Frank and William in 2003.

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,-

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

- Emily Dickinson
Sweeping Up the Heart

Our friend William had 88 good years and was in the hospital for only a few days at the end. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at about 7 in the morning, as we held his hands. He just stopped breathing.

We said goodbye for the last time. Then we walked back down the hill to his house, a block and a half away, near the park where he played as a child. We went into the back, into his garden room, with its burnt orange walls, and lit a fire.

About 8, we called Frank. He had been expecting the call for three days, since William's kidneys failed and the doctor said there would be no turning back.

Frank and William had been together for 57 years, since one bummed a light from the other during World War II. Frank had lived in Southern California for the past 20 years or so, William in San Francisco. They talked on the phone every afternoon at exactly 5:45. One visited the other for a week every month, then gradually less often. Frank had planned to come up for Christmas, but had to back out after cancer surgery took out his left eye. He had a heart attack during the surgery. And his prostate cancer appeared to have spread up his spine.

Still, when we called to say William was in the hospital, he wanted to come up. If I can get up there, he said, I know I can bring him back. People might not understand, Frank said, how two men could form such a lifetime bond, 57 years strong, 400 miles apart, built on interdependent financial interests and daily telephone conversations. But they had.

As it became clear William would die, but didn't, Frank felt a greater sense of urgency. I've got to come up, he said, to tell him it's okay to die. I held the phone up to William's ear. Frank told him how much he would miss their afternoon calls. The next morning, Saturday, Frank asked, do you think I could talk to him again? And he did.

For two more days, through Sunday and Monday, William slept, Frank chastizing himself that he should come up. The end finally came early on Tuesday morning, January 13 Frank's 87th birthday.

More about William W. Whitney