Paul

When I was 15 I was at an amusement park with a friend. I was showing off to her by balancing a folding chair on my chin (do my talents ever cease?).

A manager was walking up to me, “Hey, I need that chair back. But you should apply for a job. We’ll hire you.”

I had planned on being a lifeguard that summer (my penchant for laid-back jobs started early). I had gotten all the required certifications and was just starting to apply for jobs. But show biz sounded so much better!

So I spent the summer at a charming, but dying, small amusement park. The crowds were so small that the three other entertainers and I spent most of the summer in the lounge entertaining each other instead.

Paul was my supervisor, he was hired as a consultant to work part-time overseeing the park’s entertainment. We got along and at the end of the summer he asked if I’d like to work part-time for him at his theater. It turns out Paul operated a marionette theater. He wrote the shows, recorded the soundtracks for them, with original musical scores, sculpted all the puppets and made all the props himself. He taught me a lot of what he knew over the next two years. His entire company consisted of just himself, one business partner, and me.

I became a pretty good puppeteer over those years and got comfortable working large crowds. I remember picking up the pamphlet for the Fine Arts Puppetry Program at UConn at one point and considering a future in the arts (Thank god I put it down).

My friendship with Paul was well solidified by the time I was heading off to college.

We would often work together in the basement of the theater sculpting, painting and building. We would have long conversations as we worked with some ambient radio in the background. It was just a few weeks after working with him at the theater that, when it became relevant during our conversation, Paul told me he was gay.

He looked up from his work at me, “I don’t know if that bothers you or anything…”

“Nope. I am too.”

And then we learned from each other, he got some insight into what it was like to be an openly gay 16 year old high school athlete in a small town. And I began my understanding of what life was like through the 70′s, 80′s and the AIDS crisis. Imagine watching over half of your friends and even acquaintances die, painfully, over a ten year period throughout your 20′s and you can begin to understand the horror most gay American men went through. – Simultaneously grieving for their friends and fearing for their own lives; wondering if they were next. It’s an understanding that has since been expanded on by my subsequent inter-generational friendships.

Paul was just turning 40 when I met him. And I was born old, so we got along. He was a very positive voice for me. I mean, the man made his living off of producing puppet shows; he believed anything was possible. My ideas and plans were always met with positive affirmation. – Rather than the doubt, uncertainty and discouragement so many people offer.

He almost became a catholic priest, but as a young man changed his mind just before he was about to enter the seminary and chose to pursue the fine arts instead. So he was always ready to discuss theology, ethics and philosophy, as well as poetry, painting and business.

We would chat and I would phone him now and then while I was off in New Mexico. And I’d always visit him whenever I was back in town. And since I moved back to New England about six years ago we’ve collaborated on more projects, had many dinners and barbecues in his garden, and gone on annual camping trips to Cape Cod.

Our relationship, now over twelve years old, is my longest running friendship with anyone.

I received a phone call last week during my train ride across the country. It was Paul’s friend and business partner calling to tell me that, after not feeling well last week, Paul had some images taken at the hospital and has been told he has a cancer that has metastasized to his brain, bones, and kidneys, and it is untreatable.

He is now at home, on hospice care, with a morphine drip and days to live. He’s 53 years old.

I’ve never really experienced death intimately in my life. I’ve had some older family members pop off, but no one I was really close to. I was at Paul’s bedside yesterday and will be again tomorrow. I’d be there every minute if he wanted, but he has a big family and a lot of people who want to pay him a visit while they have a chance, and he needs some time to rest so I’m trying not to be selfish with his time.

I’ve taken the news with a sort of calm mourning. I feel a loss, myself, for losing my friend. – And I feel a sort of empathetic loss for Paul’s missing out on what would have been a great few more decades.

But Paul is a resolute stoic, ready to die and at peace with his fate. And I’ve followed his lead. We’ve talked candidly about the entire thing, not missing any opportunities for dark humor. And the experience has made me yet more appreciative of the relationships I have and the people I love.

It’s difficult to come to some conclusion when discussing something so feared. I suppose the typical way to finish talking about death is to turn away from it, back towards life, and remind everyone that we are to seize the day and appreciate the time we have because, though we may forget it sometimes, it is not limitless. But you all know I don’t write clichéd drivel.

