For PaulApril 19, 2012
The last time I saw Paul it was early the morning of February 12, the day I flew from Cebu to Hong Kong on my way home to the States. The doorman of the apartment building where we were staying called to announce the taxi’s arrival. I peeked into Paul’s room, not wanting to wake him but also hoping for the chance to say goodbye. He opened his eyes and popped out of bed. Well, “pop” doesn’t really describe the way he gingerly rolled to a seated position, swung his legs over the side of the bed, then tested his weight on the floor before standing. The tumor invading his spinal cord had been slowing him down, to put it mildly. “Give me a sec,” he said shuffling off to the bathroom.
Paul, T, and I had been roommates in Cebu, the most developed island in the Central Visayas, the Philippines, for 10 days. Paul and T began their rather tumultuous journey there weeks before my arrival and would stay for weeks beyond my departure. Our time together was a bit of a reprieve, at least for me, a parenthetical moment of time out of time marked by fresh air, blue skies, organic food, visits to our friend Eleanor’s organic farm, and hours and hours of treatment with the photodynamic therapy (PDT) medical laser.
After a few days in the penthouse we rented from our new friend Eleanor, we were like siblings, sometimes squabbling over who got to use one of the coveted internet cables or griping about dishes that weren’t washed well enough. “I hate when people just swish their hand over a dish and don’t wash it,” Paul reminded us over and over again. “My daughters do that all the time. Swish, swish, swish. I like to use a cloth and really hot water.” Paul was brought up in Michigan but had lived in Texas for many years. He would ramble on incessantly with his Texan twang about any and every topic that came to mind. We heard his dishwashing lecture at least once a day. But then Paul became too tired and weak to wash his own dishes, so T and I took over and Paul never complained again about a dirty spoon or plate that might have missed quality control.
“Thank you,” he said instead. He said it all the time. He was appreciative of every kindness and act of generosity or hospitality that came his way. When Paul thanked you, you know he really meant it.
And that’s what he said to me as he put me in the cab that morning. “Thank you for bringing so much sunshine, for your grace, and love, and singing.” The tears pricked at my eyes. “We are going to beat this,” he said to me. “We’re going to be just fine.” I hugged his frail frame and looked into his shining blue eyes one last time, and then the taxi pulled away. I knew I wouldn’t see Paul again, and it hurt. It still does.
The funny thing is Paul drove me nuts when I first met him at the hospital in China. He arrived sometime in the fall, late October or maybe early November, eager and excited to try a new treatment that would halt his advanced melanoma. Before Paul dove into the ultrasound bath and other treatments, Dr. Wang scheduled him for staging tests including a full PET scan. The results came back on Paul’s 50th birthday, and they were devastating: the cancer had spread everywhere. Instead of dealing with a few lesions, they counted up at least 40 tumors from his brain to his liver along his back and arms, spinal column. I don’t really know how Paul handled this news in the privacy of his own thoughts and feelings, but he managed to eat the birthday cake the nurses had bought him and later he went out for a birthday dinner with the Western gang.
If your door was open, Paul would wander in, sit down and talk. Politics. His daughters. His ex-girlfriend. His auto shop. Dirt bikes. Stocks. Cancer treatment. He was especially excited about a new therapy in clinical trials involving the use of a red dye originally from India called rose Bengal. He talked and talked. Often he would repeat himself. I admit that many times I wasn’t in the mood for Paul. I would smile and nod and interject with questions at the right moments while I busied myself with small tasks like hanging the laundry to dry or chopping vegetables for a soup. Frankly, I had become covetous of my space and solitude. My little hospital room was my sanctuary, and I fear I wasn’t always so gracious or welcoming to Paul, who was really all alone thousands of miles from home, in the last months of life, and needing connection and camaraderie and love and friendship and forgetting, just like most of us.
As we got deeper into the month of November, a wave of nostalgia seemed to roll over T. The fact that she was still in China, still away from home, and would miss Thanksgiving was really bumming her out. T was our world-savvy traveler, the journalist who thrived on getting the real stories in some of the most turbulent parts of the world. She surprised us all with her tenacity for holiday tradition. She sank her teeth into the fantasy of a big Thanksgiving meal and just wouldn’t let it go. Really, where would we get a turkey in Houije Town, Dongguan, China, where the local supermarket sold dog meat and chicken feet? There was also the problem that most of us were in some phase of treatment, from chemo to immunotherapy to receiving sonophotodynamic therapy and not necessarily in top shape to hunt all over China for a turkey.
