[Not So] Silly Old Man, Wet and Laughing in the Rain – Bill Cunningham (May 16th, 1942 – January 12th, 2020) R.I.P. And You Did Not End Up Having Simply Visited This World!

Bill Cunningham (1942-2021) in Florida in 2018 – A man for all seasons, wet or dry!

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what it is going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems Volume I, Beacon Press, 1992

With a burdened heart I say good-bye tonight to one of the greatest gifts poetry has brought me – Bill Cunningham. An extraordinarily fine human being by any measure. Dead today from cancer. And for sure this man, this dearest of dear friends, did not as Mary Oliver writes: end up simply having visited this world. He went eyeball to eyeball with it, stood tall, up to his elbows in the beauty and mud of this world! And in one of his latest poems featured below he imagined himself as a silly old man wet and laughing in the rain. That kind of eyeball to eyeball!

And one of the great beauties and gifts of this world for him was the birth of his grandson Jad almnost three years ago. We all got a great laugh when his daughters remembered how he said he would not be an available-all-the-time kind of grandfather if he ever became one. Well, within weeks if not days of Jad’s birth he was showing up pretty well daily to help out! And when Jad’s mum, Ali, went back to work Bill was there dutifully and happily at 7 in the morning  every day, except weekends, for a long time! And was a constant visitor after that time as well until Jad went daycare where Bill would often pick him up and take him home!

One of my first memories of him was at Surfside, Texas when he joined a poetry retreat I was leading there in 2011. A retreat organized by other dear friends from poetry, the late Andy Parker and his wife Liz. Imagine this: he is in Texas and comes to visit dear friends, nine months after his beloved wife Liliana had died of cancer. They bring him to the retreat! I still remember the beautiful poem he wrote about the last days of his wife and also him reciting Rilke in German and then in English.

Bill and I became friends that weekend and saw each other every year once or twice until around this time last year. Our last visit – in Florida in and around Delray Beach, home of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. And I am so gald my dearheart and wife Somae was with me as well. Covid-19 prevented any other visits. But I lie. I had a last visit last night! I had a dream of being in a lush tropical place near the sea. And someone I had known well for many years was driving up in a golf cart with Bill sitting beside them! I wondered if this was a sign of his going. Who knows. But he died today after some tough weeks at around 5:30 PM in his daughter Ali’s house in Boca Raton. Both his daughters, their partners and Jad were there in the house when he died. A blessing.

Bill was so many things in his one wild and precious life! Born in New Brunswick he moved to the U.S. for post grad studies and became a Benedictine priest/monk! Spent time in Germany where he became fluent in the language doing further theological studies. Back in the US he was active as a priest and professor.

Bill and his daughter Christina in 2018

But in his early thirties he left the church. He was very proud of his excommunication letter! Later, he married the love of his life, Liliana, born in Cuba, and became father to their two beloved daughters, Ali and Christina. After  further careers as a management consultant and corporate executive, he became very involved with cranial sacral therapy.

By the time I met him he was retired in Florida where he had lived for years and was still grieving Lili’s death but also writing up a storm. There were few days for many years where he didn’t write a poem. And for the past few Januarys he wrote a poem a day with me and dear poet friends, Liz McNally, Heidi Garnett and Martha Royea, whom he had met in his visits up to B.C. to attend three Patrick Lane poetry retreats.

Bill was diagnosed with stage four cancer about three or four years ago but lived in, strange to say, great health outwardly until the past six months or so. And even as his cancer begam to slow him down greatly he remained so alive and kept writing. I am thrilled to share a poem he wrote on the 28th of September, the second to last poem he shared with our January poetry group. There he faced his own decay face to face! But how he never lost his sense of humour or zest for life as he shows in these last lines!

Perhaps next time it rains, what the hell,
I should just take my body out into the yard
sit there and let the downpour run over me freely,
a silly old man wet and laughing in the rain.

Oh Bill you were anything but a silly old man. I get such comfort imagining you there out in front of your house in Boynton Beach getting soaking wet and loving it! Oh the laughs we had together. The belly laughs! How I will miss them, miss you, terribly! But enough of that! Now, your poem!

