The Hardin family moved to De Queen in the early 1990’s, and Mr. Bill became part of the church where my dad served as pastor for almost 30 years. Not long after Mr. Bill moved to town, I graduated from high school and left town for more than a decade. After becoming a pastor myself, I returned to De Queen to transition my dad into retirement several years ago. I only knew Mr. Bill a short time in the prime of his life before he began his prolonged, difficult battle with the disease that ultimately claimed his physical life just a few days ago.
Mr. Bill walked a tough road that very few people must walk, suffering from a very rare disease called corticobasal degeneration. It only affects about six of every 100,000 people. He suffered greatly as the disease robbed him of one ability after another… mobility, speech, and ultimately breathing itself. It is a cruel illness, and maybe someday we will find a cure for it. But this is not about the disease that took his life; it’s about the determination with which he faced that disease.
Earlier this week I eulogized Mr. Bill as I stood before his friends and family during his funeral service. Our word eulogy is borrowed from the ancient Greeks, and the New Testament writers used it quite often. It is usually translated as blessed. But if you break it down, to eulogize is simply to speak well of somebody.
He and Mrs. Hardin were married for over 51 years. That in itself is an incredible testimony. For all those years, he loved and cared for his family. His son said of their family’s ethos, “For all the work and for everything else, when it’s all said and done, what’s left is love.” Mr. Bill demonstrated a great deal of love: for God, for his family, and for his friends.
Like all believers should be, Mr. Bill was a hard worker. His family was never in need of anything. He was a dedicated employee, going to work early and staying late. His career enabled him to travel and see Europe.
On his own time, Mr. Bill loved to go “junkin.” He loved estate sales and local festivals. He was known for pulling over on the side of the road to capture a lost hubcap… even if it was on the side of the interstate. He loved to acquire rare things; one of his favorite phrases was, “This is kindy unusual.” He loved to get a good deal, and was always on the hunt for a bargain. His shop is full of these “kindy unusual things” and acquired bargains.
As a young man, Mr. Bill was often sick. At one point, he had missed so much school that he thought about giving up, about quitting school altogether. His mother was in tears and pleaded with him to keep going and finish school. He stuck it out and eventually graduated from high school. From there he went on to Mississippi State University. Getting him through college was a sacrifice for his parents. At one point, it was time for him to return to Starkville and they were $30 short. Today, $30 is a tank of gas or an inexpensive meal out. At that moment, $30 amounted to a financial crisis.
The family just happened to have some junk out in the yard. Somebody just happened to pass by and buy this pile of junk… for $30. And because of that pile of junk, Mr. Bill’s education continued. His mom saw it in spiritual terms: “The Lord will provide.” He was the first college graduate in his family. He became an engineer, specializing in injection molded plastics manufacturing. He managed operations in his native Mississippi and in Arkansas until his retirement.
He was good at stories. For several years, he owned an antiques dealership in Mississippi. He was a Civil War buff, an interest that I inherited from my own father. During our visits in his final months, Mr. Bill and I spent a lot of time talking about sieges, landings, ironclads, cannonballs and generals. His mind was sharp, right up until the end. I’m going to miss our talks. Personally, his faith and endurance were an encouragement to me.
He’s not the first terminal patient who’s faced his dire physical situation with faith-filled endurance. Nor will he be the last. Society, history and pop culture provide us with no shortage of examples of ‘tough guys.’ That phrase itself probably conjures up images for you. In his final months, confined to a hospital bed in his own home, Mr. Hardin probably did not look tough. But appearances can be very deceiving.
Mr. Bill was a good friend. He loved to hang out with his friends in the Rusty Relics tractor club. He was the magneto man, the chairman of carburetors. It would be an understatement to say that he was mechanically inclined. When he was a teenager, he built his own first car from the ground up. When his tractor enthusiast friends needed help with a project, they knew they could count on Mr. Bill.
As his illness progressed, Mr. Bill did not sleep well at all. He spent many long nights lying awake, unable to move or care for himself. He thought a lot about his friend Dewey, who lived just across the way. They had been neighbors and friends for decades. They helped each other with engines and projects. They shared the sort of unspoken mutual respect that quiet, independent, hard-working, resourceful Southern men have for one another.
Mr. Bill knew that just through the woods, his friend Dewey was in the fight of his own life. They both passed away within a few months of one another. Maybe he never said it in these exact words, but Mr. Bill loved his friend Dewey. And during those long quiet hours while the rest of the world rested, Mr. Bill would lie awake, fighting his own pain, facing his own mortality, and praying unceasingly for his friend Dewey.
Rev. Larry Moore ministered to the Hardin family as their hospice chaplain. During the funeral service, Rev. Moore compared Mr. Bill to the biblical Joseph, a man who suffered so greatly, and yet without bitterness. And not just that; he was still looking out for others even while enduring his own crisis.
Mr. Bill was one of the most faithful and brave men I’ve ever personally known. From visit to visit, I could see his physical condition declining. In the final months as he lost the ability to speak… I did more talking than he did. I would read some Psalms to him, and it seemed to calm him. In one of our last, good long talks, we spoke a lot about heaven, about hope, and about peace. He longed for his situation to change. We all did. We all prayed that things would be different, but they weren’t. God never promised us that our lives would be easy, that we would be free from pain, or that we would be miraculously delivered from cruel conditions like C.B.D. God has promised that we would never be alone, no matter how long the nights are.
Christ did not conquer death in order to redeem our physical bodies. He died to conquer death and redeem our souls, so that what make us really us can live forever.
In 1642, an English poet wrote a poem to his love, from prison:
Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.
Mr. Bill was imprisoned by a body that had turned against itself. And yet still he was free. During those long sleepless nights, he would lie awake… rebuilding carburetors from the inside out, and restoring tractors from the ground up. And he would pray for his friend just down the way.
Everybody struggles with something. No matter how strong we appear, we all have some battle that keeps us up and causes us pain. We didn’t choose it, and we can’t lose it.
It’s not the battle itself that defines us; it’s how we fight.