Someone I once knew and loved well died today—a loss far enough away that I can’t accept condolences, but close enough that I feel the fracture lines in each of my bones. My mom forwarded me a one-line email with the subject line Fwd:FWD:Very Sad News.
That is very sad, I emailed back. I didn’t know this was coming.
How frustratingly ignorantly human I am. Didn’t know this was coming.
He had leukemia. He was in his sixties. He was the dad of the first boy whose sweaty hand I held in a movie theater, the dad of the boy whose embrace in my dreams even today represents complete belonging. He was the husband of the woman who nursed me through my first spiritual crisis at fifteen with stacks of Buechner and Forrester Church and Spong, and who married A and me nine years ago.
He—his name was Paul—he was part of this family close enough to be my own, the friends you have as a teenager if you’re lucky: people who were as good for me as my own relatives were, but from whom I was far enough to love without reserve, without regard for cool.
He was funny. He made puns. He loved baseball, not that I know much about that. We ran together in the woods, me as a near-anorexic teenager and him, I guess, in his forties. I remember never feeling anything but strong and funny with him, and that was rare for me.
Later in high school, I dated a rather boring kid, someone whose utter lack of adventure or creativity I must have found soothing at the time. This boring guy’s mother frequently made hopeful comments about our eventual happy marriage and the inevitable grandchildren—which I always found disturbing, even when I was really into the guy (I was 17!). Paul took the role of bizarrely chivalrous tribal father. “If you married him, I’d kill you. No, I’d kill him.”
Obviously, those words make him sound like a little bit of an ass, and, indeed, assdom was the sin he was most often accused of. But there’s a reason for that. Fierce, moment by moment affection will sometimes make you look like an ass. He turned his fierce affection on me during the years I most needed to feel love other than the required love of family. He was the same way in his marriage, and with his sons—one my age, one older, and one so young I still think of him as a round cheeked baby with dear, curly eyelashes, though he’s now a young man himself. Fierce affection. I picture Paul with his arm around the son my age, the kind of sloppy, athletic squeeze they’d give one another. How they’d hang on each other—a teenaged boy and his dad!—and how they folded me in.
I hadn’t seen him since 1998. I wrote to him a year ago, a couple of months after he got sick, and his wife wrote back to tell me my note made them laugh. That was the last I heard.