March 2014 - The Bridge

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I’ve been writing this column for thirty-two years. In all that time, nearly four hundred columns, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten serious with you. Brace yourself: this will be one of those times.

If you came here looking for a laugh—and were desperate enough to turn to me—you might as well stop reading right here and turn the page. Get hold of a copy of the Congressional Record. That should make you laugh—at least until you start weeping.

But it says at the bottom of every column that I write it to get it out of my system, and that is literally true. I’m a guy who needs to laugh, and I’ve spent my life in jobs—prosecutor, judge, justice—that don’t involve much laughter.

Everything I write in my day job makes somebody unhappy. And no one wants to read, “Your five-million-dollar judgment is reversed, but did you hear the one about the nun and the parrot and the sailor?”

So usually the column allows me to get my laugh fix without doing it at the expense of others.1 Unfortunately, this month I have something else to get out of my system.

My best friend died. Last night.

His name was Tom Wilkinson. He went by “Wilk” most of his life. In college, where he set a school record for fielding percentage, his teammates changed that to “Silk,” as in “smooth as ...” and I called him that the rest of his life.

We met in the fifth grade. His mom had fled the poverty of south central Los Angeles for our blue-collar neighborhood a few miles away, where nobody was rich, but everybody qualified for a home loan under the GI Bill.

His mom was a waitress, my dad was a casketmaker; I thought we were “upper-middle-class.” He explained to me that we weren’t.

In fifty-six years, we never had a serious falling-out. We did everything together. We played Little League together, we trick-or-treated together, we struggled through puberty together. We studied for the SAT together, played college ball together, got Christmas vacation and summer jobs together. We were each other’s best man. I have very few memories of my life that Silk didn’t celebrate or suffer through with me.

Cancer took him out. Like me, he was barely sixty-six.

I’m writing this to share with you something he said to me when he first learned of his cancer. I have shared it with others, but this platform gives me a chance to share it with people who don’t know me—people in Atlanta and St. Louis and Washington, D.C., and all the other places that run my column. I think it’s something everyone—especially every lawyer—should hear.

Silk was a smoker. He quit after thirty years, but the damage had already been done. His cancer was smoking-related.

When he found that out, he recalled all the times he’d said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” That was his mantra for all the years he smoked. That was what he said to all the well-meaning people who tried to get him to stop.

And when they diagnosed his problem, he said to me, “You feel pretty stupid when you actually get to the goddam bridge.”

Silk got to the bridge in his fifties. He spent the rest of his life trying to cross it while battling not just the disease, but the poisons of chemotherapy, the burns of radiation, and the suppurating wounds of surgeries in places you wouldn’t even want a bruise.

It turned his life from the triumphal march of a collegiate star athlete, successful businessman (“Plastics, my boy, plastics”), loving husband, and proud father, to the dogged trudge of a stoic but badly damaged infantryman. It was a bridge too far.

He never once complained about this, never questioned its fairness, never whined or griped or sank into self-pity. He understood completely that actions have consequences, and he considered his plight a simple matter of cause-and-effect. He took it better than I did.

In the end, he chose hospice care rather than extending his life with more chemo, and his only comment about hospice care was how great the people were and how hard they tried to make him comfortable. In the last months of his life, I only heard him verbalize two feelings: gratitude and pain.

We went to one last baseball game together three months ago in Atlanta. We had seats we would have dreamed about as kids, but he was taking a lot of pain medication, twisting in his hard plastic seat, and it was the first time I ever saw him turn down a ballpark hot dog.

On the other side of me sat a man who had driven in from South Carolina to bring his boy to his first major league baseball game. My friend was attending his last.

It was a bittersweet evening in Atlanta. We both knew I’d be leaving in the morning and we’d never see each other again. But the closest he came to lamenting his condition was to comment—in a voice that fairly dripped with rue I’m sure he couldn’t hear—that the young Miami pitcher, a rookie, was “gonna be a beauty.”

He’s right. José Fernández is gonna be a beauty. But it’s a beauty Silk will never see. And, for the first time in sixty years, his beloved Yankees2 will have to manage a season without his moral support. As will I.

So what does this have to do with you? The bridge.

A lot of you are planning to cross some bridge “when you come to it.”

Silk’s story is not about cancer. It’s not even about friendship. If I thought you were stupid enough not to realize how hard you should be working to nurture and support the people who love you, I wouldn’t think you were smart enough to benefit from a tale about friendship.

No, this story is about bridges. It’s about the fallacy involved in crossing that bridge when we get to it. It’s about the fact you have to start getting ready to cross the bridges in your life long before you get to them.

I’ve lost thirty-five pounds since Silk’s cancer was diagnosed. That was one bridge I had been expecting to cross when I got to it. I’ve got lots of others I have to work on, but that was the most obvious.

I don’t know what yours is. It might be medical. I have one friend dying and one flying all over the country to see miracle-working shamans—both because they neglected medical care for something. I have a friend who’s an alcoholic and several who are smokers.

Or it might be lifestyle. Our profession has frightening alcoholism and suicide rates. Heart attacks are as common as quarters. We all keep promising ourselves we’ll slow down or learn to deal with the stress or take on some help or retire. And we all keep going to the funerals of lawyers who didn’t.

It might be something I haven’t even thought of. If you aren’t reading this in Atlanta or St. Louis or Washington, D.C., or one of the other syndicate cities, you probably know me well enough to know how faulty my thought processes can be. My failure to foresee your personal bridge will probably not surprise you. So don’t let the fact I haven’t described it keep you from recognizing it as a bridge.

And no matter what it is, no matter where it is, no matter when you think it’s going to show up, start preparing for it now. Because it’s too late when it suddenly looms up on your horizon.

You never met Thomas Gary Wilkinson (1947-2014), but you can profit from his example. If you don’t, trust me, you’ll remember what he said. And you’ll feel pretty stupid when you actually get to the goddam bridge.

(1) Well, no others except my readers.
(2) I never said he was perfect.
But he was born in Mickey Mantle’s hometown (a wide spot in the road in Oklahoma) on Mickey Mantle’s birthday; I figured I had to give him a pass on the Yankee thing.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.