Friday morning

(I wrote this yesterday afternoon, after receiving the news. I wasn’t sure that I was going to post it after all, and left it in drafts. Today, I decided to publish the post, in memory of my dear friend.)

I got some bad news today. It wasn’t completely unexpected, but no less heartbreaking for that.

One of my dearest and best friends died, after a long battle with a painful and debilitating cancer. He was only 57 years old, and had so much left to give, and to enjoy. I thought about our friendship for a long time, then took Ollie for a walk on the cold and grey afternoon that reflected my mood so well.

I first met Billy in the late 1980s, when he came to work at the ambulance station in Notting Hill, London. It seemed unlikely back then that we would ever become such firm friends. I was the experienced, somewhat bitter man. He was the gentle new boy, seeing good in everyone, keeping his head down, and keen to do his best in a strange new world. He stood a full ten inches taller than me, and had a background that couldn’t have been more different.

Very soon, Billy was a popular figure. Staff at the hospitals loved his good manners, and open personality. Patients recognised his caring nature, and colleagues appreciated his keenness, and his involvement in the life of the small ambulance station. Not long after, we were embroiled in the bitter dispute that became the six-month long national ambulance strike, from 1989-1990. Billy threw himself into that, alongside the rest of us. He came in every day, designed and painted posters and banners, and helped out wherever he could. He was no militant (like me) but could see the injustice, so resolved to fight it.

Just after the strike, we became crew-mates. An unlikely pair to work together every day, perhaps. But he mellowed my cynicism, and I helped him toughen up enough to cope. Outside of work, we also became great friends. Long evenings enjoying listening to music, talking about literature and films, and enjoying meals in each others flats. I used to complain that talking to him made my neck hurt, always having to lift my head to speak to someone so much taller. We laughed most of the time too, sharing a sense of black humour, and the often hilariously ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Yet when things got serious, we did the right thing, and Billy soon became a very accomplished Paramedic indeed.

Billy had a full and fascinating life, and was a man of huge artistic talent too. Born and brought up in America, he came back to the UK with his family at the age of eight, and settled in rural Oxfordshire. Always a spiritual person, Billy went into the Catholic Church, becoming a monk and working in the community in the Midlands. But he became disillusioned with the restrictions and attitudes of life in that field, so left to return to his love of music and books. A wonderful guitarist, he played in bands, and even toured and made records. He wrote songs, and made many contacts in that world too. He later became a librarian in the London district of Camden, before deciding to join the ambulance service, to help the community. He continued to make music, to paint and draw, and to explore religions and philosophies. He was one of the most interesting and intelligent people I ever met.

He was also an excellent cook, and a great host. He loved to experiment with Medieval and Elizabethan recipes, and his Simnel cake and Game Pie were both wonderful examples of that. He loved parties too, and the famously over the top Halloween parties, a legacy of his American youth, were a delight to attend. A welcoming and generous nature guaranteed that any evening spent in his company was always something to anticipate with relish. And a few glasses of Jack Daniels always helped too.

Over the years, our friendship continued to grow. For a long time, we lived a stone’s throw from each other in Camden, which made it much easier to socialise. When he grew restless in the job, I encouraged him to apply for promotion, and he was successful in being appointed to become a Training Officer at the regional Paramedic training centre for London. But he didn’t stop there, continuing to rise through the ranks until he was one of the highest-ranking officers in the London Ambulance Service. None of this went to his head though, and had no affect on our long friendship. When Julie and I married, he was a witness to our marriage. And when he had a Civil Ceremony with his partner Ian, I was honoured to be asked to do the same.

Billy and Ian bought a house in Oxfordshire, and moved away from the bustle of life in London. They got two dogs, and enjoyed their free time in the countryside. But they never forgot their friends, and we were always welcome. When We moved to Norfolk, they soon came to visit, and we enjoyed a great weekend touring around the area. Ironically, it was during this visit that I asked if he would be kind enough to say a few words at my own funeral, when the time came. Little did I know that he would go before me, and even as I type these words, it is impossible to think that he has.

A few days before Christmas, Julie and I went to visit Billy in a hospice where he was having treatment. We took Ollie along too. It was upsetting to see him in pain, but he did his best to stay cheerful, patting Ollie, and talking about everyday things. As we said our farewells, it was obvious that we both knew that this would be the last time we would ever see each other.

And it was.

William O’Neill. 1959-2017. You will never be forgotten.

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63 thoughts on “Friday morning

  1. Dear Pete, it is a long time ago I read your blog. Today I startet to read again ( your mysterious german πŸ™‚ ). I`m sorry about your loss. Last year I lost my oldest sister and my mother. It is a hard time! I have no words to say how I feel. I hope it will be better some day! Best wishes to you, Julie and Olli from Irene

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    1. Hi, Irene. It is lovely to see you back here! I don’t hear from Arne so much these days, so I am happy to have another German visitor. πŸ™‚
      Sorry to hear about your sister and your mother. 2016 was a hard year. And the start of 2017 too. Looking forward to seeing you back around this blog.
      Beste Grusse. Pete.

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      1. I hope the rest of the year will be better than the beginning.

        I try to become a faithful reader. I have to improve my knowledge about English language. I`m very happy about translation programs. There a so many words I don`t know!

        Last Christmas Arne visited his mother. And one afternoon we met us. He is a very loyal friend and he always takes time to meet me. I have a bad conscience that I don`t visit him in England! But maybe someday … who knows? πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Pete, oh yes I saw it and tried the translation function. But the result has not been particularly convincing. To learn better English, I’d rather read the original text and translate the unknown words to Google.
        Arne told me that he will come back to Germany. We want to make bicycle tours when we retire. πŸ™‚
        Best wishes, Irene

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rest in peace Billy and my condolences to Ian and the rest of the family including you Pete. It sounds like a life well lived but a good man taken too soon. That just sucks. The consolation I guess comes in all the good he did and lives he touched.

