I woke up this morning to a dream about my friend, Paul.
I met Paul at the Langley Vineyard when I was 21. He was one of the sound men at the church; I had recently quit the band I'd spent the previous two years touring Canada with. I had some healing to do, and Paul was a supportive listener. He used to say were I still single when I turned 30, he would marry me. Quite frankly, this worried me, as I wasn't always certain he was joking.
Paul died last year, after an extended battle with cancer. His death was 7 out of 9 deaths in a fifteen month span in my life, and his death was the only one of the nine that felt like, yeah, it was time. From the moment of diagnosis, Paul greatly exceeded his life expectancy. He spent his last three years with the people who mattered in his life. His Facebook wall is littered with pictures of time spent with the people he loved.
In my life, Paul was just that guy who had learned to love without protective barriers in place. He loved me because he did, not because I offered him anything spectacular in return. He was always in my corner, always on my side, always told me I was beautiful and talented and amazing. He made me believe that how he saw me was truth.
I wasn't able to make Paul's memorial service, and ours had been a long-distance friendship in recent years, anyhow. In my dream, last night, I was there, though, in his hospital room, saying good-bye, and what I said to him was, "You're graduating!"
Then, because I woke this way, I scoped out his wall and read the things others said about him. Apparently, Paul was that guy for many people. The guy who loved. One woman wrote of his last words to her - how time is short -- and he admonished her to live well (paraphrased).
In 2016, the 12 year old grandson of a woman I worked with died. He'd come to see grandma for his birthday, and driving home thru the Praries a semi crossed the centre line and hit their van head on. The birthday boy was killed at the scene. That death marked the first in a series of deaths which touched my life. When he died, I wrote a song about grieving and about questioning God which I later recorded and sent to the child's grandma as a gift. She was a fan of my voice, always asking me to sing for her at work, and really, what is there to do for someone in a situation such as hers?
When Graham (death number six) died, the heart was knocked right out of me. Graham's father was a guitar player in my band, and his family had been supportive of me when my own child was struggling. I read of Graham's death on Facebook, sitting on my sofa, and I lost it. I started crying in a way that scared my fourteen year old. At the memorial, Graham's mom said a profound thing. She said, "There is a space inside me. I don't have to worry about him anymore." She hadn't realized she had internalized this spot inside that was exclusively worry for Graham.
After Graham died, I wrote a song about addiction. Damsel in Distress. I'm not gonna be your damsel in distress/ not waiting for someone/ to ride in on a/ white horse.
And then, largely, I stopped writing songs. By the time Graham died, it had started to feel like every time I started to get my feet back under me, stand back up under the burden of more grief and loss, someone else would die, and I'd be knocked back down again.
So, I retreated. I sat on my couch, ate junk food, and watched - The Vampire Diaries. I know, I'm embarrassed for me, too.
The first season of this teen drama really is quite entertaining, and then there's the fact that two of the cast members dated in real life (and in a totally non-creepy, please don't judge me way I had to try to correlate that to the episodes by season to see if I could track differences in their chemistry - you can, we will talk), and of course Ian Sommerfeld is smoking hot and his character is flat out fun to watch, still, I had to ask myself, why are you watching this? I didn't really expect to find answers to surviving my own grief in the company of vampires, did I?
So, I researched vampires. Let me just say, it ain't Hollywood, baby. In truth, people of medieval, plague-ridden times believed that some corpses could kill from beyond the grave. Therefore, they would bury these 'vampires' with bricks and other objects lodged in their mouths. This prevented the vampire from opening and shutting its jaws - the undead could not return to bite the living because of the obstruction permanently wedging their jaws open.
In the scientific age we live in, clearly we have other explanations for the cycle of communicable disease than people had then. Yet, they were closer to a truth than they realized, even though their solution didn't have teeth (pun intended).
Much has been written about the psychology of loss and mourning, though I confess I have not read extensively on the subject. I was too busy trying to get up in the morning and take care of the needs of the day. By the time I was in a place where I felt capable of reading about loss, I'd already started to get up from the couch. I was more interested in figuring out how best to live life than studying death and grief.
Because for me, truly living was the lesson in a year of death. In the words of Mel Gibson aka William Wallace, "All men die, not all men really live." Yes, Paul, time is short. I choose to maximize all I do with the time I have.
For me, a well-lived life looks different now than it did two years ago. It's about balance. Two years ago, I was leading two bands, working full-time, raising the children, writing an online magazine and I'd put out 2 CD's in one year. I didn't sleep. Oddly, living well now means learning how to say no. I'm sorry, but no, that opportunity - no matter how potentially wonderful - is not right for me. Saying no has, in fact, been an exercise in saying yes - to myself.
For me, there was a process to re-engaging with life. I didn't just jump back in with two feet as I might have done in the past. Instead, with deliberation and fore-thought and planning, I tested the waters. Toes first, then walking in ankle deep, knee high, and then to the waist, where I waited a while to adjust to the temperature before diving in and going for a full-out swim. And then, climbing out of the water to rest in the sunshine on the lakeshore before heading back out and swimming again. It's funny, but it took death (s) to teach me to pace myself that I might thrive as I do life.
The Paul's of my life - and there have been a few of you -- have taught me a lot about the kind of person and friend I wish to be. We didn't spend a huge number of hours together, but the time spent with Paul or talking to Paul was always uplifting. I could tell him anything, and if he judged me, he kept it to himself. With me, he spoke unselfish and uncompromising words of affirmation. That is the kind of human I wish to be - the kind who, when here, builds up and supports (in small ways and large) the people I encounter, and who, when gone, finds my way into the dreams of those I've loved even a year after I'm gone. And builds them up, even as they sleep.