The year 2014 was not a good one for Bill Rea, a musician and teacher on the Outer Banks.
First he lost his day job as a banker. “It happens,” he says with a shrug. “Banks get sold; people get let go.” Still, it wasn’t easy. He received other job offers but decided to take some time off.
On a trip to the grocery store one afternoon, he impulsively grabbed a carton of fried chicken. He ate it all—and felt worse than he’d ever felt in his life.
It wasn’t just a case of indigestion. Tests found a tumor in Rea’s pancreas. The fried chicken had aggravated it. “Pancreatic cancer is really hard to diagnose, and usually it’s found too late,” he says. “That fried chicken probably saved my life.”
It’s hard to describe how energetic and upbeat Rea is, just about all the time. After a brief period of panic that summer, a peace settled over him. He wasn’t afraid of dying, and he knew that improved medicines now give cancer patients a measure of hope never before known.
But as he underwent treatment at Johns Hopkins University, seven hours from home, he was dismayed by his physical discomfort and fatigue. “I felt bad, and I couldn’t go through even one day without having to lie down. It was awful.”
One evening he was invited to sit in on a session with a group of accomplished musicians and songwriters. Among them was Martin Parker, a drummer who had played with Ricky Scaggs, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and many other famous artists. “I was the guy hiding in the corner,” Rea remembers. But the other musicians drew him out. He relaxed and began playing some of his own songs. “We had a ball.”
As the session broke up, Parker approached him and said, “Man, we need to record your songs.” He invited Rea to use his sound studio in nearby Edenton.
Deeply flattered, Rea told him, sure, I’ll get back to you—never intending to. Making a CD seemed a frivolous expense, given all that was going on in his life. Parker kept after him. “Finally I just said, Martin, that’s not something I can do. I don’t have the money.”
“Who said anything about money?” Parker shot back. “I have a studio and you have songs. Let’s make a record.”
From December through April, Rea made frequent trips to Edenton to record the 13 songs that would become his CD Too Old to Fight, Too Fat to Run. “It was this time of lightness in the midst of all that dark,” he said. And his cancer treatments began to take effect. “If this had happened ten years ago,” he says, “I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you.”
Rea thought he’d never be able to do anything as gracious and healing for Parker as what the drummer had done for him. “He needed money too. He should have been using his studio for income-producing projects.” But to Parker the scales were already perfectly balanced. That winter his marriage was ending. Unbeknownst to Rea, working on this particular CD was one of the few bright spots in Parker’s life.
With the recording wrapped up, Parker and Rea started mastering the CD. One night they took a dinner break at a local restaurant. Rea ordered the signature dish, fried chicken and waffles. Parker asked for a salad but changed his order to mirror Rea’s.
That evening on his way home, Parker had a major stroke.
Two days later, when Rea visited him in the ICU, Parker still couldn’t speak. No one was sure how much he could hear or understand. “I touched his shoulder and leaned in real close to him,” Rea said. “I whispered, Martin, I guess we should have ordered the salad.”
Parker gave a short, coughing laugh.
Afterwards, Rea introduced himself to Parker’s son. “He grabbed me and said, you have no idea what you mean to my dad.” This astounded Rea.
A few weeks later Parker died.
Recently in a lay sermon at our small church, Rea told the story of Parker and how the drummer had helped him through one the hardest times in his life. “Do good and share what you have,” he finished. “That’s our message from God.” He didn’t say anything about how he had inadvertently managed to lighten Parker’s life. That part came out only after I buttonholed him in the church parking lot.
I love this story, because it goes so far beyond “Do good and share what you have.” It’s a tale of how service can circle back around, touching everyone involved. I hope I can remember that letting myself be helped is often the most valuable gift I can give.
You can listen to the tunes Rea recorded with Parker and get more information about the CD at www.billreamusic.com.