Getting to know my cousin Bill on his 80th birthday

By Valerie Shelton, Editor

It was a typical Monday morning. I was sitting at my desk sifting through my Clovis Roundup email, laden with the usual fodder—a message or two from a colleague mixed in between advertisements and press releases. I opened one of the latter—a press release from Bethesda Lutheran Communities and lo-and-behold there before me was a name I recognized instantly: William “Bill” Stover.

Could it be? Was this the same Bill Stover my mom would tell me stories of visiting while I was growing up? The one who couldn’t speak but ran circles around my mom on the basketball court while shooting hoops years ago? Was this my cousin Bill?

Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker I help Bill open his birthday gifts.
Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker
I help Bill open his birthday gifts.

A quick call to my mom and a look at Bill’s picture—he has the same piercing green eyes as my mom—confirmed it. This was my cousin who we somehow lost contact with some time ago.

The press release declared he would be celebrating his 80th birthday that Friday, Feb. 12 and all his friends from Bethesda’s Browning Home in Fresno would be there. The milestone birthday was quite a feat for Bill, who has been cared for by Bethesda Lutheran Communities for 43 years. Bethesda is a Christian non-profit organization that provides homes and services to people with developmental disabilities. They have a handful of communities in the Fresno metropolitan area, including the Dewitt Home in Clovis. Over the years, Bethesda employees have ensured Bill’s health and wellbeing and it was clear when I met Bill at his big birthday bash that they do more then feed him, clothe him and treat whatever medical ailments he may have. And they do this for each unique resident they have.

For me, the birthday was an emotional time. I had never met Bill before and it had been many years since my mom, Sharon, his second cousin, had visited. She used to visit him regularly at the Browning Home when I was in elementary and secondary school. Then, my mom endured a series of unfortunate health problems—a rare lung disease eventually traced back to the stunning cause, our parakeet, and then a near-death DKA (Ketoacidosis) as a result of full-blown diabetes that had not yet been diagnosed. It was during this time that my mom lost contact with Bill. The last time she had tried to visit, she says, it appeared a remodel had been going on at the Browning Home and Bill was not there—perhaps he was staying at another Bethesda home temporarily or perhaps he was just on an outing with his conservator. It is a mystery we’ll never know. All she knew at the time was that the calls with updates on Bill had stopped coming and she feared the worst—that during her health battles, perhaps Bill had had his own and passed.

Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker Bill and his conservator and friend Deana Fleming.
Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker
Bill and his conservator and friend Deana Fleming.

So as a little family unit—my mom, dad and I—we forged on. My mom focused on her health and getting well, I graduated college and got married, my dad retired. The years passed. Luckily, I became a journalist and was blessed to receive the press release that let us know Bill was alive and well.

While the news was good, of course I was flooded with emotions. I questioned what had happened and wondered if I could have done anything to get in touch with him sooner. All this time, I thought, he was there and we were just miles away.

But there is no sense in dwelling on the what-ifs. As someone said to us at the party—“You’re here now.” And the fact that we were was a flashing neon sign for me that God does know my name and my mom’s. There was a void, a question mark in our hearts that wondered what had happened to Bill. God filled that void by answering our questions. He reunited us through a simple press release—He caught my attention during my day-to-day routine. That in itself is an amazing gift and lesson for me.

Getting to actually meet Bill was the biggest gift though. It was his birthday and I feel I was the one who got a present.

Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker
Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker

I had no idea what to expect. Would he recognize my mom? Would there be hugs? The answer to the first question, we don’t know. It felt like yes, maybe he did. To the second, no not exactly, but by the end of the evening when we said our goodbyes there were forehead-to-forehead bumps, his way of showing love. That was more than I even hoped for in meeting him for the first time.

He walked in the room, shuffling his feet with his hands in his pockets. He was all dressed up in black dress shoes, black slacks, a bright red button-up shirt and suspenders. He didn’t look us in the eyes—he headed straight for the coffee. Apparently he is caffeine crazy—a family trait.

He was seated directly across from us and it took him a while to warm up to our presence. He was laser focused on his cup of coffee. It was decaf due to the later hour, but he didn’t seem to mind. He would finish his cup and head to the coffee pot in the kitchen for more. He knew exactly where that coffee pot was at Redeemer Lutheran Church and went to refill his cup several times throughout the evening.

If I had known he was such a coffee lover, I would have brought him something from Kuppa Joy or On the Edge. Thankfully, his conservator, Deana Fleming, gave him a Starbucks gift card and a plastic Starbucks coffee cup for his birthday. I gave him a little tabletop basketball game, as I remembered the story of him playing basketball with my mom. My mom got him a bottle of his favorite aftershave—a good gift as Bill likes to smell good and dress well.

When he wasn’t drinking his coffee, Bill fiddled with his pants, his shoes and his suspenders.

Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker
Photos courtesy of Brandon Baker My mom, Sharon Nevens, and I seated across from Bill. Directly behind me is my husband, Ben Shelton and behind me to the left is my dad, Bill Nevens.

At one point, my mom assisted him when he had some trouble with the buckle on his suspenders. That turned into a bonding moment for them and led to the first forehead “hug” they shared as he expressed his gratitude.

According to Bill’s friends, he has always strived to dress his best.

Rosemary Valero, who is semi-retired from Bethesda and did recall the times when my mom used to visit, relayed to us one of her fondest memories of Bill. The day she came to work for Bethesda, she said she remembers Bill was dressed to the nines per usual. “I asked ‘who is that man, is he one of the executives?’ and they told me he was a client,” Valero reminisced with a big smile.

A nice suit and a vat of coffee nearby I assume? Sounds like an executive to me. After 43 years, Bill has certainly been with Bethesda long enough to be considered an honorary executive. From the looks of it, he is probably the oldest of the residents at the Browning Home—definitely the oldest at the party.

It’s the stories I heard from Valero and Fleming that filled my heart with joy. They didn’t talk about Bill like he was a client or a resident or a patient. He is their friend. He is family. So while I felt that pang of sadness having missed those years with Bill and getting to know him, I’m so thankful to know he was never alone. We may be his biological family, but thankfully the people at Bethesda have adopted him as their own—to him, they are his family, the people he sees day in and day out.

I can’t say enough how appreciative I am to Bethesda Lutheran Communities. I was so impressed with how everyone worked with Bill at the party and how they’ve all cared for him and people like him over the years. They are all remarkable people.

I look forward to getting to know each of them as I visit and get to know Bill.