I’d rather leave it as the cold, hard, punch in the face that it is. My friend is dying and I’ll miss him terribly.

A picture of Paul’s formal garden I took almost ten years ago. It looks much the same today.

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12 Comments

  1. Faun
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I’m so sorry to hear about your friend, and he is lucky to have you by his side to provide comfort.

    Stories like this fascinate me, particularly when the person says he’s “ready to die.” The idea of death frightens me beyond measure. I love life so much that I am horrified at the idea of leaving it. I don’t necessarily believe in life after death, so this is a contributing factor to this. Ugh, such is middle age.

    Regardless, I would love to learn what makes someone approach impending death with such equanimity – it’s admirable and brave.

  2. Grandpa
    Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    So well written. So sad. Your friend will live on in your heart, and you will meet him again when it is your time.

  3. Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the story about your friend. I am sorry for your loss but I think it’s great that you can reflect on your dozen years of friendship with Paul and find such great value from it.

    Your post about Paul also made me want to thank you for your blog in general. Thanks for inspring me to move my own life towards financial independence. Seeing that you (and a few other folks I’ve met in my travels) can make a life from non-conventional living (frugal living, passive income, no 9-to-5, no expensive car, no mortgage…) is proof that I can move my life in such a direction to.

    So…just as your friendship with Paul has inspired you in certain ways, your blog has inspired others. Thanks for that.

    Henry

  4. Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to hear about your friend. I know the feeling when I lost my grandparents, it’s different to lose someone close to you. I found myself thinking for years after they were gone “Oh, she would love to hear about this” only to recall they are gone. It does get easier in time, but for now it sucks.

    By the way, you have like the best written blog I’ve seen in a long time. Thanks for sharing…even the hard parts of your experience.

    Tim

  5. Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Hi, just came over from jlcollins. So sorry to hear about your friend. My dad died suddenly this past May at age 59 and over the past months I’ve said just basically what you wrote to many people “I’m trying to be positive and appreciate what I have, but honestly, this just sucks any way you look at it and I miss my dad.” Sending you good thoughts in the coming days…

  6. Betty
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Cancer does seem so vague at times.
    Meaning a person doesn’t realize they
    are that sick until there is nothing to
    be done.

    How long had Paul felt poorly?

    I had a friend who too went in for test
    only to find cancer everywhere. She was
    gone in two months.

    I read a blog post about a month ago.
    I don’t remember the blog as I was simply
    surfing.

    The blog was written by the husband of a young woman. His wife was told she too had fatal
    cancer. She was given no hope. Go home get
    your life in order.

    She decided she didn’t like what was offered.
    She transferred her care to a Baptist hospital
    in Fl. Long story short she was told the same
    there. However, she insisted on treatment as
    she had young children.

    The oncologist told her that to attempt such he
    would have to do an onslaught of radiation/chemo/surgery etc…All at the same
    time. He said it had never been done before.
    Normally these things are done in cycles attempting to give the body some time to recover.

    She agreed. She received the treatments. They
    sent her home. She was completely bedridden. She was incoherent. She was frail. She remained
    in this condition for 4 months. Her husband
    was her nurse during this time.

    Today she is alive well and cancer free. She did
    suffer a stroke after brain surgery. The stroke
    left her slightly weak on one side. Yet, she is
    not disabled in anyway. :)

    That was a Baptist hospital in Tampa FL.

    There is a U-tube video about too.

  7. Dragline
    Posted August 30, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I am glad you went to be with him. It is the best thing for him, and for you as well. To be with someone in their last days brings a certain wisdom and understanding of your friend, yourself and humanity that many have not experienced because we fear death so much we avoid the dying. And thanks for writing so eloquently about it.

  8. Matt
    Posted August 31, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Being at someone’s beside as they pass is the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon you. Those are powerful moments.

  9. Karl
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Very moving post. So sad to hear about your friend.

    I really appreciate your blog. Best of luck and a big hug.

  10. jennypenny
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, Mike.

  11. chenda
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Very sorry to read about your friend Mike.

  12. Posted September 4, 2012 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the kind words all. Paul died peacefully on Saturday with a friend at his side.