The other day…
… I was thinking of Paul. It has been just over a year since he lost his battle with cancer. It’s one of life’s difficult things to lose a good friend, and frustrating to be miles away in a distant land when it all unravels. Not that anyone could have done anything. Cancer has a way of surreptitiously inserting itself into an unsuspecting life and then spring forth catching everyone unaware. It elbows its way into our lives and becomes part of the daily conversation, our routines, our thoughts. It takes over the lives of those who have it and of those closest to them. Not a jealous mistress, but a tyrant that demands our strength, saps our energies and then spits us out without as much as a “thank you.”
I realise that all I have are snippets and images dimly remembered over a span of thirty years, and that pasting them together can never really hope to constitute a complete person. How I perceived Paul is different to how his family did, or how his partner and daughter do. But this is the same for anyone; we play different roles in our day to day lives and present a different image of ourselves in each. It leaves me wondering if anyone really does have a complete picture of anyone. Are we, as individuals, aware of the variations we project of ourselves? Is the “self” an enduring concept?
Stretching the memory back to my university days, fires the neurons that contain Paul’s files that are stored in the vaults of my brain. Somewhere along the line I had picked up the notion that it would be a good thing to learn to play the classical guitar and that is what I did to the point of obsession. As a musician, it was a late start for me when I compared myself to the other music students who had been born with clarinets in their hands or had been playing the piano from special womb inserted devices and such. I struggled to make any sense of what I was doing, and it was obvious. Halfway through the B. Mus, I decided enough was enough and changed streams to English Literature and that is where I found my home. The classical guitar training and the rigour of playing up to six hours a day have had some benefits, and one of the greatest has been the people I have met and the friends I have made along the way. Paul was one.
I remember very clearly the first time we met. Steve, a bass playing friend, dragged me away from my never-ending solitary guitar practice to go to visit Paul, who at the time was studying biology at university. In the foothills of Brooklyn was wedged an interesting and half-finished home that Paul, his brother Tim and his parents inhabited. It was built around a courtyard and had the potential of being something bigger, but I think the idea of finishing the project became less important as time went on.
On first appearance Paul looked exotic and reflected his Greek ancestry. He was going through his winklepicker phase and he sported a fine black velvet pair as if they were natural extensions to his feet. Probably red or lime green jeans to go with an odd shirt, a mass of black hair, pointy unshaven chin, beaky nose upon which were perched hideous thick black framed glasses through which beady and always interested eyes peered. When I think of Paul, somehow there is also a link to an image of a black crow majestically strutting and cawing raucously through life.
Another memory linked to that first impression was the presence of cheese. Paul liked his cheese. The bluer, runnier, more putrescent, gag inducing the better. As I walked in to his house I noticed a cheeseboard proudly displaying an assortment of various milk derived products in differing states of decay. I balked at the invitation to partake in the runny accoutrements on the board saying that I didn’t like my cheeses blue, runny, goat derived, sheep induced or otherwise.
“You don’t like much, do ya!” Paul uttered as a blunt, direct statement rather than a question, whilst helping himself to a slice of blue. His persistence in including examples of the above in our various interactions over the years has led me to develop an appreciation of the finer aspects of the putrescent, especially when accompanied by liberal sloshings of wine. I note that the initial shock of the smell of ammonia is quickly softened by the rich round taste of aged cream, but the knowledge that the brevibacterium linens that is responsible for the smell of many blue cheeses, as well as foot and other human odours, still lingers questioningly in my mind, no doubt to be dealt with further at a later stage. All good, for now though.
I think the reason for that first introduction was that Paul wanted to learn to play classical guitar, and even though I protested at being too busy to do so, he insisted that he wouldn’t take up that much time. He was my first ever student, and through him I began the path that eventually led me to become a teacher further down the track as my aspirations of musical fame dwindled in the stark reality of competition from younger and more able musicians.
The weekly lessons were more or less protracted chat sessions helped along by the now ubiquitous wine and cheese. As a student Paul went at a challenge with the initial charge of a sprinter rather than the mindset of a long distance specialist. He learned some initial scales and fingerings, introductory studies and how to play a Carulli waltz, and that was about as far as it went. I did try to get him beyond those early bits and pieces, however he seemed satisfied with the semi mastery of Carulli until in the end I had to ban him playing it because it was nerve wracking to listen to, especially since there were learned mistakes that had become ingrained in the performance of it, as sometimes happens. He learned it well, however, as years later when we met up again in Sydney one of the first things he did was to play the waltz – mistakes and all.
