The True Love Story That Saved One Man from His Demons


They first met when Billy was 8 and Birdy was 6, as neighbors in 1940’s Humboldt Park, Chicago.

In childhood, they were occasional playmates, but Billy mostly kept his distance. He was dealing with a lot at home: an alcoholic, abusive father, a quietly suffering mother, a bullying older brother, and a little sister with debilitating polio.

Then, when Billy was about twelve, his father began beating him even worse. Billy developed behavioral issues, getting kicked out of school for fights and failing grades until he was eventually ordered to attend an alternative school for ‘bad kids.’

Birdy was just a memory of a more innocent time now.

Much to everyone’s surprise, however, Billy eventually cleaned up his act at alternative school, inspired by a matronly Social Studies teacher with a limp arm and a soft spot for the boy’s natural brightness.

Billy worked diligently and ended up graduating the eighth grade right on schedule. He was even chosen to give the welcoming speech to parents at graduation. His self-esteem was increasing, and he worked up the courage to talk to Birdy again.

He took her out after her eighth-grade graduation. They went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant and to a show at the cinema. After that night, they started hanging out for real, going out for pizza at a place called Luigi’s and for shakes at a malt shop next to the cinema.

He even got a job to pay for their dates, working first at a furniture store and then supplying the assembly line at the company where his mother worked.

Birdy and Billy were going steady now, although there was ”no physical aspect,” to quote Billy. He had begun going to church with her family and eating dinners at her home. He took her to the Christmas party at his new job at the company where his mother worked.

There, he asked her to dance. It was their first time dancing together. It felt so natural, so right. He would always remember that feeling. While swaying in each other’s arms, they posed for a photo.

Billy would later discover that Birdy had saved that photo. She had had kept it hanging up on the wall with a dozen other assorted family photos throughout her first marriage.

Soon after that Christmas dance, Billy started getting in trouble again. He was involved with the wrong crowd, getting caught up in petty crimes. He quit his job working on the assembly line. Then, at sixteen, he dropped out of high school too. He was also seeing Birdy less and less.

“I was becoming sort of a bully,” he confessed to me.

In fact, at seventeen, Billy ended up getting caught stealing pocket change from a buddy’s grandpa (his buddy had been egging him on the whole time, but still).

His buddy’s grandpa called the police, who quickly showed up, and told him to get out of Chicago and not come back until he was eighteen, an adult.

His exasperated mother sent him off to the suburbs, to stay with his aunt and invalid cousin Dickie, who had become a paraplegic after a tragic car accident. Billy stayed and helped out with Dickie. They became close friends, remaining so until Dickie’s early death just a couple decades later.

At eighteen and a half years old, Billy returned to Chicago. He didn’t head straight home. He wanted to make an important stop first. He wanted to see Birdy. He wanted to apologize for disappearing and ask her for another chance.

He went in through the back door, the way he always had. Birdy was there in the adjoining family room, on a date with a Marine. They spoke briefly in her family’s kitchen before she turned her attention back to her date. Billy felt completely deflated. He realized that he couldn’t match up to a standup guy like this Marine.

“I walked out and didn’t fight for her,” he told me. “I walked away and have regretted it ever since.”

Feeling aimless and reckless, Billy and some other guys decided to enlist in the Army and get out of Chicago.

He left for Army basic training just after Christmas of 1959. He had just turned nineteen years old. By this time, he was going steady with a girl named Rachel. His parents and Rachel stood at the train station, crying as he waved goodbye.

He was stationed in Germany right next to France, about six miles from the border. It was a small German town where the friendly population knew that it was good for their economy to have the soldiers there. Soldiers were known to spend money in town. Billy was no exception, drinking and partying excessively with the other guys.

While there, Billy became good friends with a fellow soldier who showed him how to shoot pool. How to strategize. Billy had a natural talent for it, and was driven. By the time he left the Army he was even better than his friend; he was basically an expert.

He also started to straighten out his last year in the Army. He quit drinking. He wrote letters to his girl Rachel, trying to make amends for his hard partying earlier on. He even finished high-school and got a couple college credits too.

Billy finally got out of the Army in 1964, at the tender age of 23. At the time, he had just found out that his parents had divorced and that Rachel, disillusioned with him, had left him for another guy.

Disoriented and reeling from his return home, Billy began another downward descent into heavy drinking and partying. He took to hanging out in bars with his dad and brother while also getting deep into hustling in the pool halls, using the skills he learned while in the Army.

Then, a friend of his got him a job driving a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). With the money, he got an apartment above a union hall. Part of his rent was taking care of that hall. It was there that he met a girl named Isla who would become his first wife and the mother of his children.

