April 15, 2015

Please Don’t Let There Be Anonymity After Death

When I was 16 years old, I experienced the tragic and untimely death of a friend. Paul was a beautiful boy, full of charm, zeal and confidence. His alluring, Italian good looks had the girls swooning over his every move, no different perhaps than those today that fantasize about the lads from One Direction. He was that attractive and debonair. I was infinitely jealous.

Between the ages of 12 and 15 in our mutual hometown, we were actually foes on differing competitive soccer teams and eventually high schools. Paul went to the rather large Catholic school, whereas I went to one of the much smaller public high schools. We competed on the soccer pitch several times a year. Because we were both midfielders, we saw a lot of one another. Whether it was when we battled one another through our high schools or through our spring and summer competitive teams — Sparta and Saltfleet — we were rather good enemies. Paul was a skilled dribbler. He also possessed a clinical finish. I was the controlling midfielder, trying to prevent him from doing ‘his thing’. We were an oxymoron.

During the year we both turned 16, the unimaginable happened. Paul was asked by my coach at Sparta to join our club that season. The enemy was now amidst the camp. How could this be? It felt traitorous. It was as though George Harrison had just announced he was leaving The Beatles to join The Rolling Stones. But the Stones already had Keith Richards. That couldn’t be right. Something was amiss.

During the initial moments of our first-ever practice together, the coach brought the two of us to the middle of the pitch. “Do you know why Paul is with our club now, Dan?” he asked with a bemusing twinkle in his eye that seemed to ironically become highlighted by his thick Scottish accent. Without waiting for either of us to answer — he was great at answering his own rhetorical questions — the coach suggested that, “Because together, you are going to make one another so much better.”

“Great,” I thought to my pugnacious teenage self. “I suppose it’s time to start looking at other clubs for next year.”

But then I quickly had a second thought.

“Maybe the crazy ‘If it’s not Scottish it’s crap’ sage elder is right,” I cheekily thought to myself next. “Maybe he has a point.”

And he did. And it wasn’t degenerate.

Over the course of the next two months, Sparta was a much better club. I became a much better player as well, working in tandem with Paul. He was more of an attacking midfielder whereas I was more of a punishing, “no one gets by me” defending midfielder, able to intercept oncoming balls (and players) to subsequently pick out teammates with counterattack passes. This new dynamic duo was working magnificently. Paul and I seamlessly cooperated and collaborated together to fortify a team that was already an excellent squad. In a word, it was ‘magic’.

During one of those dog days of summer that signifies Southern Ontario in July, I received a telephone call from a mutual friend of ours — Kendall — asking if I was home. Given I answered the phone (and there were no mobile phones back then) Kendall asked me to stay at home and not venture anywhere. He wanted to come by the house. There was important news to deliver. Confused as I was, I agreed to sit tight.

dv“Paul’s dead,” Kendall shrieked as he came bursting through the side door of the house.

“It was a boating accident, he’s gone,” he continued.

Incredulous as the news sounded, I burst into tears. How could this be? My enemy who had just become my soccer friend — my partner in a new form of teamwork — was no longer among us. What of his family? What of those swooning girls? What of our budding on-field friendship?

Kendall was a much better friend to Paul than I ever was. Their history together started when they were both in the single digits of age. Kendall and I went to the funeral later that week together. It was awful. So much grief. So much crying. I think that’s the day I became a man. At least I started to knock on the door. The sadness was pervasive if not suffocating. It was one of the hardest and most emotional days of my life.

It’s been almost thirty years since I’ve thought about Paul. You might say I forgot about him. How sad. Why is that? Why did I forget about Paul? Even as a prepubescent and subsequently pubescent lad, there was (and is) much to recall, much to remember, much to learn about Paul.

For many of us however, sadly, there is anonymity after death.

If perhaps you have contributed great ideas, inventions, literature, hope, music or discoveries during your lifetime, your relevance remains arguably perpetual to the world. William Shakespeare, Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, Mother Theresa, John Lennon, Oprah Winfrey, Epicurus, Thomas Edison, Friedrich Nietzsche or Pablo Picasso need not worry about their anonymity in the afterlife. Heck, let’s even add Marilyn Monroe to the mix. Generations of people will be able to read about their contributions, for they are firmly ingrained in the consciousness of history ever after.

What of the rest of us? What is our legacy? How might we be remembered?

We’re still considered ‘old school’ in our home because the daily national newspaper is delivered to our front door. It may seem morbid but on Saturdays I tend to scan the obituaries. Typically there are no Rutherfords or Lennons or Winfreys. No, they’re always on a page separate from the obits.

But there are oodles of Pauls.

And all of those Pauls are people to learn from if we indeed take the time to remember how they touched us.

Like snowflakes, humans descend in various shapes and sizes. We’re all unique. Some of those snowflakes are used to build snowmen. Others lie within the serenity of an open field, undisturbed until the warmth of spring peeks through. It’s not possible to remember every snowflake — thus, every human we come into contact with — but we ought to take the time to recall those that helped us to create some magic in our own lives.

You need not read the obituaries, but you might attempt to begin recalling what you’ve learned from those that have passed on, who you’ve come into contact with. There is gold in those memories. Your family members, relatives and best friends are a given. How could you forget them?

But what of that neighbour down the street who once helped you build a fence?

What of the office mate that annoyed you, but always managed to find a way to compliment your PowerPoint presentations?

How about the lady you used to buy your coffee from every day in the café kiosk?

Who are the Pauls in your life?

We are all snowflakes. We all eventually melt. It’s a physical inevitability. Rather obviously, we are all human, too. Paul was human. But I forgot about him. I let him mentally melt away. I shouldn’t have. He was a charming, glowing and unique snowflake.

Upon a quiet moment of reflection this week, I realized I still have much to learn from him. His life may have been somewhat ephemeral, but that doesn’t mean he should melt into obscurity or obsolescence. Thank you Paul, I’ll be sure to pass on what I’ve learned from you to others. In the end, you did make me “so much better.”

Don’t let those who might not be considered within your inner circle or family melt away. Don’t simply rely on the famous either. There is so much to learn from every one of those snowflakes that come into your life.

Don’t let there be anonymity after death.

NOTE: Originally posted to The Huffington Post.

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