“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” -Jack London
Last year I helped my uncle to create an online dating profile. Two successive and aggressive brain tumors had sapped his cognitive ability but left his optimism untouched, and he was fond of reminding me that he had always had a girlfriend or wife since he was sixteen years old. He was ready to get back in the game, so one night when the house was quiet I poured us both a beer and we got to work.
The first section of the profile prompted us to fill in “my self-summary,” and I asked Paul how we should describe his life thus far. He spoke while I typed. He had been living independently since he was fifteen years old, and by the age of sixteen he had a girlfriend, an apartment, and an annual subscription to the New York Times. He had summitted Mt. Kilimanjaro, and had survived a 600 foot fall down Mt. Washington in an avalanche. He had traveled to over 40 countries, and arranged multi-million dollar deals as an independent real estate developer. He had run the Boston marathon in less than three hours twice. He had accumulated over two million frequent flyer miles in his lifetime. In the 1970s he’d owned a pair of boa constrictors, a waterbed, and a robust set of sideburns. He had been the junior chess champion of Rhode Island. We went on to other sections. “Current interests?” Volunteering at the Massachusetts General Hospital. “Favorite foods?” Beer, nachos, burritos. “You should message me if?” You’re patient and enjoy getting to know others.
Paul was extremely popular. It’s not hard to see why. Every day he received half a dozen messages from local ladies curious to learn more about this cosmopolitan, globe-trotting hospital volunteer. Many were eager to speak to him over the phone or meet him in person, and I don’t know if this was due to the dazzling achievements presented in his profile or his naturally curious, cheerful and extroverted personality.
I got to know my uncle very well during the two years that he lived with us. I was amazed by how little his spirit and his personality changed, even after being dealt one of the worst hands he could have received. In 2014 over dinner a doctor friend of Paul’s noticed that he was oddly forgetful and half of his face seemed frozen, and she told him to get a CAT scan that night. The gray blur of the scan revealed a tumor the size of a tennis ball lodged intrusively between the pecan-like hemispheres of Paul’s brain. He was operated on, came to, and his brain rebooted. For a brief time he became left handed, he went through a phase where the only word he could say was “Yes!,” and he took a long time to recall simple words. As time went on Paul’s cognitive capacity slowly returned, but he was often frustrated by his inability to recall words or names, his short-term memory loss, and unpredictable seizures that set back his recovery.
I hope that if I ever encounter a situation as drastically challenging and life altering as that which Paul encountered, that I could face it with the same optimism and good cheer. He joined a tumor support group, continued seeing the friends he had known for 40 years, and hung out at Mass General Hospital so frequently that all of the nurses knew him by name. So much of who Paul was and what he accomplished in his lifetime is deeply admirable. He made close friends and maintained friendships for years, he loved the outdoors and climbed and camped frequently, and he was exceptionally generous with everything he had. He had a relentless sense of self improvement, and many of the books I inherited from him are guides to optimizing your life. He had books on stock market investment tips, a comprehensive guide to the use and maintenance of four-wheel-drive vehicles, and a gentleman’s guide to Las Vegas, with the salient points of different bars and casinos carefully highlighted.
Paul became increasingly reflective after his first tumor diagnosis. He was unequivocally clear that he had no regrets or unfinished business in his life: without the fatalistic sense of working through a bucket list, he had accomplished everything he dreamed of doing by the age of 55. He lived a life of zest and verve, and idleness never agreed with him.
Paul died on July 2nd, 2017, at home with his family. I think that these days not many people die in homes as opposed to hospitals. Not that many people travel the world but live their whole lives within 100 miles of where they were born. After he died we held a memorial celebration at the house. The party was catered by a burrito joint that Paul walked to with his friend Dave every Thursday afternoon. There was a huge galvanized bucket filled with Harpoon IPAs and Dale’s Pale Ale, and I made a playlist of James Brown, Dr. John, Bob Marley, Beres Hammond and all of Paul’s favorites. It was a gorgeous afternoon, and everyone came: his dentist, his buddies who were knocked down the mountain in the avalanche with him, his friends from tumor support group, his cousin, his lawyer. Everyone had a story to tell; some meaningful way that Paul had stuck in their lives and brightened their day.
I’m so grateful to have known Paul, a genuinely kind and generous guy who made the best of whatever circumstances he encountered. He had a lot of qualities that I hope to emulate in my own life. It was a joy to know him, I’ll remember him dearly, and I’m not the only one.