My buddy Paul’s mom has this thing where every time a ladybug lands on you, it’s a message from her son.
Him saying, “Everything’s going to be OK.”
Even though I see lots of ladybugs, none has ever really landed on me, which is OK too.
I knew Paul for about half of his 26 years on Earth. We were friends in high school. Along with my neighbor Chris, we were best friends. There wasn’t a weekend during that time I wasn’t curled up on the carpeted concrete slab of his home’s meat locker basement game room making stupid movies or planning to drive around till we found some party somewhere only to walk in, shrug, and walk out to go to the video store instead.
We’d sneak behind the “adult curtain” and giggle, settling for Xanadu or Zapped or Taxi Driver, then roll back to the basement with a pair of Little Caesars (each) and some Jolt Cola for the six hours of movie viewing and bleary-eyed breakfast that would follow.
We all went our separate ways in college, but that was a blip. And though we each had very different career paths, the late nights in his basement turned to dark bars talking to the girls in black pants and mini backpacks capped with burrito eating contests in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Then curled up on his and Chris’s couch watching DVD copies of Xanadu, Zapped or Taxi Driver before getting up for bleary-eyed brunch in the city.
In real life, our friendship was far from perfect. I think sometimes he looked at me and my questionable choices in career or women or, well, clothes, and would just shake his head. “You’re an idiot” was probably his favorite way to start a conversation with me. And then he would outline with morose, I-didn’t-even-know-he-was-watching detail about why I, in fact, was being an idiot.
He would finish, stare me down with his brown eyes and say, “There. Now I’m going for a run.”
And he did.
Eventually Paul’s young mind outgrew San Francisco, and perhaps — though to this day, none of us who stayed behind like to admit it — the rest of our greater group, about 11 strong since junior high.
So he packed his things and said good-bye and left for New York. He bought a leather coat but still wore his Giants jacket on the subway. He reunited with East Coast friends from school, and when pressed said his Friday nights (a couple 40s, some Playstation, bars and home) were more or less the same, “Except here the hot girls who ignore us are more like models.”
And that was good enough for me.
He returned a couple months after moving for a work thing in San Francisco. Instead of staying with us, his company got him a hotel in the financial district. I remember walking into his room. His clothes were different, more form-fitting. He seemed skinnier and taller. I remember him as the round kid whose big brother could dunk a basketball while he could barely get net, but now he was all business and sinew.
None of us really knew it at the time, but he had grown up a little bit and was making that first step into the vast void of real adulthood and responsibility where the best part of the week wasn’t piling into a musty van and driving around the city drinking 40s in the back dressed like the Village People. Though, to be sure, those stories, oft-repeated, are pretty much now the highlight of every conversation we have as full bird adults. Go figure.
A little more than a month after that, a plane crashed into his building on a cloudless Tuesday. That morning, he’d just sent out an email to our fantasy league (he was the commissioner) about how everyone owed dues and Marshall Faulk betrayed him in the opening game by sucking and, by extension, we all sucked. And the next moment, there was smoke coming out of his building on TV and he was gone.
My story of him resumes a few months later. Paul, my friend, who liked to wear a giant fake-gold medallion dollar sign and spent senior year of high school in overalls and an Arnold Schwarzenegger t-shirt; a guy who made sure that Graceland was a day-long stop on his cross-country post-collegiate tour with his pair of best friends from back East; the only person I know who could lose all his money in under two minutes at a North Shore Tahoe casino and then would rather trudge through a snow storm in Tevas than stay inside and stare down the people who “stole his money” for one more minute; the man who was a weekday work machine, then could turn on Sloané mode Friday evening and pierce the deep and unforgiving night with his high-pitched laugh, bringing all around him with him — would not be forgotten.
He was a galvanizing force in death as he was in life, maybe moreso. So much that for me the hero shadow he cast stretched longer and bigger once gone and eventually overtook what was, by all accounts, a humble and small friendship while he was here.
The stories I held on to took on new meaning. The last hug he gave me was inconsequential at best, but it was now a memory I had to regurgitate multiple times a day to anyone who would listen. I trapped those who knew him on the East Coast to talk about their final few outings with the annoying urgency of expectation, forcing them to add details that probably weren’t there. The girl he went on a couple dates with on the lead up, does anyone remember her name? Have her number? I think he wore a blue oxford shirt and his favorite brown wingtips to work that day, but don’t know for sure. A broken-spine copy of On the Road was turned upside down on page 149 and Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits was spinning in his CD player. But what did it all mean?
In the years that passed, my obsession with what my friend was doing, that day and the ones leading up, became the focal point. Our actual friendship stowed somewhere in the overhead.
…Till about this time last year, when I was having a beer with a couple buddies before the 12k we run in his honor annually. The race starts at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge’s north side in Marin County and ends in the shadow of Ghirardelli Square on San Francisco’s waterfront. It was a run he did each of his years in the city. First on his own and eventually a few of us joined him, plodding along, hung over, while he set personal bests in his age and weight division.
It was then, on the race’s eve, one of my friends took a sip of beer and told me, “You know, eventually you’re going to have to admit that Paul was just a guy, like me and you. That’s all. He did wonderful things and he made mistakes too. Just like me and you. He died unfairly, and isn’t coming back. But that’s it. It could have been any of us. And if it had been you, you’d have wanted him to live and grow too.”
Like I said, I never had a ladybug land on me, but metaphorically, that was it.
I took those words and thought on them, a lot. It’s not that the memory of Paul had been holding me back. Quite the opposite. His memory inspired me to be more like him, or how I remembered him, at least.
Then I realized, he was 26 — and I was now in my late 30s.
So, I made a few changes. Tiny ones, at least. I tried a little harder at work. I wrote a little more on the side. I attempted to keep my word and my commitments a little better. I made an effort to show up on time (still a work in progress). I went to the doctor and the dentist regularly. I washed my car and made sure the oil was changed. I paid bills when they came in the mail, not once the calls started. On weekends, I went on long runs still, but actually stopped in the middle to take it all in.
But little changes, as anyone will tell you, lead to big things. My father was diagnosed with cancer in that time and passed away in January. I was there with my mother and sister and him when he received the news from his oncologist and I was there, just the four of us, when he passed. I met someone special and we are expecting our first child within a matter of weeks. I write every day. For the first time since he left, I feel like a guy Paul actually might want to know were he alive today.
And that makes me happy.
On Sunday, I did something I never have. I missed the race for Paul. We’re counting down close enough to baby time that a road trip wasn’t an option and though I missed my favorite day of the year, it was for a good cause — and one I hope he might understand.
Instead, I did a long run by myself. A three-mile one-way scramble up a 2,200-foot peak on an isolated spit jutting out over the Pacific. It was clear as I’ve ever seen at the summit. In the far off distance, tiny fog from the spray of migrating whales broke up the canvas blue of the ocean’s bend on the horizon. In the near view, the wealth of birds and butterflies and native California flowers all seemed to do their choreographed salute to the first of spring, alive and new. I breathed in deep and, for the first time in a very very long time, I felt alive and new too.
And, just at that moment, a ladybug landed on my shoulder.