I hope you won't think the story I'm about to tell you is macabre. After all, I had known Billy Ray since 7th grade, and love sanctifies many an odd gesture.
Billy Ray and I liked each other all the way through high school. But he was shy and skittish around girls and didn't have easy access to a car. Dates were rare. We drifted into different lives while we were students at the University of Georgia. He never married but enjoyed a career teaching high school French and coaching dive and swim teams. That is, until a smoking habit ended his life seven years ago. Just hours before he died, I bent over his hospital bed to kiss his cheek. I realized after I left that he had wanted to kiss me on the lips, something he had never done. But sometimes life gives us second chances.
Billy Ray's remains were cremated. His younger sisters, Patty and Peggy, buried half his ashes at Crown Hill Cemetery in our hometown of Albany. But the other half? For the past seven years these sisters have been scattering bits of his ashes all over the world -- in places Billy Ray loved, or in places he would have loved to visit had he lived long enough.
When I greeted Patty at the Atlanta Athletic Club last week, she and her husband had just returned from Italy. "Billy Ray's in the Vatican!" she exclaimed.
We were in Atlanta to witness Billy Ray Schmidt's induction into the Georgia Aquatic Hall of Fame. True to his introverted nature, he had not told any of us that he had won the Southeastern Conference 3-meter diving championship three times and the 1-meter championship twice. All this while working his way through UGA. During his teaching career, he had coached 31 high school All-Americans and two USA National Champions. Billy Ray was in august company.
After the ceremony his sisters and their families invited me to join them at a restaurant called the Twisted Taco, just up the road from the Atlanta Athletic Club. As we sat on the patio laughing and talking, Patty suddenly said, "Would you like to scatter some of his ashes here?"
"At Twisted Taco?" I replied, my eyebrows climbing toward my hairline.
"Sure, he would have loved this place," Patty said.
And it's kind of like a sidewalk café in Paris," Peggy chimed in. Billy Ray had escorted countless high school classes on trips to France. And weren't we all gathered here, enjoying one another and sharing memories, because of his accomplishments? Patty was right; this was a significant place.
Patty dipped into her purse and produced a Ziploc bag. At the bottom lay a drift of fine white granules.
I took the bag, reached in and drew out a pinch of ashes. I moved to the rail of the patio, held my hand over the landscaped bushes, and let the particles fall from my fingers.
"We love you, Billy Ray," I said. "We're so proud of you."
As I returned to the table, Patty said, "Look what I found in the bag!" She was holding up a thin wire. "It must have been part of his dental work."
I took the wire and held it up to the light. "It's shaped like a heart," I said.
We all parted with hugs, snapping last pictures with our cell phones. Surely life will bring me back to this patio someday.
I didn't wash my hands until I got back to the hotel room that night. But before I did, I pressed my fingers to my lips.
Seven years too late, but we must seize what life offers us. A last kiss goodbye, Billy Ray.
Carol Megathlin, a Georgia writer living in Savannah; firstname.lastname@example.org.
CUTLINE INFO: Billy Ray Schmidt prepares for competition at the University of Georgia in the early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Schmidt family.