Friday, September 23, 2011

Death of a friend

When someone dies following an illness, the obituary often reveals the deceased "was surrounded by family and friends." The line is an affirmation that in their final moments, when they left this life and death arrived, they were with those who loved them most. It can also provide at least a shred of comfort to the survivors during a tragic time.

Last Saturday, Janesville native Keith Wiste died at the age of 39 in Mankato. He took his own life, after battling depression for years. He left behind his devastated parents, older brothers Paul and Rob, younger sister Catherine, nieces, nephews and countless friends. Anyone who knew Keith liked him, and those who knew him well loved him. The thought of Keith being alone in his final moments is unbearable, the mental images something out of a nightmare. It rips at your guts, brings tears to your eyes and an ache to your heart.

Even in a town of 2,000 people, it's not quite true that everybody knows everybody. But everyone knew Keith and his family. Keith's dad, Ron, owned Wiste's grocery store, a renowned meat market that had been a fixture in Janesville seemingly since the time the town first appeared as a dot on a map.

Growing up, I looked up to Keith, who was three years older than me. Like small towns everywhere, sports drove life in Janesville. Keith played football, baseball and basketball. At his parents' house, Keith, his brothers and dad hosted countless basketball games at the hoop in their backyard. Every kid in town knew about the hoop at Wistes and had an open invitation to shoot anytime they wanted.

When I was younger I couldn't beat Keith or the other older kids who would one day go on to star at our local high school. But I tried. Keith graduated in 1990, a member of the first graduating class from the newly formed Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. He graduated from Southwest State University in Marshall. Over the next decade, he coached girls' and boys' basketball teams at numerous schools in southern Minnesota, staying involved in the game he'd loved since childhood. For a few years he coached at his old school, JWP, a tenure filled with difficult losses and even tougher times, but even that did little to dampen Keith's enthusiasm for a life on the sideline. Coaching was in his blood. He also umped and reffed. It wasn't just coaching - sports were in his blood.

He also owned his own successful business, Wiste's Continuous Concrete Edging; of the numerous online tributes to Keith, many include comments from customers, who remember him for his work ethic, craftsmanship and personality.

Those are just a few of the facts of Keith's life.

Keith the man? He was funny, generous, personable, outgoing, helpful, quick-witted, empathetic and owned a smile that lit up his whole face and any room he was in. He loved his nieces and nephews. He had one maneuver - a point and smile - that he executed so often and so well, a friend noted online that it was a "patented" Keith move. He was...alive.

And he suffered from depression. Keith endured a couple of debilitating bouts with the dreaded disease, but had been doing well for more than a decade, committed to taking the medications he knew helped him stay healthy. But his latest, final battle with the disease came after he had stopped taking the medicine. He reached out to his family, who, like always, rallied to his side. By the time he started back on his medication, the darkness must have been too overpowering. Suicide was the cause of death, but depression killed him, as surely as cancer and diabetes kills its victims.

His wake on Tuesday brought hundreds of people to the Janesville funeral home, situated along the old Highway 14. The people came to remember Keith and to offer comfort and support to his grieving family. Scheduled to run between 4 and 8 p.m., the wake lasted until just before 10 p.m., the line of people stretching out the door practically from the time it began until it finally ended six hours later. The people who stood in line were his friends, or knew his folks, or shopped at Wiste's, or graduated with his sister or worked with his brother or hired him for a job. So often, when a person commits suicide, their life becomes defined by the way it ended, instead of how it was lived. Those people made their way to the funeral home because Keith died, but they were really there because of the way he lived.

It's impossible to fully understand the pain that drives someone to suicide, just as it's equally difficult finding the words to describe what was lost. Anything besides "I'm so sorry for your loss" sounds inadequate. You could search the writings of prophets and poets and still never find the words that adequately explain the pain the victim felt or the hurt that crushes those left behind.

His funeral on a cool, rainy Wednesday packed the Lutheran church in Janesville. Those who crammed into the pews and balcony said goodbye to Keith and listened to the thoughtful, comforting words of pastor Larry Griffin, who attempted to explain the unexplainable. But not even the heavens can ever truly answer the question we'll never stop asking: why?

Death brings small towns together, physically and emotionally. There's comfort in numbers, or at least a bit of support. You see people you grew up with and thought you'd grow old with, before college and relationships and jobs separated you from them and your town. You gather to mourn, while regretting that it took the death of a friend to bring everyone together. At Keith's wake and funeral I talked to people I haven't seen in 15 years, sat next to folks I've barely spoken with since graduating 18 years ago. It was like an all-school reunion. If you took all the old basketball talent that gathered together you would have had an alumni team that could compete against just about anyone. Of course, we would have been missing the guy with a potent outside shot - Keith.

I last saw Keith over Christmas, when I was home from New York and attended a basketball tournament in Mankato. As I walked out of one of the gyms at Bethany, I spotted Keith near the exit, standing, watching hoops and smiling, a scene that had taken place hundreds of times in his life and one I'd seen dozens of times. I stopped to say a quick hello, how are you? Figured I'd slide out of that gym and head to another one for a different game.

Two hours later... I never left that gym and never actually budged from my spot near the doorway, next to Keith. We spoke about our lives and old times, about basketball, the games we played and the ones he coached. We laughed. We talked about our dads. We talked about our jobs and a few of our goals. We said goodbye and promised to stay in touch. Maybe catch a game the next time I was in town. The regrets about never catching that next game will surely linger, but not as long as the memories of that night and of his life.

Keith Wiste died on September 17. He was laid to rest on September 21. He was surrounded by his loving family, his friends, a town that loved him, a town that will miss him and a town that will never be the same.


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