A detail from the cover of Bill Hancock's memoir.
On January 18, 2001, I awoke drenched in sweat and sprawled sideways in a tangle of blankets. I had dreamed vividly that my 31-year-old son, Will, had been killed in an accident. In that netherworld between sleep and consciousness, I was bewildered. Had the accident really happened? I wept with joy when I realized it had only been a horrible nightmare.
Still shaky after a three-mile run and a shower, I telephoned Will at Oklahoma State University where he was the publicist for the Cowboys' basketball team. His calm voice was reassuring. Like George Bailey in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, he lived again.
It was always a delight to talk to Will. He was more than a son; he was also my partner, teacher, confidant, and counselor. He enjoyed hearing about my job as director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Final Four basketball tournament. I loved talking to him about his work at Oklahoma State.
On the phone that morning after my nightmare, Will and I talked about how much Andie had grown during her first 62 days of life. "Dad, she's just great," he said. "She does something new every day. Yesterday, I think she winked at me. It's amazing to hold her and talk to her and to know that she is my daughter. I can't wait to see what is next."
We discussed less important topics, too, such as Oklahoma State's chances to qualify for the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament and my dream of riding a bicycle across the country. I did not tell Will about my nightmare. Instead, I ended the conversation, "I love you, William; talk to you later."
I had no idea what waited for us.
At 10 p.m., we were startled awake by the ringing telephone. In the darkness, we could not find the receiver. The answering machine switched on and we heard Nellie Perry, Nicki's mother, speaking. Nellie's voice had been weakened by Parkinson's disease, but on this night it was particularly strong. And hysterical. "Will was on the plane," Nellie cried. "Will's plane has crashed in Colorado."
As I fumbled to find the light switch, Nicki collapsed onto the floor shrieking, "Not Will! Not Will! Oh, please God, not Will!" She tucked her body into a fetal position, as if to create a shell to protect her heart, then reached out and pounded her fists on the carpet.
After the numbness of the first several days wore off, the sadness came in waves, like the cold fronts that routinely sweep into the Southern Plains in winter. Because they bring northerly winds and blue skies, the fronts are known as blue northers. When I was a child, my grandmother said in her North Carolina drawl, "blue nawther;" but I thought she was saying, "blue moth." Now, the blue norther of despair — the blue moth — struck often. Just as there is little hope in predicting the 10-day forecast, I could not predict when the blue moth might attack, dousing me with a napalm that destroyed all hope. I despised the agony that came with those waves of sadness. I hated the savage blue moth.
The bike and I did not get along well at first. Riding unsteadily on the very first day, I smashed into a bridge railing over I-435 in Kansas City and bent the handlebars like a pretzel. A week later, waiting at a stop light, I lost my balance, fell over and slammed my head on the door of an idling automobile. Thank goodness for my helmet.
Eventually I stopped crashing into things and grew to love riding. I pedaled across Kansas with a group, then spent five days alone, riding the 500 miles from Kansas City to my hometown of Hobart in Southwest Oklahoma. Like astronaut Alan Shepard's up and back fling into space, the experimental solo bicycle trip proved that bigger adventures were possible. With the awe that is reserved for the unattainable, I had pledged to give myself a 50th birthday present by riding coast to coast. Biking across America would be a fitting gateway to my last half-century-and as challenging as Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon. Running had changed my early life; I hoped that biking would enrich my middle one.
But I gave up those dreams after Will's death — or so I thought.
No sir, it was all very real. God had sent a series of angels like Clarence Oddbody — who got his wings in It's a Wonderful Life — to protect me, and Steve the Peach Angel was here to conclude their work. Steve's mission was to seal the deal, to ensure that I learned something about myself — about life — from this journey.
I had been wrong to have discerned that It's a Wonderful Life had to be about Will. Instead, it was I — not Will — who was George Bailey, earning a second chance at life.
The angels whom I met while biking across the country showed me how do to it. They stayed with me until I could fly on my own. Sure, as Karen said, I would have a Will-sized hole in my heart for the rest of my life. But I could live again. I could open my shell and help others. Just a regular guy, I stood in tall grass, sweating like 14 linebackers and smiling.
A wonderful sense of peace settled in my soul.
I realized that the blue moth had been a leading angel, one with a less-defined but still necessary purpose. For the better part of nine states I had tried to lose the moth once and for all around a street corner, or hoped to see it squashed on the windshield of one of the trucks that barreled past me on the highway. I had thought of the moth as a burden, a continual reminder of Will's passing.
Now, finally, I realized that the moth had forced me to grow in strength, understanding, and compassion — growth that I had been unable to measure as I pedaled blindly across the heart of America. Its presence caused me to reconsider how I thought about life — from the important things like my wife and family to the mundane things such as exercise and work. The blue-moth angel would be my welcome navigator on the rest of my trip through life. It could ride shotgun.