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  3. So sorry to hear, Pete. He sounds like a wonderful person and a very talented one, that will be missed by the many he helped and whose lives enriched. Thinking of you and thanks for sharing his wonderful tribute.

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  4. Bill was a wonderful man Pete, spending time in his company was always a great pleasure for those fortunate enough to be in it. He was a self-effacing man of great humility, and, as you pointed out so poignantly in your eulogy a kind man who never bad-mouthed another. Let us hope that your year improves, surely it cannot get worse! Brian C.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Brian. It has indeed been an awful start to the year, but I am keeping positive. (With some difficulty)
      I hope that you are well, and look forward to catching up at Ro’s wedding in July.
      Love as ever, Pete and Julie. xx

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  5. And he never will be forgotten. Your eulogy has fixed him, and your friendship, in the minds of people who did not know him while he lived. No wonder you have been sad and tired recently, suffering with your friend’s slow journey to death. I wish the death of everyone we love would be a quick one, or at least catch them unaware in their sleep. I hope – believe – that you, William’s partner and all his friends find solace in the vivid power of your words.

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  6. Good Morning Pete:
    I wish I had the wisdom and words to say something that would indeed comfort you. Your eloquence about his life and grief over his death has made him real to many of us who would otherwise never had the chance to know him. I hear a tension in the comments that preceded mine about living in the past and living in the future. I would submit that living is in the present and is structured by both the past and what we want for the future. Billy is now part of the present for all of us.
    Warmest regards and deepest condolences,
    Theo

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  7. What a great guy! So sorry for the loss of your friend Pete, not a great start to the year. There’s always the old saying that you are not really gone if there are still people who remember you, I think you will remember him well, great tribute Pete.

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  8. Pete, I was very much impressed by the multiple talents and undertakings of William O’Neill. Your tribute is very well written, and even more touching,
    Doug’s BoomerRants said, “When we grow old we shift from looking toward the future most of our lives, to reflecting on memories because there’s no new futures to push for.” I suppose this may be true of a lot of people. Not for me, however! I only look forward. I don’t care much for my past, but I care a lot about the creative endeavours that lie ahead. I do wonder, though, if I will have enough time to accomplish everything on my agenda….
    It’s rare to find oneself in a position to entangle one’s life a bit with another extraordinary human being. Although losing “Billy” is indescribably sad, you may consider yourself fortunate to have become a close friend of his. And I’m sure he considered himself fortunate to have forged a friendship with you as well.

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    1. Thanks as always for your considered comment, and kind sentiments, David. I know that you are a person who never dwells on the past, and looks forward. You are to be commended for your positive approach to life, undoubtedly.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  9. Oh Pete. I’m so sorry. Having lost my dad to a brain tumor when he was 52, I can completely emphasize what a hideous disease cancer is. It sounds like the two of you had a very special friendship over the years and I hope those happier memories bring you comfort in the coming days. This is a beautiful tribute you’ve given Billy. Thank you for sharing this.
    Hugs,
    Kim

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  10. Although humans generally prefer living a long life, there are many reasons not so good with growing old and one of them is watching bits and pieces of your past fall away first. The entertainment actors you grew up watching dying off each year, family of course, usually starting with mom and dad, and most certainly friends. It gives an “alone-ness” to existence. In my life there are six of us from elementary and high school years who have cliqued together for 50+ years and kept in touch as we grew our families and became miles apart. The unspoken between us is that we are actually waiting for the first to drop as the sign that the end is near. Go figure. When we grow old we shift from looking toward the future most of our lives, to reflecting on memories because there’s no new futures to push for. Ugh. Morose for sure.
    One day there will be a small article from Reuters on page ten of some local newspaper that will read, “The Last Baby Boomer Has Died”.

    So, Pete.. now that I likely brought you down even further, here’s the up part…
    We each have to find that one thing that makes us want to move forward. One of the insistent traits of humans is that we have the ability to perceive beauty in the world.. and from that we find some level of hope and inspiration. I am guessing you have that, Pete.. as it’s reflected in your photos and general creativity. Plus, us Boomers created the Internet! What better way to find like-minded people. The best part, we don’t have to worry about all those problems caused by the internet. Let our decedents work out those details. We did our part, left our footprint. We should just sit back and enjoy. πŸ™‚

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    1. Wise words from a fellow Boomer, Doug. Time heals all things, and looking back over pleasant moments in our history is part of growing up and getting old.
      I was determined to be more positive during this year, and despite a shaky start, I will continue to look for the upside.
      Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

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  11. Pete, this is indeed very saddening news. My condolences to you my friend. You’ve written a beautiful post here and I’m certain that his heart is smiling from where he is for your heartfelt words sharing this wonderful person with us. It is but a moment in time that we are here, so relish every second and I see you have within your friendship with William…Hugs and take care…
    Laura

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  12. It’s sad to hear such news about your amazing friend. I’m sorry about your loss. Glad to know that you both have spent the best days of your life together at some points in time, and that’s what truly matters. πŸ™‚ take care.

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  13. What a handsome tribute to someone who was clearly wonderful. I’m so sorry your year has started thus. Take care. (Yes, a little improvement with sight but there’s good news and bad news to report which I hope to do in tomorrow’s post.)

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  14. He sounds like a great and lovely man Pete, and I’m so sorry you’ve lost such a good friend. You wrote a wonderful tribute to him, and this must be hard so soon after the death of your Aunty as well. Not the best of starts to this new year, hope the sad times stop there.

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  15. I was reluctant to click like with your sad news. Sorry to hear about this Pete. He died so young. Cancer is really a traitor and losing a friend is sad and painful.

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