Andy and Bill Barnes met via snail mail in 1998 after Andy had been featured in an article of the "PCNEWS". Bill and Andy shared some common interests. They both had a strong desire to help others, they both had a great passion for collecting Public Safety memorabilia, and they both loved the chance to socialize with others who shared in their interests.
Andy has had many Pen Pals over the past several years. Some of them are or were police officers, fire fighters or sheriffs deputies. Some are collectors like Andy, collecting various types of law enforcement and/or fire fighting memorabilia. Others collect stamps and/or coins. Some are better at staying in contact then others. No other has had the same impact as Bill.
After writing back and forth and sending things to each other for a couple of years, Andy decided that Bill would make a really great Grandpa - even if he did live very far away, and they had never actually met in person. Besides, Andy has seven siblings to share one set of grandparents with. It's perfectly understandable that he would chose to adopt his older pen pal as a second Grandpa.
To this day, due to Cerebral Palsy, Andy lacks the physical ability to write without some type of assistance. He has managed to become a fair typist, considering he uses the two-finger method. Still, his spelling is so bad that, even with the use of a computer, he needs someone willing to lend assistance where needed. Sometimes it's an older sibling, but usually it's me.
It was me that played assistant on the letter asking Bill to be Andy's Grandpa. I did not know how Bill would react to the request, and I hoped Andy would not be disappointed. To my relief and Andy's pleasure, Bill was delighted to have Andy for a grandson. Somehow this seemed to strengthen their already solid relationship. Calls, letters and packages continued to come and go between the two. Sometimes items came for the other children still living at home. Andy was okay with this occasional sharing of his personally acquired Grandpa.
In March 2003, when the Oakland, California Fire Department paid the way for us to come visit with them, Andy finally got the chance to meet Bill in person. We'd seen a couple of newspaper photos of Bill, but never a regular photograph. Still, Andy recognized Bill immediately. And with the skill of a seasoned detective, Andy quickly deduced that Grandpa Bill's female companion must be his wife. Here was his chance to acquire an extra Grandma. One can never have too many Grandparents.
I know this meeting was special to Bill and Marj. No words can describe how very special and important it was for Andy and me. We spent a week visiting with them, getting to know them better, sharing special moments and fantastic adventures as Andy visited with the Oakland Fire Department and their Oakland Firefighters Random Acts organization. We visited many fire stations, sometimes sharing meals with the firefighters. We visited the Police Department. We got to see how line-ups are done. Grandma played the bad guy. We visited the Jelly Belly Factory, the Oakland Zoo and the Chabot Space & Science Center. We were the very last people to ride the Oakland Fire Department Fireboat Sea Wolf before it was retired. We even attended a local Patch Collectors Show. It was an incredibly fantastic week.
We got the chance to visit with Bill again the following year when he and Marj helped us surprise Chief Gerald Simon by attending his Retirement Party. Again, we shared wonderful adventures. With Bill, Marj, Chief Simon and his wife Pam we visited the Lawrence Hall of Science. Bill took us on long drives along winding roads, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the ocean. We visited Muir Woods. Andy had not used a walker for several years, and Bill offered him one that had a seat that could be used to hold Andy's ventilator so that he could walk for the first time since he was nine. He actually wore himself out walking amongst the hugh Redwood trees at Muir Woods. Better yet, we got to take the walker home with us.
I can only imagine how much more special these visits made Bill (and Marj) to Andy. I had begun to feel as if I had acquired a second set of parents myself. Once home, we continued with our long distance relationship, never allowing too much time to pass between letters or calls.
In January 2007, Marj called me that Bill had died. Over the past couple of years, Bill had suffered several illnesses, sometimes requiring hospitalization. With Andy's multiple health issues, I had often wondered who would be calling whom first with such news. I worried about how I would tell Andy. He had never lost anyone he loved. I spent the next few hours working to hide my own pain as I gathered my thoughts and readied myself to tell my son that his Grandpa had died.
Due to Andy's multiple physical impairments and his learning disability, and the fact that Andy cannot speak, it is sometimes difficult to judge his level of maturity. Socially and emotionally he appears to be pretty much on target. But, sometimes I forget that the trails of lives have in some ways made Andy mature beyond his years. I was not prepared for his reaction to the news I had given him. My telling had been short and direct, and so was Andy's response. "Grandpa's in heaven now. Is Grandma okay?"
His concern was not for Bill, or even for his own loss of his beloved Grandpa. Instead his concern was for his Grandma; for her pain of loss and for her welfare. With Grandpa gone, who would take care of Grandma?.
Andy became withdrawn, 'voicing' his concern for his Grandma several times a day. I knew he could not and would not be content until he saw for himself that his Grandma would be watched after by her adult children and grandchildren that live near by her. Even though I understood this, I too had I strong need to hug Marj and see proof of this myself.
I am a single parent, staying at home to care for children with a variety of impairments. I cannot work outside my home, so we see to our needs with adoption subsidy and social security. We don't always have the money for what we need let alone money for the things we would like to have. I had no savings to buy plane tickets. It would cost sixteen hundred dollars for the three tickets I needed.
Fire Fighter Sean to the rescue! Sean Wilson is Andy's long time friend from the Royal Oak, Michigan Fire Department. He paid our way. I had about twenty-four hours to get ready to leave.
Andy has been on a plane several times. He had always enjoyed the flights taking in every detail just as he does on road trips. But, this time was different. His face was turned toward the window as if to take in every mountain, river and lake from thousands of feet up. But, I could tell by the look on his face that he saw none of these things. He was so totally lost in thought that I did not intrude. I felt sure that his mind was full of snapshots of him with Bill. Perhaps he was seeing and hearing bits and pieces from letters and phone conversations. This trip would not be fun like the previous two.
We attended Bill's memorial service and spent a week visiting with Marj, her family and our Oakland Fire Department friends. Grandpa was in heaven, and Grandma would be okay. We could go home.
Andy has been forever changed by the life and death of his Grandpa Bill. Bill's photo has been on the fridge since the funeral. If Andy has his way it will be there forever. Perhaps someday it will be joined by a photo of Andy. Grandpa Bill and Andy together again - Forever.
We miss you Bill.
Story by: Laurie J. Noble