It started out as “a physical thing,” to borrow Billy’s exact phrase.

Then, Isla and her two-year-old little girl moved in with Billy. When his mother came to visit from her new home in Arizona, he felt ashamed. Ashamed that he and Isla were not doing things the proper way. To save face, he told his mom that they were getting married. Within the next day or two, they were married in a courthouse.

His new wife, however, quickly got sick of his drinking and gambling and hustling, even though he usually brought home money from his activities. He was still driving the bus, too, where he was making good money working overtime, although sometimes he was so drunk during his shifts that he couldn’t remember a thing afterwards.

In 1970, Billy and Isla moved to a suburb outside Chicago to distance themselves from bad influences, like his hard partying dad, brother. Even cousin Dickie was a poor influence, having become an accountant for the infamous Chicago mafia.

It was there in the suburb that Billy ran into Birdy again.

He was outside a supermarket when there was an automobile accident in the street. A car was burning, a man trapped inside yelling for help. Billy and a couple other guys, fueled by adrenaline, worked quickly to drag the guy out of the car and lay him down on the curb. He seemed badly hurt. Billy was talking to him for a few minutes when he heard a voice from behind him: “I’ll take care of this.”

He looked up. It was Birdy. She was a paramedic now. The first female paramedic in that suburb, he would later learn.

Billy watched, shocked, as she tended to business and disappeared into the ambulance with the patient. It happened quickly. He got up and left.

The move to the suburb didn’t fix Billy and Isla’s marriage.

In a desperate last attempt to revive their rocky relationship for the sake of their kids, they decided to move to Arizona. They both had family there, so it made sense. Seemed like a hopeful fresh start.

Billy got a job at a power plant in Phoenix. He also bought a small motor home and selling beer out of it, using the extra money to purchase sand buggies. Those years, he spent weekends with his kids riding the sand dunes dunes of the Arizona desert.

After awhile, Billy received a a notice from Chicago. The Chicago Transit Authority was contacting him to let him know that he still needed to attain certain number of credited hours so as not to lose his pension there. If he worked four more months at the CTA, they told him, he would be locked into his pension with over 10 total years in iron-working.

So, that summer, Billy returned to Chicago. He stayed with his brother and began earning his hours driving the bus.

While there, he was invited to attend the wedding of two friends.

On the day of wedding, he walked into the Church for the ceremony. There, across the aisle, was Birdy. He couldn’t believe it.

At the reception, he spoke with her and her husband. She had married a bricklayer with a little daughter from a previous marriage. Now, they had three more kids together, four total.

He asked Birdy’s husband if he could dance with her. They danced almost the whole night. Billy felt that it was just like their dance at the Christmas party as kids, all those years ago.

At the exit door, as Birdy and her husband were leaving, they said their goodbyes. Billy watched her go. He had no idea that she was planning to leave her husband, who had become unfaithful and abusive.

Soon after, Billy completed his credits and returned to Arizona.

He and Isla were on worse terms than ever, but he was having fun with the kids, buying three wheelers, dune buggies and sandrails and taking them out to the sand-dunes in the desert. During one holiday, he even took them to the dunes in California outside Yuma.

Isla hated the dunes. She came one time and said she was allergic. Then, one day, she put her foot down. She told Billy that if he took the kids to the dunes again, he could never come back.

Hating ultimatums, Billy took the kids to the dunes. This time, they were done. They filed for divorce, and in 1983 Billy left Arizona for good, taking his older daughter with him.

His youngest daughter stayed with his ex-wife, who ended up remarrying to a truck driver and moving to Tennessee.

Billy was back in Chicago again.

He moved in with his brother while he searched for a suitable place for him and his daughter.

He didn’t realize that his brother lived so close to Birdy’s house, until he began to spot her on nightly strolls through the neighborhood. Realizing how much Birdy enjoyed walking, Billy decided to take up the habit as well.

Per Billy’s plan, they soon crossed paths while out walking. They started walking together, talking. It became a routine. Even his brother noticed how excited Billy got for those walks, commenting one time that it took him twelve minutes after getting home from work to shower and change clothes on his way out again. Because he was meeting Birdy.

Billy eventually moved into his own apartment with his daughter, though he made sure to remain in the same complex.

A little while later, Birdy moved out of her home with her husband. She got an apartment about a half a block away, in another building in the same complex.

They kept going on their walks.

Then, when Betty’s 44th birthday was drawing close, she asked Billy to take her out to celebrate. By the end of ’83 — or maybe it was the the beginning of ’84 — they were officially a couple.

