The Quiet Collective

A tribute to our everyday heroes

Photograph by Carrie Marie Burr

A dying patient once confessed to hospice chaplain R. W. Williams, “You know, I’ve never done this before.” In the quarter-decade that Williams has been making house calls across the southern Adirondacks, traveling 1,000 times a year from his home in Northville to sit with those seeking comfort, he’d never suggest to anyone that he has the answers. What he does tell them is, “You’re never alone. If you have a phone, call me—midnight, two a.m. … anytime.” Same goes for what he says to callers on the other end of the Fulton County suicide hotline he’s answered for 38 years.

Over breakfast at Shelby’s Kitchenette, in Northville, 78-year-old Williams describes his journey from Manitoba to South Africa to Ontario to the Adirondacks. He’s a husband, a father and a grandfather with a degree in psychology who favors bolo ties. He hand-polished the Mexican lace agate that he wears around his neck today. Like everything Williams does, the bolo as part of his daily uniform came from thoughtfulness—“A minister can’t visit homes in three-piece suits,” he says.

On warm, dry days Williams makes house calls on his white Can-Am Spyder Roadster, its “FAITH IT” license plate his gentle roadside reminder. He says he doesn’t believe that things are “meant to be.” (“Who meant it to be?” he asks. “If it’s God, I can’t follow a god like that.”) He says “the difference between crying and laughing is the width of a hair.” (“Some cry for joy and laugh with grief.”) That it’s “arrogant” to say, “I know just how you feel.” And that he believes “closure” is a myth. (Williams visited a great-grandmother in Piseco who had lost a small child a half-century earlier. When he asked how she had dealt with it, she told him, “Well, I don’t think about it every day, but when someone like you brings it up, it was like yesterday.”)

Williams’s mental-health counseling and hospice work is a calling, he says, and yes, sometimes “it is sad. People dying in their 90s isn’t the same as suicide, guns or a baby that dies at 10 days old.”

Still, “I see people with broken hearts, not broken spirits.” He goes to them “in rain, snow, black ice. It’s just what we do. There’s no heroism.”

But there is.

What Williams does for the dying and the desperate isn’t the sort of thing that’s acknowledged on magazine covers or at the water cooler. His contributions are under the radar, but essential in keeping communities like ours from collapsing. Around here, people might be too proud or too isolated to ask for help.

In the Adirondacks, volunteer firefighters drop everything to save our homes. Concerned citizens organize spaghetti suppers to raise money for neighbors’ medical bills. New parents find frozen meals at their doorstep. In cold weather, teachers drive, after hours, to students’ homes to hand-deliver left-behind hats, mittens and coats. Driveways are anonymously plowed in the dark of early morning. Even a certain local veterinarian has been known to make house calls for gravely ill and injured animals. (She came to my house on a Sunday morning to euthanize my family’s sick, elderly dog. That creature meant everything to us; the vet, who refused payment, wanted to make her comfortable in her last moments.)    

This quiet collective, these heroes—people who never expect a thank you, who, whether answering to a higher power or acting on a primal pull to do the right thing—keep us connected. As Williams reminds us, “you’re never alone.”


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