A month or so ago, I took the girls out to Ashland, Nebraska to visit an elderly friend. It was a dry, sunny Sunday afternoon. When we got back in the car to return home, Grace promptly fell asleep. Emilia requested that I roll down her window. I obliged.
As we drove down the two-lane highway that led back to the interstate, I was immersed in the gorgeous Nebraska-ness of this particular part of the state, fields stretching out for miles to our right and left. Hot wind blew through the car, Emilia held her hand out the window and River City Folk played on the radio, tinkling and humming around our red ears. I was so keenly aware that we were in the midst of a perfect frame. I needed someone else to understand how great it was. I called Paul and described it to him. He got that kind of stuff. He understood the beauty of a moment.
Humans, I feel, have a tendency to dampen their own joy. Especially the humans I hang around, myself included. We gravitate toward the sardonic, the self-deprecating, the defensive response. To be unabashedly joyful is to be vulnerable, a sacrifice most of us aren’t willing to make. But Paul was different. He was quietly eager. Innately positive. Unafraid to be excited.
And he was excited about all of us. About small details of our lives that no one else could or should care about. His anticipation of my little family’s trips to St. Louis made me feel special, loved, valued. He would call me weeks before driving to Omaha so we could talk about the details of his visit. When he was here, he wholly embraced my adopted city, exploring Benson, running through Memorial Park, walking to the French Bulldog to eat lunch and chat with the bartender. He felt comfortable doing things alone. He embraced uncertainty. He loved his family. He carried his nieces on his shoulders from hundreds of miles away. He received their eternal admiration in return.
Paul had this magnetic smile that he could subtly adjust to fit any situation. It was a knowing smile, a teasing smile, an understanding smile, a laughing smile, a satisfied smile, confident, reassuring, comforting. It was always handsome, and it was always genuine.
I cannot get that smile out of my mind. I don’t want to, but it hurts all the same.
Everything since two weeks ago has been waiting. Waiting. Waiting to find our brother. Waiting to get home. Waiting to believe it. Waiting to cry. Waiting to stop. Waiting to be comforted. Waiting to be alone. Waiting for sleep. Waiting for it all to be over. Waiting to accept that it will never end. Waiting to feel hungry. Waiting to catch our breath with each new realization of what we’ve lost. Waiting for meaning. Waiting for signs. Waiting for normalcy. Waiting for clarity.
The only thing I’ve come to accept is that my stomach will hold on to this knot for a long time; I’m hoping that it will begin to unravel eventually. But if not, I will keep it and care for it.
On one of my recent trips to St. Louis, Mary Clare, Joe, Paul and I went to the Decemberists concert at the Peabody. Paul and I had agreed to each get two tickets, texting from our desk chairs, signing in at the same time the moment they went on sale. It rained that night. We walked to our car with hoods up, heads down, content in each other’s company. Afterward, we went to Three Kings and talked about the Mad Men finale. It was a good night with three people who each hold a massively important piece of my heart. I’m so grateful for that memory.
So now, I am waiting to understand. Wanting meaning. Hoping to find that joy that came so easily to you, Paulie. I love you.