To Paul on your 39th birthday

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Dear Paul,

Happy birthday there Sloané. Thirty-nine candles. A lot of talk about being on the cusp of 40, but what I think is even scarier is you’re only a 21er away from turning 60. SIXTY!!! Or, if you put it in less kind terms, the distance from here to 60 is the same as 18 to now and it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were 18.

Sorry if I haven’t been super-good at writing lately. I’m in Tahoe this week, as I seem to find myself every year around your birthday, and I’m able to take a brief early morning moment to check in.

Yesterday, I went on a long swim from Kings Beach around the jetty of Crystal Bay where the giant granite boulders that are the size of school buses barely peek from the tops of waters. Below is so inky you have to squint your eyes from the sunbeams slicing through as schools of fish break up and rejoin in a mysteriously choreographed dance around the rays.

I swam into a tiny cove and popped out of the lake, perching myself on the egg-shaped top of one of the slippery rocks. From that vantage point I was staring directly south. Though it was all there before me, Freel and Jobs peak(s) in the far distance; Homewood and the slopes of Squaw to the west; your folks’ place on the East Shore, I saw nothing but the break water and the blur of trees. No cars. No paddle boarders. No wave runners. No homes. Just me and the water and the sun and the air in the sky above. I sat there alone. It was maybe thirty seconds, maybe fifteen minutes. I don’t know. What I do know is I felt suspended in that moment and for a second, I felt a little of what forever must be.

You can laugh or make fun of me, but it’s in those fleeting moments, you come to mind.

Recently I’ve wondered whether whatever-it-is I’m feeling at the time isn’t just merely a projection, a conjecture. “I feel ____ so Paul must be feeling ____.”

I think that may be the case. Or, to put it in different terms, I never sit there at 2:48 p.m. on a nothing Thursday staring at my computer screen trying not to doze off or click onto the NYT to slap me out of my work stupor and think, “This is what forever feels like. I wonder if Paul is in this forever.”

Forever, as portrayed in love stories or tales of enduring friendship, is never a bad thing. And yet, I can’t help but think forever’s a mighty long time to be staring at anything: water, sky …a screen, no matter how impossibly blue any of it is.

I think if there are pearly gates and there is a St. Peter, I’ll do my walk up one day and ask for admission. “One please.” And he’ll ask me my destination. I’ll shrug and roll my eyes and say, “Heaven” as I hand him my passport.

He’ll slide it back under the window and show me a stamp, pointing at it with his index finger. “Sorry. You were just there, bro.”

My little boy Beau, who was born at the end of April, has these really big blue eyes (which is nothing special, all babies have really big blue eyes). He’s just now getting to the age when he can grab at things and form “words.” When I got back onto the shore of Kings Beach yesterday, he was waiting there, lying on a blanket next to his mamma watching the light through the shade tree dance around his stomach as he tried to catch the rays, just like the fishes I’d swam amongst only minutes before.

Seems they know something I don’t.

A few different times during this trip, he’s seen something in the trees or the sky or in the far off distance on the lake and his eyes will grow twice their size. They bulge out comically and a couple seconds later he’ll let out a high-pitched cackle. I know a physical connection between the two of you is an impossibility, but in those moments, I’m reminded of you, how your eyes grew big and a belly laugh would follow every time you found something particularly funny or interesting.

All further proof to me that heaven does exist here and you’re still very much around. I just have to open my eyes a little wider and let the laughs bubble up.

Each year, I seem to recall a different memory of the last birthday, your 26th. We went out to Karaoke and you got mad at the guys who kept putting on “girl songs”. Rather, songs you thought they were singing to pander to girls, which included: “Summer Nights”, and “anything by the Goo Goo Dolls.” You wanted to sing “Sussudio”, “Africa” and “Ace of Spades”. Decidedly not crowd-pleasers and Motorhead doesn’t play so hot with either gender at most Karaoke spots. You got chased off stage before you could regale people with your Phil Collins or your Lemmy and we disappeared into the shimmery streets of a foggy summer San Francisco night.

I guess today, just 21 years from 60, I’ll remember you as that guy: running and screaming and laughing and singing into the void wide-eyed. Dancing between the rays.

I know you were never much for birthdays, especially your own. And it’s probably embarrassing for you more than anything, getting these letters. You’d probably say something to me like, “I used to hand write you letters you lazy piece of shit. I don’t need an email, I have plenty of emails.” And you would be right.

Then you would tilt your head back and laugh and buy me a beer on your birthday. Because that’s the kind of guy you were. And guys like that don’t stick around forever.

-a

Paul K. Sloan was killed on the 89th floor of the South Tower, World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He did hand write his letters and could eat a burrito in less than thirty seconds. His secret was starting form the middle and pushing in both ends at once.

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