“…I want you to tell me why you live here.”
“If I thought I wasn’t going to see Bagado or Moses or Helen again for the rest of my life, I’d feel…”
“Yes? What would you feel?”
“I’d feel impoverished.”
~from A Darkening Stain, a novel of West Africa by Robert Wilson
Bill O’Keefe died suddenly and unexpectedly on April 19th, and we are all impoverished. What was lost when he left us was one of our town’s most beloved citizens, a friend, a father, grandfather, brother, a man about whom you really could say, “There was no one who didn’t like him.”
If there could have been anyone who didn’t like Bill, they weren’t at his wake. There was actually a line out the door of the funeral home for a long time that afternoon. During the memorial service, there were so many people there for Bill and his family that the place was almost beyond capacity. It was the first time I’ve fully realized what a wake is about: an outpouring of love. The love outweighed the grief in some ways; the grief was strong and quiet, the love strong and loud. So many people stood up to say something about Bill — how he mattered to each person, how he touched and became part of so many lives simply by being himself. I don’t mean to make him sound like a saint, but it’s hard to talk about him without saying a lot of good things. He had a genuine heart.
Going to Bill’s wake, I felt a bit awkward and nervous at first, almost like an intruder on his family’s and close friends’ loss — until I got there and saw just about everyone I knew from around town, and many others I didn’t. I ended up being one of the people who said something that day, and it surprised me. I hadn’t come prepared or even thought about standing up; it was spontaneous, and probably not very articulate… and I can’t really recall much of what I said. But the atmosphere of acceptance and ease that was a big part of Bill’s life was so strong at his wake that I know I wasn’t the only one to surprise themselves by speaking. There were a few “Bill stories,” more laughter than some people might find acceptable, a lot of tears, and all of it came out true from the heart of everyone who spoke.
Every week or every other week I’d be at Bill’s shop to get fresh-roasted and ground coffee for Nitram, and much of the time I would just stop in to say hi otherwise. Of course, stopping in to say hi to Bill meant a good half-hour of hanging around talking. He was someone you could say anything to; the things we talked about I look back on now and wonder at the mix: dogs (of course), rodents (of course), farting (why??), photography, food, work, home, books, people… really, just about everything. I even brought the rats in to visit him once after we’d been to the vet, and plopped Baby into his arms without a second thought, without asking him if he wanted to hold a giant fat and lazy rat. Bill cuddled him and Baby shat on his arm, and Bill just laughed.
Losing Bill has made me realize the truth of appreciating people when you have them, not just after they’re gone and you wish you’d spent more time with them or told them something you’d always meant to or gave them one more hug or kiss (I got a kiss from Bill every Christmas, a highlight of each year). One man who spoke at Bill’s wake quoted Rollo May in that “hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is,” and he spoke of effort as well. Making the effort to connect with people and stay connected, and to not expect it to happen on its own without some nurturing. While it really did seem effortless with Bill, just one thing I learned from knowing him is to keep making contact, keep making the effort — especially with those in our lives we might tend to take for granted.
We’ll be missing you forever, Bill, but you really will always be in our hearts.
Photo by Bill’s daughter Kaitlyn, of her daughter Kadence and Bill having a walk.