Billy asked Birdy and her twelve-year-old son to move into the apartment with him. Soon thereafter, he convinced Birdy to buy a house together.

“We are both paying rent here,” he said. “We could buy a house together. See how things are gonna go. See if we can live with each other. And save money to help our kids.”

In 1985, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were the hottest team around. Birdy and Billy would sometimes go to a bar to watch them in the playoff games. After one such game, he got up from their table, walked around it, got down on one knee and asked Birdy to be his wife.

During those first few years of the marriage, Billy worked tirelessly to make sure he could provide financially for his kids and Birdy.

He was working eight hours on one iron-working job, and then helping out at another place at night. Birdy would come and bring him supper around seven or eight at night. He would get home around eleven or so, shower, go to bed, get up at six o’clock in the morning and go to work again.

Once Billy felt that he had achieved financial stability for his family, he and Birdy decided to build their forever home together. They found some land in a suburb about twenty minutes away and commissioned their home to be constructed there.

Their forever home was finished in 1992. The first house built in a brand new subdivision. Billy’s daughter was going to get married and she said she wanted a small reception at their house. Billy made sure that house was ready in time for her reception.

We were busy with a big and growing family. Kids and then, eventually, grandkids. Life moved quickly. They were involved with sports a lot, a lot of the boys in wrestling, baseball, football. At the same time, Billy was building onto their home: a patio in the back, and a raised porch right off our bedroom that through the years became a three-season room.

They were also regularly hosting Christmas and Thanksgiving at the house. Thanksgiving was Birdy’s favorite. She loved to prepare the feast, making between eight to ten pies: apple, pumpkin, pecan. Billy would make a couple hams and a turkey on a rotisserie or on the grill.

Birdy’s son, just twelve when they first got together, did not initially accept Billy.

He thought that Billy had caused his parents’ divorce and he began rebelling against them both. Slowly, over time, he came around. Billy even taught him to drive stick-shift before he left to join the Navy.

If they had anything more than a small tiff, Billy would get insecure in their marriage and say, “Do you want a divorce? Cuz that’s fine, we can have a divorce.”

They did get into fights from time to time. Birdy would accuse him of lying.“No,” he would respond. “I don’t lie. I just skirt around the truth.”

She would give him the silent treatment for a day or two. After a couple days, though, he would persuade her not be mad at him.

“Let’s stop this arguing,” he would say. They would kiss, make-up and tell each other, “I love you.”

When I asked Billy what they argued over, he paused to think.

“I can only remember a couple heated arguments that we had, but yet I couldn’t tell you what they were about. Isn’t that something?”

In 1996, Billy retired, nine years before Birdy would. He had quite a bit of money in his retirement account. Over $100,000. He told Betty: “Now we are gonna take this money and have fun with it.”

They started taking big trips, taking the whole blended family on a cruise to Hawaii after Billy recovered from having his kidney removed after five month battle with cancer.

In 2001, they visited a beautiful lake in Arkansas. The whole family went. They all had cabins next to each other right by the lake. Everybody would congregate and come around Billy and Birdy’s cabin. Then, they ate at picnic tables across the road.

Their twin grandsons caused a ruckus when they jumped off a cliff about twenty feet off the water. These two idiots grabbed big boulders and jumped in the water with them to take them deeper. Their parents hollered at them but that didn’t stop them. Some of the other kids also jumped off the cliff.

The following year was Birdy’s sixtieth birthday. Birdy and Billy took their kids and their significant others to Las Vegas for a weekend. Billy generously paid for everyone’s airfare and hotel. They all stayed at The Paris. Then, Billy and Birdy took off by themselves to spend a week by themselves in Hawaii.

In 2006, Betty finally retired from her career as an accountant for Quaker Oats.

After that, Birdy and Billy decided to explore Europe, so they travelled to to Germany and Switzerland. The biggest highlight of the trip was Oktoberfest in Munich.

Then, Billy decided that it was time. Time to take her to Paris, France.

Birdy had always loved the scene in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ where actress Audrey Hepburn, playing Holly Golightly, gets a baguette and coffee and has breakfast looking in the jewelry shop window. Billy had always told Birdy that they would do that one day.

In Paris, they found where Tiffany’s was at, got themselves coffee and a baguette and they had breakfast outside Tiffany’s just like in the movie. Then, Billy suggested they go inside the store. Once indoors, he told Birdy to pick out any kind of ring that she wanted. She took her time looking around, finding the perfect jewel.

