Last Friday, March 14th, I attended a wake.
I had never been to one before, and I was a little apprehensive as to what to expect.
To make matters worse, the deceased was a friend.
Back when we were in school, a bunch of us started playing Dungeons and Dragons. Once every week or so, in somebody's house, we'd roll dice and fight monsters and have a damn good time doing it. After a while, when we'd left school, we kept up the games, using a classroom in our old school on a Friday night. There was Niall, Dave and Kevin, Niall's sister Paula, Kevin's two brothers Stephen and Colin (and occasionally Derek), Tony, Trevor, Colm and Paul. And me.
We gradually expanded our games to AD&D, Runequest, Traveller, Bushido, Call of Cthulhu and more, and that was what bound us together as friends. Gradually, of course, we all got lives and careers and in most cases, families, and the games became less frequent, although there'd be times when we'd all get together - weddings and birthdays, etc., and, occasionally, funerals.
About three weeks ago, I had a call from Niall, passing along the news that Paul wasn't well. He had been in hospital before Christmas for treatment of a growth on his shoulder, we knew, but he'd had something similar ten years before and had been successfully treated, so we all believed it was going to be the same sort of thing.
However, it appeared that not only had the treatment been ineffective, the cancer had spread throughout Paul's body, and by the time we heard about it he was already undergoing aggressive treatment in a bid to halt, if not reverse, the effects.
He wasn't allowed visitors, but when Niall went by the hospital subsequently to drop off a card and things, he met Paul by chance as he was being transferred to another hospital for his treatment. Niall told me that, even in spite of his heavy medication, Paul was still able to joke about how his attention span was down to about two seconds.
Our friend lost his courageous battle on Wednesday, March 12th, with Caroline, his wife of four days by his side. They were married in a small ceremony hosted at the home of their good friends Colm and Sarah Jane on Saturday, March 8th.
I went, with Niall and his wife Amalia, to Paul's wake at his house in the Dublin suburb of Ballinteer. To my surprise, it wasn't (quite) as subdued as I had expected. The casket had been placed by the front window of the living room and was surrounded by photographs and candles. A laptop on a low table next to it played a continuous slideshow of pictures from Paul and Caroline's wedding. It looked to have been the happiest day of both their lives.
Paul, always an unabashedly-flamboyant dresser - the only man I knew who could wear a white linen suit and Panama hat in Dublin and get away with it - wore what someone told me was his favourite waistcoat - a riot of autumn colours, dark reds and golds. His hat and a rolled-up newspaper lay across his knees, and a cricket ball (he loved the game) was by his side.
He looked completely at peace.
Paul's nephew, Robert, showed us an album of photos of his uncle, from his schooldays onwards. There were group shots taken at various weddings, and a contact sheet of about 20 shots of an unrecognisable Paul, his head shaved, that had been taken for a film role.
In life, Paul was an actor on the Irish stage, and also produced and directed plays for a variety of theatre companies. He worked occasionally in radio and had a brief role (ironically as a doctor) in Fair City, an RTE-produced soap opera set in Dublin.
He also worked as a tour guide aboard the Ghostbus, a nocturnal tour of the haunted history of Dublin, a sort of mobile theatre experience. I met him one evening on my way home from work as he was organising his passengers/audience, and watched him get 'into character' before the tour got underway. Knowing Paul, the audience got value for money.
The funeral took place the following day, observed in Ireland as St Patrick's Day although it was only the 15th. Parishioners coming to the 12 o'clock Mass may have been surprised to find themselves at a funeral, or not. It was a dignified affair, conducted by the same priest who had married Paul and Caroline the previous week.
At the end, before the priest gave the blessing, Caroline and Colm stood to say a few words. Colm explained that they'd sat up the previous night after everyone had left, trying to think of what to say. In the end, they simply recounted the conversation, describing what they'd remember about Paul in single words and short phrases. They captured him perfectly.
In closing, Colm said he'd let Paul have the last word. Forever scribbling, as Colm described his friend, Paul had always kept notes, writing down things as they occurred to him.
And in his time in hospital, when he'd realised how things were going, he'd written about (and this is the meaningI took from it, rather than a direct quote) how he "didn't know what came next, or if there was anything. But one thing I know," he continued, "is that I'm going to circle the world, be a part of everything..."
When Colm and Caroline finished, there followed a standing ovation for Paul that lasted several minutes, and I'm not ashamed to say I was among many who were strongly moved by it.
Paul Keeley made his final exit, stage left, not pursued by a bear but with the gentle dignity he'd known in life.
We will miss him.