He was smart and clever and quick and funny and creative. He loved history and war, and from a very tender age made and painted miniatures that grew to populate entire battlefields in a lifelong friend’s basement, where he participated in war games most weekends of his adult life. He started small, however, on the H-O train table in our basement, adding touches like guillotines and burned-out buildings left behind by some advancing army. On a slightly larger scale, his fascination with fireworks led to Fourth of July shows that by all rights should have cost him a finger or two.
He apprenticed at carpentry with our maternal grandfather, a gifted German carpenter who moved in when Billy was very young and died when he was hitting puberty. He loved projects and making things and tools, and he always had to have the best. His beloved Cannon Ranch, a Sears kit house in the Chicago suburbs, was full of things he made or fixed or upgraded or restored, always with enthusiasm and zest. A lot of those things never quite got finished, even before he got sick, but his intentions were always good and his materials first class.
Our mother died when he was fourteen, which led to a lack of supervision that fed his normal adolescent rebellion and made him a superb hippie. He took his time getting through college and partied in a Volkswagen bus with one of the wildest Afros ever seen on an Irishman. It didn’t hurt that he was a gifted raconteur and a great bullshitter. He was also exceptionally generous, born with a hole in his pocket.
Then Bill made a decision that changed his entire life. He went to Marine Corps boot camp. He got a job as a patrol officer with the Wheaton Police Department and spent eight years as a Marine reservist. I used to tell him that he’d become a cop as the lazy man’s route to power, and while he never entirely denied that, he genuinely loved being a police officer and helping people.
He was, of course, a troublemaker even as a cop, a union man unable to resist a challenge or knuckle under willingly to an authority he disagreed with, and he was actually appealing a two-day suspension when he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 1994.
He was thirty-seven years old.
Bill’s world changed forever when he experienced his first grand mal seizure that September, though none of us realized it at first. He endured surgery, radiation, emergency surgery for an infection, more radiation, chemotherapy and a host of tangential medical complications and problems. Throughout it all he remained upbeat and positive, determined to return to work at the first opportunity.
That never happened. He was never given medical clearance to return to patrol.
He continued to have infrequent but massive seizures, and on disability a lot of his home improvement projects ground to a halt. But he kept tending the yard he’d filled with interesting trees and shrubs and flowers and vegetables. He remained a crackerjack cook, moving through ethnic cuisines as they appealed, and barbecuing on his seven grills. He played war games in his friend’s basement. And he continued to be enormously proud of his three stepchildren, Jason and Kellie and Mitchell.
Eventually, he did get back inside the cop shop, as a civilian booking clerk for the DuPage County Sheriff’s Department, and it revigorated him. He knew it was a much lower rung on the law enforcement ladder than where he’d been positioned earlier, but once again he was earning a paycheck and keeping bad guys off the streets. He developed a specialty of finding outstanding warrants in other jurisdictions, and took pride in getting a couple of folks one-way tickets back to Palookaville in the company of marshals. He worked through aliases and got some other folks deported.
He loved his work.
If it can be said that any aspect of Bill’s illness was fortunate, I think it would be that he started out with a really exceptional brain, one resistant to the damage and trauma thrust upon it by disease and treatment. Because over time there were more seizures, and each of them further damaged that brain and stole a little bit more of the man he once had been.
He knew this, though he never admitted it, and he resisted all efforts to get him to seek medical re-evaluation, even after a seizure at the jail in January 2008 that lasted over an hour and required paralytics to stop. That April he drove downstate to his stepson Jason’s wedding, and a month later, at home alone in West Chicago, he suffered the stroke that marked the end of the independence he had struggled so hard to maintain.
Bill fought long and hard, sometimes against all reason and through sheer pigheadedness. Life dealt him a really crummy hand, but he played it with dignity and honor. My heart was broken many times by his illness over the past eighteen years, but perhaps the hardest moment for me was when he acknowledged last November that it was time for what he referred to as “a next step.” That step was assisted living, where his hall mates all had a good thirty years on him. But by then the ravages thrust upon his brain and his body by disease and treatment had finally taken control, and he was gone less than three months after he moved in.
He was fifty-four.
My brother was a hippie, a Marine, a cop, a brain tumor survivor, a gardener, a war gamer, a gourmet cook, and a silver-tongued Irishman with a quick temper and a quicker grin.
In his final three years, he was cared for by the family with whom he shared his life for six years, a quarter-century earlier. Their love and devotion to him was testimony to all the best that he could be, and all that he had been.
The world is a better place because Bill Cannon was in it, and a smaller one because he is gone.