There were five of us, spread over a period of thirteen years. Not that unusual a family, really. But if you'd asked me, circa 1970, if we'd all still be around in forty years or so, I'd have said that we would, though we probably wouldn't be living in close proximity to one another; I'd be only fifty-seven, and the others younger than that. Were anyone actually gone, I'd have added, it would be me.

Well, I'm still here, and so is the youngest that would be James, never a Jim or a Jimmy but the other three are gone now. Brenda left us in 1978. Okay, she was sick, and maybe she was an outlier. And we went twenty-five years with four of five intact. Then Joni died in 2003, and Paul, at this writing, is about to be laid to rest.

And James called. What he wanted to know, up front, was "Why were we so damn dysfunctional?" As though that had something to do with it. Well, maybe it did. I temporized a bit: I pointed out that we were all fiercely independent, and this is not necessarily a characteristic that foments family harmony. Whether it's connected in any way to longevity, or the lack of same well, that I couldn't tell you, or him.

Still, I'm sticking with "fiercely independent." It describes some of us better than others, perhaps, but it's perfect for Paul. I don't know if the traditional travails of the Middle Child, usually second of three, apply to the third of five, but he definitely went down his own path. He was the only real jock among us, but I suspected, for a time anyway, that his days of high-school football were motivated less by the desire to define himself than the desire to knock people down.

Shortly thereafter, he joined the Navy. He had ample precedent for this: both parents had been sailors. (I, doubting my swimming ability, had signed up for the Army instead.) And that last line of the Sailor's Creed "I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all" he took very seriously indeed. If he thought you were trying, he'd give you the shirt off his back; if he thought you were slacking off, though, God help your miserable soul.

In fact, if you took down a list of Characteristics of the Traditional Man, you'd probably come up with something like Paul. Harvey Mansfield defined "manliness" as "confidence in a situation of risk" coupled with "philosophical courage," and Paul wasn't one to second-guess his own ability to handle whatever situation, or whatever argument, came up. This sort of attitude could be a problem for someone who is, as they say down in Texas (he was born, just incidentally, in Austin), "all hat and no cattle." Not for Paul. He was prepared to defend any person or any proposition.

Which is not to say that he thought he could always do it alone. A friend of his sent me this story:

I came over to Paul's house one night, and I brought over a movie called Immortal Beloved, which is about Beethoven. There is a scene in the movie when Beethoven has lost his hearing, but is trying to hide it. He can still write music, because he could hear it in his head, but the problem was when he tried to conduct his orchestra. Because he couldn't hear the music, he is not conducting properly, and the orchestra falls apart and they have to restart several times. Beethoven keeps screaming at the orchestra, but they refuse to play. People in the crowd starts to jeer him. He turns to the crowd, and they are laughing and pointing, the orchestra people are shaking their heads in disgust. Beethoven stands there staring at the crowd, not knowing what to do. A woman he loved stood and walked up to him, took his arm, and led him out of the concert hall with their heads held high. Her strength at that moment was what Beethoven needed. I looked over at Paul, and he had tears streaming down his face. He said, voice breaking, "that's my wife she would do that for me."

I am, as a rule, not given to envy; at least, if I see it lurking in the subconscious somewhere, I usually (though not always) have enough sense to slap it away. I remember mentioning to him earlier this year, though, that it must be nice to have found the woman of your dreams, something I am quite incapable of doing. He said something to the effect that this was a load of dingo's kidneys, and that I simply wasn't paying attention. Which might even be true.

Then again, one thing we did share was an absolute hatred for being misunderstood. The day before he died, he was barely able to speak, and the ventilator wasn't helping; he practically had to scream something at me before I realized what he was saying. It was, of course, the words of Dylan Thomas. Paul wasn't willingly giving in to the Reaper, that scrawny, scythe-wielding son of a bitch, and he'd be damned if he'd let me even think about it.

I have, unfortunately, thought about it a lot in the last few days, mostly along the lines of "Why him? It's not like anybody would miss me if I were gone." But this, too, is probably a load of dingo's kidneys, and after I pass clearance with St. Peter, I fully expect Paul to tell me so.

The Vent

  17 October 2010

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 Copyright © 2010 by Charles G. Hill