Somewhere in our interactions I believe Paul made it his mission to promote a more open and wider mind in those he met through reading classic literature. Both his parents are closely involved in education and are avid readers themselves with rooms and corridors lined with shelves of books as evidence to support that claim. At one time he placed a copy of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in front of me with the command to read it as if doing so would do me good. The only thing I can say about that particular book was that it was a crime that it was ever published and a punishment to have to read it. Life is a short and often tumultuous event in the bigger scheme of things and to have to endure the bleak perspectives of authors who insist on reminding us of our mortality and our shortcomings is not my idea of entertainment. In that bag of authors I would also place Ibsen, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce and, more recently, McCourt: I tend to lean more towards Beckett and the theatre of the absurd, as in my mind life is but a series of the bizarre and the meaningless in endless repetition. One thing about the above authors that I have to admit to being true: their works do make great draft stoppers.
Once Paul made the move from the pleasant bucolic greenery of New Zealand to the arid dust bowls of Australia our friendship became a series of occasional meetings interspersed by long intervals in which other bits of life happened. It is often said that friendship is timeless in the sense that people can meet after years apart and seem to be able to continue in a conversation as if it were only recently interrupted. So too, in this case with Paul when we met up again as I was making the move to Tokyo and stopped over in Sydney to visit. He was rather proud of his new found home and boasted of the fact that Australia hosts the top-ten most poisonous critters from spiders and scorpions, to larger animals such as crocs and sharks that would bite you in half, and stingers (or jellyfish) that could sting you to paralysis and subsequent death in a matter of minutes. All this as he was leading us on a trail in the Blue Mountains past those very same critters, beasts and stingers mentioned in the previous breath. We stepped gingerly on.
As an individual who marched to the beat of a different drum, Paul involved himself in a variety of projects simply for fun and interest and social engagement rather than any ulterior motive. We had long and impassioned debates, fuelled by wine and cheese, about whether or not altruism could actually exist in this world driven by self-indulgence, greed and desire. Being a subscriber of the latter variety, I instigated a project that we later on referred to as our “Wee Project” with the ultimate aim of retiring rich at an early age, buying a private island in the Bahamas and working on developing one of those even tans that only the independently wealthy have time to foster. The idea was sound and involved developing an on-line reading site that would engage early learners, and those new to English, in progressively more challenging and interesting materials. There would be guided listening, quizzes, puzzles, fiction and non-fiction of all sorts, along with incentives to do better. A grand idea and one that is now a common concept on the web. We made some inroads and developed one story to near completion, but somehow we were both too distracted by life to actually make a concerted effort that would see the project come to fruition. I have a copy on DVD of our “Wee Project” with the voice of Paul uttering “good” at each correct quiz element. It showcases our ideas along with Paul’s skill in things IT which made the interactive elements work so seamlessly.
The notice of ill health was a bombshell. Here was a man in his mid 40s, physically active and fit, in the prime of his life learning from his doctor after a normal annual check-up that he had leukemia. The initial prognosis was positive and due his level of fitness, doctors said there was a high percentage chance that he would be able to meet and beat the canker. Through our skype conversations, I was only a distant part of the ordeal of the treatment that followed. He maintained a positive yet matter of fact outlook and all was looking promising until he had a relapse, after which the picture was grim indeed. At this side, when we spoke, I tried as much as possible to keep things normal with banal conversation, but in my heart I knew the seriousness of his condition.
I stared at the e-mail message from Nina, Paul’s partner, for what seemed like a long time. She wanted me to call her. She told me in her soft tones, that Paul had passed away and was at rest. Even though we knew the day would come, I could not hold back the tears as the sadness at our loss enveloped our lives.
There is no comfort to those who are left behind after a death. Death is brutal in its force and rips to shreds our trust in life. The wounds are raw and stay that way for an eternity. We learn to cope, because we have to. However, one way we can rob death of its power is to remember those who have died and give them space to live with us in our hearts.
I miss you, mate.