It Rained Last Night

“…decay, too, is a sign of life.
—Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree

It rained last night.
A good rain.
Steady but not hard
with now and then a pause.

I took my dry orchids outside,
a break from their air-conditioned window—
I thought they would enjoy the lushness,
the warmth, the blessing of air and water.

They show no sign of blooming, and besides
it’s not really the right time of year, although
at times one or another has bloomed according
to some internal clock that confounds my expectations.

I’ve had these plants for several years and in spite of,
or perhaps because of, my occasional forgetfulness
they have bloomed, then dropped the flowers
only to sit for many months silent, green, barren.

Occasionally they put forth a new leaf, and
I’m not sure whether it’s a sign of hope or desperation,
but I welcome any growth, and find it a good omen
for my own years-long up and down journey.

After all, if they can survive with (benign) neglect,
can I do any worse? True, I fade a little each year,
sinking aware into old age but still surprised at its
numerous, new and uncomfortable limitations.

Perhaps next time it rains, what the hell,
I should just take my body out into the yard
sit there and let the downpour run over me freely,
a silly old man wet and laughing in the rain.

Bill Cunningham, unpublished

In Bill’s honour I book end this blog post celebrating his life with another Mary Oliver poem. A beauty I just discovered.

I Looked Up

I looked up and there it was
among the green branches of the pitchpines –

thick bird,
a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back –

color of copper, iron, bronze –
lighting up the dark branches of the pine.

What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.

When I made a little sound
it looked at me, then it looked past me.

Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent,
and, as I said, wreathed in fire.

– Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems Volume Two, Beacon Press, 2005

Bill  had his arguments with God even after he stopped believing in him (her) but he was not afraid to embrace what was numinous and mysterious in this world. I love Mary’s image of this magical bird, a phoenix perhaps, and its sense of resurrection and new life. I can say that I detected no fear of death in Bill in my conversations with him as his illness really progressed earlier in 2020. And I would like to belive even if he didn’t that his spirit has arisen and been welcomed in some other dimension!

Dear poet friend, this is my poet’s send off to you. And I am pleased to bookend your poem, your words, with Mary Oliver’s. Well deserved! Love you, man. Love you.


  1. Sheila Conner
    Posted January 13, 2021 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    This breaks my heart. I didn’t know. I loved this man dearly. His life was so full of giving completely. Another silenced voice from our poetry retreats. O gosh, this is heartbreaking.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted January 16, 2021 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Oh Sheila. Not too many of us guys still standing. You are so right. Andy, Gywnn and now Bill. That leaves me as a regular (more than 2 or three retreats!) Yikes. So glad to be alive. And so glad I know you. Sending big hugs of love and protection!

  3. Posted January 13, 2021 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you dear Richard for introducing me to dear Bill Cunningham. We’ve been in touch with one another for the past six years, maybe more. I wanted to pick a Patrick Lane poem for Bill last night and the book, Washita, opened to “Close” with these final lines: “Tonight I took my shorn hair and laid it on the arms of the pines. / In the morning the hummingbird will line their nests with me.”

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted January 16, 2021 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    That is such a gorgeous line! Thank you. Thank you. So glad Bill was in your life and I know he was so glad you were in his!

  5. Sheryl
    Posted January 13, 2021 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this, Richard. Bill had such a way with words – it was lovely for me to read your words for him at this time. I don’t know you, but it is clear to me that you “knew” Bill, and your appreciation for his beauty and sharing of your experience of him touched my heart. In gratitude for your words and for Bill, and the gift that his life and his words were for me.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted January 16, 2021 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Sheryl. I am so grateful to meet you. even if this way. So pleased to know that my words called on who you knew Bill to be. To share my experience of Bill was to begin the healing journey. Perhaps the deepest male friendship I have been privileged to experience. Something at a soul level!

  7. Frances Warner
    Posted January 13, 2021 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Thank you Richard for your words today about Bill, a loving eulogy. I never knew him, but Heidi spoke often of him. I am sorry for your loss. And thank you for Bill’s poem and the Oliver poems. Your blog means a great deal to me.

  8. Richard Osler
    Posted January 16, 2021 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Blessings back to you Frances! Love knowing you are there to catch my blog out of the ether!

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