And then a miracle happened. The hospital director told us that he would like to make a Thanksgiving celebration for all the Western patients and our staff of the 16th floor. Cassie, one of our translators, came around with a pad of paper to take our Thanksgiving dinner suggestions. Paul happened to be visiting my room at the time. Her list included a daunting menu: chestnut stuffing, gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, biscuits, apple pie, and of course turkey. Paul talked all about the necessity of his special Cajun turkey basting butter while Cassie nodded, raised her eyebrows, and seemed helplessly lost by it all. Then Paul made a pitch for string bean casserole. Cassie wrote it all down, then looked at us seriously and asked: “What’s string bean casserole?”
I had to draw the line somewhere. How was a Chinese cafeteria cook who only knows woks, steamers, and deep fryers possibly going to understand Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup? Besides, there’s just something wrong about any food that requires a can of soup as a central ingredient. When it became obvious that the hospital cook wouldn’t turn into Martha Stewart in a day, we realized the burden of preparing Thanksgiving actually fell on our shoulders, or rather, largely on T’s. Somehow she enlisted Paul as her sous chef and off they went to the enormous Tesco supermarket for butter, flour, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, and four or five huge bags worth of groceries to feed 30 people.
The turkey arrived on Thanksgiving morning, frozen, and Paul lovingly prepared the bird. In fact, he was responsible for much of the Thanksgiving meal. Between trips to the hospital canteen kitchen, whose greasy floor was as slippery as an ice skating rink, Paul would lie down for cat naps. Kevin, Gai, and I laughed among ourselves about Paul’s questionable cooking skills and doubted how it would all turn out. I mean, the man entrusted with the centerpiece of the meal was the same one who had burned at least three pots of rice when he first arrived in China and lived on cans of tuna. But Paul threw himself wholeheartedly into the task. I realized that this was true to his nature: he loved to be of service and he took on Thanksgiving with all of the seriousness, dedication, good humor, equanimity, precision of planning, and irrepressible positive spirit that he tackled every problem he faced, from fixing a washing machine to cooking a frozen turkey using a surgical syringe as a baster to treating end-stage melanoma.
When Paul presented us with a perfectly roasted, golden-skinned, juicy, well-seasoned turkey that evening I think we all realized how much we underestimated him. His toast to the crowd of 15 Westerners and 15 Chinese was just as spot on, conveying the warmth and meaning of the holiday and saying how much he appreciated this family of ours at Renkang Hospital.
It’s not my intention to eulogize Paul, to elevate him to a saintly status or anything like that. I simply want to spend time with him again by reliving these memories. A few weeks ago Paul entered my dream. We were in Cebu, and he showed up looking bright and healthy. “I’m back!” he sang out gleefully, “I feel great and I’m ready for more treatment.” I looked at him closely. He was glowing and beautiful, but something didn’t feel right. “Paul,” I said slowly, “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe that your body’s okay.” Somehow I couldn’t turn away from the truth, and I held his gaze with a mixture of compassion and love. Seconds later I woke up with a start and told David about the dream.
That night I called Paul’s nephew, Broc. T had sent news that Paul had entered hospice care about a week earlier, and the dream made me anxious to find out about his condition. Broc told me that Paul had died two days earlier. I let out a big sigh. I suppose I had known from the dream that Paul had crossed over, but hearing the news was still hard. It seemed to happen so fast too. Just weeks earlier we were in the Philippines, planting trees at Eleanor’s farm, going out to dinner, having heartfelt and silly talks, and becoming such good friends.
You see, I really grew to love Paul. Living with him those 10 days, I came to see his goodness and light and humility. He was so open to people, talking at great length with the building’s maintenance man or whoever came across his path. He had time, interest, and undivided attention for everyone. I even became fond of his constant stream of conversation. It made me laugh! Paul once told me that he had had so much radiation to his brain that his memory had been fried. He couldn’t remember what he said, so he said it again, and again. Sometimes I would listen to his stream of consciousness while he was getting his laser treatments. If he wasn’t asleep, he would ramble on and on, sometimes for hours, about anything that crossed his mind. One day I stood outside his door and listened to him explain to our Filipino nurse all about the strong body odor of kids from his high school who ate lots of curries. Paul must have graduated from high school a good 32 years ago, what was he talking about? Oh but it made me laugh.
I laughed with him when sometimes I wanted to cry for him. As the tumor pressed more on his tailbone, he began to lose function of his bowel and bladder. Seeing a grown man in adult diapers is not an easy sight, and it reminded me of my father’s last months. Even in pain, even with the potential humiliation of losing control of such a primary function, Paul kept it light. He wasn’t trying to put on a good face. He really was light. I heard him once talking by Skype to a buddy of his who had been paralyzed years ago in an accident. He told this friend how much respect and admiration he had for him and what he’s had to endure in life. “Me, I have a little back pain and I act like a baby,” he said self-effacingly.
