He was the best man at my wedding. My husband was the best man at his two years prior. They had met when they were in pre-k, but I didn’t meet him until 7th grade. We had a friendship that weathered hilarious ups and a 10-year hiatus where I actually forgot exactly why we were angry at each other. He was one of those friends. We didn’t get to hang out all that much, but we ran around in the same circles so it was only ever a few months in between running into each other. Since 1983.
When I got the call from my friend that he was rushing to Dawn’s house because Paul was unresponsive, I couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be real. As the clock flashed the time 12:34 I whispered a fervent wish, “Please let him make it through.” Wishes are fickle though, and the paramedics couldn’t revive him. He had a massive heart attack in his sleep. Paul was only 48.
A million things start racing through your mind when you hear that someone who you’ve known for 35 years is gone. “When did I see him last?” “How is his wife?” and “What can I do to help?” were just the tip of the mental iceberg. Death parks in your car like a Ford 150 in a compact spot. It doesn’t fit. It’s not right. This can’t be happening.
He was a huge presence in community theatre, everyone knew him or knew of him. He had either appeared in a show you knew or pissed off someone or both. Paul was a polarizing character. What he loved, he was 1000% passionate about. What he hated, he wouldn’t tolerate.
Not too long after Rob and I got married, we were all involved in a theater group together. Something insignificant went down and he ended up leaving the company for some time. He wouldn’t speak to my husband, myself, or my friends for about 7 years. Eventually, time and memory worked their magic. I don’t remember when or why or how we became friendly again, but I never shook that sense of guilt and regret over our breakup. So much time was wasted and I always felt like it was all my fault. I know it wasn’t, but that’s not how I felt.
Now he’s gone, but the guilt was worse than ever. I felt like squandered all this time when I could have apologized or reached out or called him or something. My brain was exhausted from beating myself up. Who did I think I was grieving over him when I felt like I was a pretty bad friend the last 10 years. There are other people who are closer to him who deserve to be sad, not me. I floated through work in a fog, unable to concentrate on anything substantial.
The night of his memorial was like a huge theatre reunion, for a horrible reason. We all hugged each other, shed tears, supported Dawn, and tried to take the necessary steps to start to heal the huge hole we all had in our hearts. The self-flagellation continued, however. How dare I? Who did I think I was? I was the worst. My throat burned with anger and regret and unbearable pain that I felt I did not deserve to feel.
It finally took a friend pulling me aside to check on me that caused me to simply break down. Every awful thought I was having came pouring out through tears of frustration and grief. She put it to me this way, with a simple question. All things being the same, and your roles were reversed, would he be here at your memorial? The answer was yes. He would. He had forgiven me, so why couldn’t I forgive myself? It was like a dam broke. As we took our seats for the readings and the service, it gave me some time to reflect.
In order to heal, I needed to forgive myself. I needed to let go of the negativity of the past that only I was holding on to. It was like a wound that time kept trying to heal but I kept ripping open myself. I was my own worst enemy and that needed to stop.
After the church, a bunch of us got together at my best friend’s house to eat pizza and comfort his widow. One by one we squeezed into her kitchen and raised glass after glass in their honor. We laughed, cried, and laughed some more as the memories flowed. I took a deep breath and finally said a few words to Dawn that I was holding on for a long time, and the first mental band-aid stuck. Forgiving yourself isn’t impossible, but it’s what he would have wanted. I’ll hold onto that for strength for now.