In 1983, when I was 19 years old, I visited a doctor for some long-forgotten reason. Before then I had noticed a slight leftward tilt in my torso, even when I stood perfectly straight. As a gymnast, perfect form was essential. It still is for that matter. When I mentioned it to the doctor, he said, “Oh, that’s scoliosis.” In my naiveté, he might as well have said, ‘You have terminal cancer and have about six months to live.’ I honestly knew nothing about scoliosis, so after he left the room, I began contemplating my 19 years on Earth and what kind of mark I’d made on my loved ones. I took it that seriously.
When the doctor returned after a few moments, I inquired further, and he explained in greater detail what scoliosis is and what causes it. My anxiety came across as mere curiosity. I had learned to act and – as a typical male – hide my emotions. If the bastard only knew how terrified I was…
One of my long-time friends, Paul, died on April 9 after a year-long battle with liver cancer. He was 55. I’d written about him previously. Paul and I had known each other for some 35 years. We actually attended the same parochial grade school in Dallas and were altar boys at the same Catholic Church. Our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas in the 1930s and 40s. Like me, Paul had a strong dedication to family. We had so much in common, yet differed on many levels. We often dined together, and during one meal a few years ago, he asked why I still hung around him. I couldn’t really answer him. In some respects, he had an elitist mentality; in part, I think, because of his years living in New York and his trips to Europe. We had something of a love/hate relationship. We’d have a dispute over some issue and would be estranged from each other for weeks and sometimes months.
Aside from good food, one love we shared was cinema. Among our favorite films was the campy 1962 classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”. The movie is like a steak cooked rare – an acquired taste. We often jokingly referred to ourselves as ‘Blanche’ and ‘Baby Jane’, the dueling sisters of the story enmeshed in an unbreakable union of alcohol, bitter memories and dated outfits. Yes, I know that sounds gay, but bear with me. We watched a slew of films over the years and afterwards, critiqued them like an amateur Siskel and Ebert duo over cocktails.
Like me, Paul desired a career in the motion picture field. In the mid-1980s, I studied filmmaking at the University of North Texas. In 1991, Paul moved to New York to study the same at New York University. He earned his degree three years later and remained in New York; trying to secure his place in one of the most fickle industries in one of the toughest cities in the world. He finally decided to move back to Dallas in 1996 whereupon we began hanging out together again.
The friendship connection extended to our respective families. I’d come to know his parents, and he had come to know mine. We experienced each other’s struggles with family, friends, romance and work – you know, the usual stuff of life. When he lived in a tiny apartment, he had Christmas parties every year, with plenty of food and beverages. As much as it cost him, he told me, the gatherings made him happy. And it made others happy. They were simple times, but they were good.
I’ve written before about losing a close friend to AIDS in 1993 and how I got sick with hepatitis at the same time; how that prevented me from attending his funeral; how that made me feel I had betrayed his mother at the last moment by abandoning them – like so many of her son’s so-called friends had done. I noted how the bonds of friendship are tested during the worst times of our lives. I’m proud to say I’ve often been that ‘True’ friend and equally happy to say I have ‘True’ friends among my inner circle.
Paul and I had a dispute at the end of 2020. The source? A “New York Times” editorial about the unexpected support Donald Trump received from Hispanics in Texas. I expressed surprise, but Paul (who had grown increasingly conservative) said it made perfect sense to him. A short time later he learned he had liver cancer. As 2021 progressed, his health worsened, and our mutual desire to reconnect increased. We were old friends, after all, getting to be old men. Or as I like to call it – the tail end of middle age. A news editorial shouldn’t be a permanent barrier to good memories.
When Paul’s sister called me that Saturday night to inform me of his death, she asked, “Are you sitting down?”
“Is he gone?” I replied.
I already knew the answer.
I’ve been going through a lot personally in recent months. Paul’s demise only adds to it. There’s nothing like the death of a relative or close friend to put our lives into perspective; to understand what is truly important and valuable.
The funeral was this past Wednesday, the 20th. Beneath a cloudy sky, I stood beside a mutual and much younger friend who was doing everything not to burst out crying. I wrapped an arm around him and told him these moments are what make life so hard. We have to deal with the deaths of people we know and love – family, friends, coworkers. It’s what allows people to survive and reach a certain age. Paul buried both his parents, a beloved aunt, his older brother and two nephews. For whatever reason, his time here had ended.
Another mutual friend told me shortly after he’d learned of Paul’s death that he had dreamed of him. “I didn’t know if it was the edible I’d eaten earlier,” he added. But he said Paul told him he was happy now; he felt good and was safe.
I have to admit that – as bad as I’ve been feeling lately – I bore some envy of Paul. He was no longer suffering. All his pain had gone. He didn’t have to worry about credit card bills, taking out the trash – or wondering if he was going to wake up the next day. He also won’t get to live out his dreams of being a screenwriter.
When each of my parents died, I told people my only consolation was that they were no longer suffering from physical agonies. But they had lived long lives and they’d achieved the best they could, given their circumstances.
I suppose Paul had done the same in his 55 years.
Living our best lives is all we should do with whatever time we have.