Oh, Paul. This fucking disease. I know it wouldn’t be in your nature to curse like this. You seemed so resigned to the hand that you were dealt: blond hair, fair skin, blue eyes, you said you were the perfect candidate for melanoma. When Dr. Wang told you the treatments weren’t helping and that Renkang Hospital had nothing more to offer, you said you knew there was only a 5% chance of success, and you thanked them for their kindness and care. You just packed up your jar of rose Bengal and went for one more chance: the Philippines.
When the rose Bengal injection to the tumor in your bicep seemed effective you said to me: “Just get your ass here!” It was glib, slap-happy talk. I was a wreck. Weak, afraid, uncertain what to do. “We’ll have that pink blanket of love ready for you,” you said referring to the image I used to prepare for surgery a few weeks earlier. I have no regrets about my time in the Philippines. To the contrary, I feel grateful for the laughter and love, and the opportunity to nourish my body and soul with the simple elements of the earth: sunshine, blue skies, organic greens, coconut water, sea views.
My second evening in Cebu, I sat on a footstool in the kitchen while Eleanor chopped off what remained of my chemo-damaged hair. I couldn’t stand to watch it fall out anymore, besides it had become so dead and brittle that it actually hurt my head. While Eleanor snipped, Paul used his electric razor to buzz off the patchy mess that had become my hair. Somehow sitting in the kitchen while friends helped me become bald made it all okay. “Oh Shira,” Paul said stepping back for a moment, “you have such a pretty face.” With that one compliment, I stopped feeling unfeminine and like the ugly duckling who needed to hide her head for about a million years. Paul showed me I could be a swan after all.
To be honest, Paul’s baldness used to irk me. When we walked through Houjie Town together I worried that people would think of him as a cancer patient, and then wonder about me by default. But as the razor buzzed along my scalp and the dead hair fell to the floor, I felt liberated. Suddenly Paul’s baldness seemed friendly. I wouldn’t be alone.
A few days later we slathered on sunscreen, dressed in long sleeves, scarves, and hats to shield our photosensitive skin from the strong Cebu sun, and drove the hour to San Giminiano, Eleanor’s organic wellness farm and retreat center. The ride seemed to exhaust Paul, and he took a long nap after we arrived. It was Tu’Bshevat, the Jewish birthday of the trees. Eleanor is a devout Christian and loved talking to me about Jewish tradition. In celebration of the day, she asked her farm manager, Danny, to prepare three trees for T, Paul, and me to plant.
After a lunch of fresh farm greens, tomatoes, cheese, cassava wrapped in banana leafs, tumeric tonic, and after a good hard rain, we ventured outdoors. Danny presented Paul with an acerola cherry tree to plant. Danny had dug a hole for the tree, and we told Paul to offer a silent prayer as he planted his tree. An intention. A blessing. He knelt down, put his hands in the squishy mud and patted it around the thin trunk of the young tree. When he finished, he stood up and studied his hands, full of dark, rich, earth.
I don’t know what he prayed for as he planted his cherry tree. I can only assume he prayed for the same thing that I did when I planted my tree or that T might have when she planted her special cinnamon tree. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he didn’t ask for something for himself at all. Maybe he was thinking of his daughters. Or his new friends going through their own journeys. That would be just like him.
When he finished praying, I quietly whispered the Hebrew: “ken yehi ratzon.” May it be your will. I find myself saying it again now.
Home in Boston, spring has arrived unusually early with record temperatures in the 80s. It is mid-April and already the daffodils have come and gone. The tulips are up and the azalea bushes have begun to bloom. The trees in our backyard have nearly all leafed their tender young greens. It is a terrible season for allergies. Toby and Leo play outside for hours. David turns the soil of our little garden. The earth has clearly awakened, as it does each spring, always to my deep astonishment and gratitude.
And everywhere I look I am utterly stunned, in the kind of makes your heart swoon because the world is just so gorgeous and how can we ever be big enough to take it in sort of way, by my favorite springtime sight. Cherry blossoms. Oh look how the blooms fill the trees, weigh down the bows with their fragrant exuberance. And when the wind blows it’s like a swirling snow of pink petals that whirl for a moment suspended in the air until at last they fall, spreading, spreading in what I can only describe as a pink blanket.
This time, friend, the love is for you. All you.