don’t want to let go.
Another game was a take on the pool game Marco Polo. But instead of calling out “Marco” with your eyes closed, you called out “splash”. Wherever you were in the pool you had to splash. The idea was to tag someone making them “it”. I always managed to be “it” because I wasn’t fast enough to tag anyone, especially my brother or his friends. One time I remember being caught between two of them while they both splashed me. My brother accidentally splashed my ear and caused my ear drum to rupture. He felt bad and I felt worse because I wasn’t able to swim for the rest of the summer. I was often the casualty of his games.
It’s strange how stories from when you were young that used to cause heartache, become the very things you’re grateful for as adults.
My brother loved me and my sister very much. But I didn’t realize this until we were adults. Being the baby of the family I know I was bratty. I most likely asked for much of the undesired attention he gave me.
On family vacations I would always end up in the middle of Bettie and Billy in the backseat. Invariably, Billy would say, “Hey Bettie, want a fight between you and me?” And they would both start slapping me. I would cry. My Dad would yell for us to stop. And Billy would grin in my face, bragging that he got me.
Yeah, that’s what we did on road trips before iPhones, screens and DVD players were available in cars. We played games, sang songs and ate candy my Mom packed from my Dad’s candy counter at the pharmacy.
When Billy went away to The University of Florida (Go Gators!) My sister was already married to Dennis, so I was home alone. I missed him so much. And I think he missed me too. He sent me a card once that he had drawn of our toothbrushes side by side. His had racing stripes on it and He said he couldn’t wait to have tooth brushing races again. It sounds silly, but as a 15 year old this card meant so much to me. It was true the adage that says, “distance makes the heart grow fonder”. It certainly did for us.
He graduated from U of F the same year Bettie graduated from nursing school at Valencia, the same year I graduated from high school. Major events for all of us that prepared us for our life ahead.
Our family attended Powers Drive Baptist Church. This is where we made many lifelong friends. Many of whom are watching today. It was at this church where we each were saved, baptized, and married. We grew up realizing the power, love and support there is in being in a community of believers who love Jesus. We are so grateful for the impact this church and its members had on our lives.
In 1978 Billy found the love of his life, a cute blond named Sherry Newmons. He brought her home to our house for Sunday afternoon dinner. We could tell this was the one he had waited for and we fell in love with Sherry too. At this same time Tom and I began dating and got engaged too. Once again we were doing a major lifetime event together. In 1979 we got married only 5 weeks apart. My poor parents! They never complained about how difficult having two weddings so close together would be. But it was fun sharing this season of life together.
All three of us had our children at the same time, which was fun watching cousins become friends.
That’s our history. When my Dad died in 2004, my brother took on the role of caring for us in the ways my dad had—providing medical advice and help whenever it was needed. He helped us through some very frightening times, most recently with two of our grandchildren. I’m so grateful for the way he loved us, cared for us and was there for us.
My sister and her family are here today and I know if she were able she would also talk about their adventures. Bettie and Billy had a special bond. They were only 14 months apart so they did everything together. Just recently Bettie and Dennis and Billy and Sherry went on vacation to see the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. Tom and I were unable to go, but I am so glad they had this time together. The photos and memories they made are precious today.
I don’t know what the future will look like without Billy here to make us laugh, give the best hugs, share funny stories, offer support or to help us in our times of need. But I do know that Billy would tell us all—what really matters is this – make sure we know and love Jesus by living our lives for Him and his glory.
Billy is seeing his Savior face to face and I believe if he could he would say, “Whatever you do make sure you are ready when it’s your turn to enter eternity. Live for Christ! You never know when your days on earth will be over. Make every moment count!”