It was the evening of July 20, 1988. The phone rang and I received the call I knew I would eventually receive but didn’t expect so soon. Bill Lawless, my friend and police academy classmate, had been taken from his family and friends by the horrible disease, leukemia.
Over the next few days, I attended his wake and stood in formation in uniform as we celebrated his life with a police funeral attended by many of his friends and fellow officers.
I wanted to let Bill’s two small children, Billy and Marie know what a great dad they had, but I couldn’t bring myself to put pen to paper and tell them about their very special dad. It just hurt too much.
After procrastinating for almost four years, I finally built up the courage to write the following letter, telling Billy and Marie what a great dad they had. When I finished the letter, I put it in the mail. It read:
May 26, 1991
Dear Marie and Billy,
I have to apologize for not writing this letter sooner, but, it was difficult to sit down and put the words I wanted to say to you on paper. I hope the two of you will be able to forgive me for my tardiness.
Your father was my friend Bill. The first time I met him was on a warm day, September 11, 1972, when we were being sworn into the Suffolk County Police Department. Everyone was introducing themselves to one another. I chatted with your father while everyone was trying to arrange carpools to ride to the academy.
As we attended the academy, your dad could always be counted on to have a joke to tell and the ability to make everyone laugh. In fact, your dad could even laugh at himself. When he laughed, everyone laughed with him. I remember the time the instructor took your dad and three other people out of line and made them march. The more your dad had to march, the more he laughed. The more he laughed, the more everyone else laughed. Finally, the instructor got so angry, he made your dad and the other three standing facing one another and ordered them not to laugh. That was all he had to do. Your dad stood there biting his lip and had tears coming down his cheeks. The instructor kept picking on him as he tried not to laugh.
Your dad was trying to lose weight and had wrapped his stomach in Saran Wrap so he would sweat some more. Well, the instructor heard this crinkling noise as your dad giggled. He started to look for where the noise was coming from and found the noise getting louder as your dad tried so hard not to laugh. Finally, the instructor, started to poke your dad with his finger, and he could hear the Saran Wrap crinkling. Your father started to laugh, and soon everyone was laughing, not at your father, but with him.
Your dad was also a super friend and knew how to go out of his way to help his friends when they were unhappy. While I was in the academy, I was supposed to get married. Things did not work out, and when I came back from the couple days off after Christmas, your dad was there to help cheer me up. He decided a couple of weeks later that it was time for me to cheer up, and he told me I was going out with him and some of his friends. He made sure I had a good time.
After we got out of the Police Academy, we both went to work in the First Precinct. We went to different squads, but we tried to spend time together. When we were both off on a Friday night, we usually went out partying together. Somehow, it always seemed that I had to go to work the next morning, and when I hollered at your dad, he would just laugh at me.
We were both so young at the time. We liked cars. I remember your father calling me up one night and telling me he was coming over to show me his new car. At that time, in 1973, the Datsun 240Z was a real fancy sports car. He pulled up in this new blue sports car, and we had so much fun going out for a ride. The car rode so well that usually your dad was driving twice as fast as I thought we were going. Boy, I bet if either of you drove that way when you get your licenses, he would be hollering at both of you.
One day, I was walking a foot post in Babylon Village. I saw this motorcycle pull up and the driver said hello. There was your dad again. I couldn't even recognize him, tee shirt, sunglasses, helmet, and unshaven. But, I could tell it was him once I saw that smile of his face. You could always tell Bill Lawless by his smile.
During the summer of 1973, your Uncle Jimmy came home on leave from the army. Your dad asked me if I wanted to go out on your uncle's boat with him, your uncle and your uncle's friend. As usual your dad was in charge. In fact, he was in charge at the time he ran out of gas on the Great South Bay. There we sat, giving your dad a hard time while he made excuses. Soon some teenagers came along and offered us a tow into the dock. As they were towing us, they were offering to sell us stolen boat parts. This could only happen with your dad around.
One of the things that really stands out in my mind about your dad also happened that same day. After we were done with the boat, we went to where your grandfather worked. Of course, we all told him how your father had run out of gas and left us in the bay. Your grandfather looked at your dad, like only a father can look at a son, and said something to him. I still remember your dad's reply, "Oh Daddy," It was so special, so touching, to hear a grown man, who had been in a war, and was policeman, who was still be able to call his father "Daddy".
During the spring of 1973, I met a special lady who became my wife later on. Unfortunately, your father and I started to drift apart. I regret not staying more in touch with your dad. I guess that's part of the foolishness of youth, you only seem to be interested in one thing at a time.
As time went on, we would meet occasionally. Usually we would meet at the schools we went to to study for the Sergeant's test. As the years went on, we would meet and talk about children, first you, Marie, and then you Billy. Whenever, your dad would tell me about you two, or your mom, he would always smile and have a twinkle in his eyes. Whenever your dad was happy, there was that twinkle in his eyes.
If either of you ever wonder what kind of person your dad was, let me tell you one last story about him. Your dad worked for a while in a busy area where there were a lot of people who were not very nice. Around Christmas 1974, while working in this area, your dad found an old couple living alone. They were real poor. Your dad, with that soft spot in his heart for people, made sure those people had a merry Christmas. He got them oil for their house, and on the front page of Newsday, was a picture of your dad, in a snowstorm, delivering food, presents, and a Christmas tree to these poor old people. It takes a very special person to be so kind, but your dad was that special person.
I know I can never miss your dad as much as you two do, or in the same way as your mother misses him, but I do miss my friend. I think of him often, and I always remember his smile, his twinkling eyes, his sense of humor, and his love for his family and friends. Thank you for sharing him with me.
I didn’t receive a response to the letter I sent, but remember, it took me four years to write to Billy and Marie. I have to admit I hoped that the letter had not upset them. You never know when something intended to be well meaning might upset someone.
Then it happened. I was sitting at my computer on a Sunday evening in the autumn of 2019. I was taking one last look at email before retiring for the evening. There in my email was an unexpected missive that still brings tears to my eyes when I read it.
Hi Keith, my name is, formerly, Marie Lawless. My dad was Bill Lawless. About 5 years ago, my mom gave me a letter you wrote us. She must have found it in her things when she moved. I’m not sure why I am just now realizing that I could look you up in, Facebook. Your letter means so much to me. Last year was 30 years he’s been gone and I still miss him every day. Your letter is one that I read often to keep his memory alive. For that, I thank you! I would love to be Facebook friends. You have to check out my second born, he looks so much like my dad as a baby. He’s also got his grandfather’s personality, and I guess mine too. From what everyone tells me, I’m a lot like him too. I look forward to hearing from you.
Marie and I now share emails on a regular basis. I’ve seen photos of her children, Bill’s grandchildren. I can see Bill’s sparkling eyes and bright smile on their tiny faces. On Marie’s 2019 Christmas card, there is a handwritten note –“I am so glad we have connected. I’m sure my dad is smiling about it. Marie.”
I’m sure he is.
About Keith Bettinger:
Keith Bettinger is a retired Suffolk County (N.Y.) Police Officer. He’s been writing for law enforcement publications for more than 35 years and has received 28 awards for his articles, stories, poems, and books. He has a Master’s Degree in Human Relations with a major in Clinical Counseling. During his career he received the department’s Bravery Medal, Silver Shield Award, Meritorious Police Service Award, Special Service Award, Professionalization Award, Department Recognition Award, five Headquarters commendations and six Precinct commendations. He also was a field training officer and an instructor on Post Shooting Trauma and Critical Incidents. Keith has written three books, FIGHTING CRIME WITH “SOME" DAY and LENNY, END OF WATCH and MURDER IN McHENRY.