Never Say It"s Never Too Late


I've always considered myself very blessed in that my circle of friends here in East Tennessee are for the most part somehow related to one another, and that I've grown so close to these people over the years as to be considered a part of that family; so much so that I had often been welcomed into many of their homes during the frequent periods of trouble that I found myself in during my younger, wilder years. Willard King was a part of this extended family, someone whom I'd met during one of the aforementioned wild phases of my youth when I happened to be living with some friends who were, in true Tennessee fashion, 'sort of' related to him through step and half-siblings.

In the first of many attempts to break myself from a strong cocaine habit that had plagued me off and on up until two short years ago, Willard offered me a job at his small dry-cleaning business. It was certainly a step down from the jobs I'd previously held and lost due to my addiction, but it was a job, nonetheless, and despite the 'manual labor' aspect of it, I grew to love the job because of Willard's presence.

Willard was a cheerful, chain-smoking ray of sunshine in my otherwise dreary life at that point. One of the most outwardly affectionate people I've ever known, he had the amusing habit of calling everyone, including myself and other male friends, 'honey,' although he was by no means gay. Quite the contrary, and perhaps sometimes to his detriment, Willard loved the ladies just as much as he loved his Winston cigarettes and the rounds of Michelob beer that he frequently bought my co-workers and I after a long, hot day at the steamers. But Willard was much more than a kind employer, he was a true friend to all those around him. He had a real soft spot in his heart for other people, and I never knew him to turn down an opportunity to help someone in need. Willard was always there for 'his people,' willing to provide anything from some much-needed extra cash (which was rarely expected to be repaid), to a friendly ear, to some sage advice and simple yet meaningful words of encouragement.

Willard eventually sold the shop, and I moved on to attend college for electronics and IT. Although I kept up with him through the grapevine, nearly two years had passed before I ran into my friend again. As luck would have it, he had just opened a new dry-cleaning shop, which happened to be right next door to the cell-phone repair company where I worked. With a 'well hello, honey!' and a hug, Willard was back in my life again.

Despite his knowledge of my many faults and weaknesses, Willard always believed in me and in my potential to do great things. Although he sometimes tried to 'lure me away' from my new job, offering to open a repair center of his own with me in charge, I regretfully declined out of loyalty to my new boss. This loyalty paid off in the short run, as I eventually took over ownership of the company, but within a year of that I had fallen back into the depths of daily cocaine binges, and things soon fell apart. I've often wondered since then how differently things might have worked out, and how many hard lessons I could have spared myself had I gone into business with Willard. Subsequent to my loss of the repair business, I spent the next two years 'touring America,' homeless and strung out beyond belief, and completely out of touch with both of my families here at home.

In March of 2002 I returned to East Tennessee, broken yet bettered by my experiences 'on the road.' As my mother once remarked, I'm one of those people that just has to learn some things the hard way. Sadly, this particular learning style is not yet behind me.

I'd frequently thought about getting in touch with Willard since coming home, but like so many other people with long-lost friends, I never quite found or made the time. I was excited to learn recently that Willard had bought an old convenience store not three miles down the road from my house. I can't begin to count the times I've thought about driving down there to see him, but being that he was so close, I always figured that there'd be plenty of opportunities to visit 'some other time.' I write this having just learned that Willard passed away yesterday, and with him those opportunities, which it turns out weren't so plentiful after all.

I've often heard from those who don rose-colored glasses that 'it's never too late' to tell someone you love them, to let them know what an impact they've had on your life. Take it from someone who's learned the hard way'those people are wrong.

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Andy Henke is 27 and lives in East Tennesse.