I never believed that Paul Sterns would die.
Paul was a friend of mine, a member of the Sanctuary community that I belong to. Paul was very open about his journey and his health, and I was blessed to know him and his story. He had cancer that was diagnosed a number of years ago. He sought treatment and for a time it was mostly successful until recently when the cancer came back with a vengeance, attacking his physical heart. Paul died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of April 6th, days after his birthday.
His illness is only a sliver of his story, but in a way it was what brought us together. When I was working at Sanctuary a couple of years ago, I came to know Paul. I don’t remember our first conversation, or how it all began. All I know was that suddenly Paul was my friend. I think it was like that for many people he knew. I say his illness brought us together because I got to know Paul by our visits in the hospital while he was getting his chemo. I would arrive usually early, before work, and we would chat while he got his blood work done, waited for the nurse to put the IV in, waited for the chemo to be hooked up, and while it was streaming into his body, trying to undo the cancer that was slowly killing him. I would sit for however long I had, usually with a few others that came around to visit (he was popular), and leave him there to eventually get to work. Paul was always grateful, whether I only had 5 minutes or whether I had two hours. Most recently, Paul would refer to me as the daughter he never had (and never wanted *chuckle*). I know there were many of us at Sanctuary who he lovingly thought of us daughters – as family. I was honored.
The hardest part of a memorial for me is walking in. I am struck by the finality of what is about to happen. I walked into Paul’s memorial on Monday not believing that it had come. Paul was given a couple of weeks to live a few days before he died. To say that timeline was off was an understatement. He died two days later. I am so grateful that I made it home from my trip to visit him one last time on Friday. He died the next morning. To be honest, I don’t remember what I said to Paul. I remember joking with him as always. I remember there being a few of us there with him. I remember him talking about his death. And I really don’t think I said goodbye – a real goodbye. I didn’t think that would be the last time I ever saw my friend Paul on this earth. I hope he knows that when I said, “See you later” hoping that it would be Sunday, that it would translate to more of a metaphorical see you later. I can’t wait to see Paul again one day.
Paul’s memorial was filled with his friends and family. People shared stories of his life, his journey (the good and the hard), funny memories, and things that he did along the way. I was struck by how many of these stories ended with, “and that was Paul.” That was Paul indeed. He was funny, charming, kind, generous, inappropriate, rude, endearing, smart, weird, talented, hardworking, and a hundred other things. He was a good friend. Our pastor Greg said that when he visited Paul the day before he died, he asked if he could pray for Paul. He did, and then Paul ended up praying too which he hardly ever did, at least out loud. But he prayed to God, and he prayed for all of us. He didn’t pray for himself and his body that was slowly letting go. He didn’t pray that he would go peacefully. He prayed for his friends and family. He prayed for each one of us. That was Paul.
I don’t know if I will ever believe that Paul is dead. I see him already in strangers, which often happens when a friend from my community passes away. I see glimpses of him and know he’s around. I know he’s not in pain, and I know I will see him again one day. But that doesn’t make it easy. I long to sit once more with Paul. I long to hear one more joke, tell one more story, see one more sheepish smile. I will miss Paul for a long time.
There are a hundred things I want to say. A hundred more stories and a hundred more wishes. When I helped carry Paul’s body out of the building on Monday with a group of his closest lady friends (which is exactly what he wanted), I felt honored to be a part of his journey – his journey in this life and his journey to get him Home. I was honored to have known Paul for the short time I did. I was honored to call him my friend. He will be deeply missed. That was Paul.