A text from Texas startled me into taking my seat at my secretary, laptop open, mug by my side. Coffee and musings. . .? read the little blip from an old friend. I smile and answer: Working on both, and sidle over to the keyboard, opening a fresh page, giving way to the memories which jostle, push, shove and plead to flow from my fingers to the world. Or to the small segment of the world's population which, along with my devoted friend in Texas, favors me with a few minutes of their mornings each Saturday.
I have one less reader today, unless Heaven has the Internet. My cousin Paul left us on Thursday. In my keenest memories, Paul sits in a wheelchair or runs in a field. I think of him as a child, a young teen, and then in the last years of his life when ALS crept along his limbs and tried to own him. I rarely saw him between times. In fact, after I left St. Louis in 1980, until I began to visit my family with more regularity in the last five years, I might have seen Paul a half-dozen times, most often in funeral-black. My mother, my brother, my father, his mother, his father. And once or twice at cousin-gatherings.
Images of Paul rise unbidden and he smiles broadly in all of them. "Paulos the baby bull", I remember calling him, though I don't remember why any more than I know why we called his brother Charlie, "Carlos the baby car". Neither of them seemed to mind, Paul least of all.
My son and I visited Paul at home in 2013, and I went alone earlier this year. I arrived at the house in St. Charles while he and his care-provider for the day were out getting lunch, and I stood in the driveway, in the still of a spring morning, watching birds flit from branch to gutter. When the vehicle carrying my cousin pulled beside me, a stern man slid down to the pavement and asked my business, in a terse voice. But Paul beckoned from the other side and the man's face relaxed into a friendly pose.
Paul and I embraced when he had exited in his wheelchair and landed beside me near the back deck. He called me his beautiful cousin and held onto me as though it meant something. When we had settled inside, after he had eaten, his attendant disappeared into the back of the house and Paul turned his full attention to me. How is my beautiful cousin, he asked. I felt beautiful when he said that, one of the few moments in my life when I have. Paul's voice had that power: he spoke only truth, truth as he saw it, and you had no difficulty believing him.
I shrugged away his questions about my tumultuous life. We talked about his CD, his wife, his children, a baby on the way. He spoke of his parents and my little brother. Then he asked me something that I did not expect. Do you believe in God, Corinne?
I assured him that I did, not feeling that my belief had the force of his, sure that it did not. He accepted my answer, though. And do you believe in angels, he continued. I could respond with more conviction. Yes yes, I certainly do, I proclaimed. Angels in human form, angels in spiritual form, all kinds of angels. Paul nodded, satisfied, unquestioning. Then he told me a long story about a priest who had visited him and told him about a dream, or a vision -- something that included people and places that Paul knew to be in his ancestry. Paul felt the clergyman foretold of Paul's impending arrival in the heavenly company of his long-deceased great-grandparents. I did not dispute his theory; I have no doubt that some type of spiritual reunion awaits us. I doubted even less, then and now, that if entitlement dictates our eternal destiny, Paul had enough credits to bring himself and many others into paradise.
We sat in silence for a few minutes after his story. Paul beamed at me. He asked, for the third or fourth time, about my son. I told him another tidbit or two of what I knew of Patrick's whereabouts and doings. He asked about my stepson, about my work, about my health. He told me -- as Paul always told me -- that he loves me. We fell quiet again, a peacefulness surrounding us. I listened to the sound of the home -- its creaks, the whirring of some machinery in its bowels, stirrings in the backroom which told me that the care provider hovered near enough to come to aid but far enough away to respect any privacy that might need respecting.
When Paul spoke again, his voice had dropped an octave. He startled me by mentioning my father. I loved your Dad, he said. His bright eyes met mine. I had no response. What Paul knew of my father's truth, I could not say and I would not destroy any memory that Paul might have had. But Paul himself spared me from any need of disingenuousness. I know your Dad was not perfect, he assured me. We both understood that what he meant was, I know what your Dad did, or I think I know. He leaned forward, his frail torso swaying slightly. My father and your father had a great friendship, he told me. My father never gave up on Uncle Dick.
He raised his eyebrows and turned his head, just so, to let me know that I should take a deeper meaning from my Uncle Joe's dedication to my father. I could not stop the tears which rose in my eyes. Then Paul changed the subject -- sort of. You're a fabulous writer, Corinne, I love what you send me. Paul and I gazed at one another for a few minutes, me wondering what he was trying to tell me, and him holding the brightness of his eyes right where my heart and soul met.
Then I noticed that his breathing had become labored, and I knew that I should go. I rose from my chair just as the attendant came into the room, no doubt having heard the heaviness in Paul's chest. Paul engaged the joy stick of his motorized chair and guided me to the front door. I leaned down to put my arms around him. I could not be sure that I would see him again. Just before I left the house, we posed for the obligatory selfie, me holding my cell phone high, both of us laughing. I swear he pinched me; I think he tried to do rabbit ears but I wiggled away. Then he kissed me and told me, again, that he loved me, and I assured him that I shared the feeling.
I looked back as I got into my car. He had not moved, nor had his smile dimmed in the least.
I saw Paul only one other time, at the cousin reunion on Memorial Day weekend. I ran across the grass to meet him. While his beautiful wife Kathy got their belongings situated, Paul and I hugged, and laughed, and teased one another. My beautiful cousin! he exclaimed. My beautiful cousin Corinne! And in the moment, I felt beautiful. I felt cherished. And I felt a crowd of angels flocking around him, waiting, watching, biding their time but close at hand.
Those angels came for Paul again, two days ago, in the evening, at home, no doubt with those whom he loved close at hand. I woke to the news on Friday morning and a grey veil closed over me. Even though I know that Paul's earthly burden had been great in the last year, and his faith carried him to heaven, still, I felt sadness -- not for his death, but for my loss, and his wife's loss, and the loss of his children and grandchildren, siblings, nieces, and nephews.
I can tell you that Paul would be all right with my mourning him. Though he expected to be reunited with those who have already died, he also understood that we cherish our time here on earth. He never said to me at least, Do not mourn me. I told Paul, on my last visit to his home, that it really hacked me off that he had ALS, that he had to suffer, that he would die so needlessly, so soon. He shrugged, lifting his weak shoulders skyward. What can I say, Corinne, he laughed. I'm a great guy, I feel for you -- I'd miss me too, if I were you.
Our laughter carried me home that day, and it will carry me through his funeral on Monday, just as Paul would want.