“The ring I have around my neck right now,” he told me. “That’s what she picked out. Gold and platinum. She wore that ring religiously, for the next twelve years, until she passed away.”

Billy and Birdy were getting older now, nearing their seventies.

Still, they remained active, deciding to to start exploring the States more instead of going abroad, which was more draining with jet lag and all.

In 2008, they took a train trip to California, stopping in Reno and Denver. A couple years later, they took another road trip, stopping by Yellowstone, the Badlands, a glacier national park in Canada, and a Sturgis bike rally.

When not travelling, though, they loved spending time at home. Birdy loved to spend her time gardening. She didn’t like Billy to help, unless it was to let him do the heavy lifting. She would be out there for hours on her knees, sweating, digging holes.

She had over a dozen flats of flowers, three times more than the average household. If she didn’t like how a bush was growing she would dig it up and put in something else. Billy, meanwhile, took care of the house plants.

Birdy still loved to walk too. Now that she was retired, she walked four miles in the morning and four more in the evening. She was a fast walker. Billy sometimes walked with her, but she was quicker.

They still went dancing together, too. “People used to ask us if we were professional dancers,” he bragged to me one time. “That’s how good we were together.”

Now in their seventies, Billy and Birdy started making bucket lists, most of them involving nearby extended weekends at different vacation locales. They made their own lists and then compared them. Birdy always accused Billy of doing whatever she wanted to do.

Birdy was diagnosed with breast cancer on December 7th, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. She was in her mid-seventies now.

Billy was at every meeting with the doctor. He was there when they told her about the cancer. The doctor told them that there are three things you don’t want to hear about cancer. If you only have two out of three, there is a possibility to work on things. Birdy had all three. “A Triple X,” he called it.

They came home, sat on the couch, and Birdy told him she was gonna cry, but that it would be the first and last time that she would do this. She broke down and started sobbing. He held her and told her that he would be with her, whatever she needed.

The day after Christmas of 2018, Birdy began chemotherapy.

The chemo tore her down, made her weak. Slowly, her eyesight started going and her system started shutting down.Still, she would not let Billy help her do stuff.

They had a memory foam mattress, a big thick one. It was hard to put fitted sheets on it. Her eyesight was going bad, she was weakened, but she wouldn’t let Billy put those sheets on the bed until a couple months before she passed away. She wouldn’t let him do her yard work either.

She spent a lot of time crocheting, big blankets for the grandkids, baby blankets for the great grandkids. She had a stockpile of baby blankets. Pink, blue, neutral colors. She made one for Billy as well. She would sit there and crochet and he would situate lights because she was going blind.

On Betty’s last Easter, her kids got her five dozen roses in five different colors. She was fading fast now. She had had three blood transfusions because the chemo was killing her white blood cells. This made her vulnerable for pneumonia, which she got. When that happened, the cancer just spread throughout her entire body.

One morning in late April, Birdy did not wake up. She spent the next twelve days in the hospital.

Both Billy’s granddaughter and daughter-in-law were nurses. Towards the end, they spoke somberly with the nurse on duty. Then, they told Billy it was time to bring the family in. Everybody showed up. Birdy motioned for all her kids to come hold her hand. They came and held her hand. She waved goodbye. Not long after that, she lost consciousness.

The doctor pulled Billy aside and told him, “Billy, you gotta let her go.”

“No,” he said, “I don’t wanna let her go.”

He felt helpless. He whispered in her ear what was gonna take place. Whether she heard him or not, he didn’t know.

“Birdy, my love, don’t be frightened. They are gonna give you something to take all the pain away.”

Betty passed away later that night.

At the funeral home, they got Betty ready to be cremated. A long time ago, Billy and Birdy had both agreed that they would both be cremated. They would both tell people: “If you wanna view us, view us while we are alive.”

He went and picked up Betty’s urn with her ashes in it at the funeral home and brought it home and put it up on the mantle until the Celebration of Life and the the burial of the urn. It was up here for a few weeks. What was hard was putting that urn in the ground.

They had the burial at the gravesite. There, Billy spoke about Betty. He can’t remember a word he said, only that he couldn’t stop from crying. Then, they buried her. All the family was there. There was a hole dug and a box they put the urns in. They all dropped roses in there and said their goodbyes.

In the couple years since Birdy’s passing, Billy still goes to her burial site every Sunday. He take a dozen roses to the cemetery, then sits on the bench or walks around the flower garden where she is buried. He talks to her about whatever’s on my mind and asks her for help or to lead him to a better way.

Somedays, Billy feels as though she passed away yesterday. When he closes his eyes, they’re kids again, cheek-to-cheek and dancing.

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