Long May You Run: Song for My Brother

It's been almost a year since Paul left us. As we approach the one-year anniversary of his passing, I wanted to share a little more about his life, which I referenced in the last couple of posts. Today's offering, in loving memory of my lost brother Paul. A reminder that we can always love a little more, and we can always leave a little more room at the inn. 

Song for My Brother

Thursday, November 29, 2018

There’s so much to say. We came here today to celebrate Paul’s life and to lift up all that was good. We are here to honor our good memories of Paul, and I am sure that everyone in this room has stories—from good to bad. But we need to come together to be real: Paul had a hard life and he struggled. I know I am feeling very raw, and I’m trying to process all that has happened in the last few months. So forgive me in advance. All I’ve done for the last week—and actually, the last twenty years or so—is think about this: How could we have helped Paul? It would be dishonest to stand here and ignore the struggles Paul had. I loved my brother dearly, and I stuck by him to the end, though there plenty of periods where I disappeared because I just couldn’t handle it. But I loved him for what he was.

So what was Paul? 

If Paul had lived in England in the 1620s, he would have been one of the rough seamen who worked on the Mayflower to bring the Pilgrims over to the New World. If he had lived in the 1800s, he would have built himself a wagon and headed West, or he might have set off for the adventure of the open sea on a whaling ship. He was not a man to be held down, but he was born in the wrong era—an era of laws, apartments, taxes, and jobs. And so I think he felt continually confined. He was the least patient rush hour driver I have ever seen. He couldn’t be tied to a schedule, to a job, to a relationship, to an apartment, or even, at many times, even to a place with a roof. He lived in his van in the woods long before he had to, when he was young and strong. That was a life he chose, at least in those early days.

Here’s the thing. Paul was not a rule follower. He was the ultimate example of an American free man. Standing 6’2” and full of muscle, with a ponytail and mountain-man beard, he was an powerful hockey player, a skilled carpenter, and a gifted mechanic. He could fix anything—especially his prized vans. He never drove anything else, except a red Kawasaki and a few dirt bikes along the way. Paul was strong and he was independent… a true cowboy stuck in America’s hometown. One cyclist I know from town used to say about him, “He had legs like tree trunks.” Paul played on a men’s hockey league in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the guys nicknamed him “Chewy”—short for Chewbacca. He was big, strong, hairy, and cranky, but also loveable. Just like Chewbacca—the kind of giant teddy bear who scared the crap out of you. 

Paul was the oldest in a big circle of 30 cousins, and we all spent a lot of time together when everyone was young. Paul was the first, the oldest, the biggest, and the toughest too. Growing up, I’m told he was really good at the game of “Q”, which as far as I can tell is about a bunch of boys running around the backyard beating the living daylights out of each other with a Wiffle-ball bat. I was a lot younger than Paul, but everyone tells me he was tough right from the beginning, and probably because he had to be. In a big, first-generation Italian American family in Quincy, you had to stand up for yourself. Our Lithuanian grandpa had taught us that, too, lessons Grandpa learned from his single mother on the streets of South Boston during the Great Depression. It seems like fighting was the only way that generation of immigrants learned to survive, and those lessons carried through.

Really, Paul just needed the freedom of the open road, and I hope he now has it. As long as I remember, he was talking about driving the Kancamagus highway. He loved the mountains of New Hampshire, and he was still talking about New Hampshire and his van even in his last weeks at the rehab facility when days and times and years seemed to have melted in to a jumbled mess. Those amazing women who worked at Plymouth Nursing and Rehab told me they loved him, by the way, and I think he got more caring and attention from them in his last weeks than he had gotten from women in his entire adult life. I am so thankful for those big-hearted health professionals at Plymouth Rehab. They said he kept his sense of humor to the end. On Thanksgiving, they asked him what he was thankful for. He said, “You guys, and RUM.” Those were probably his last words.

And by the way, the first words I heard him say, in October after he had been unconscious and on life support for weeks at Beth Israel? Picture this: One night in late September the phone rang and it was the hospital. My heart stopped seeing the hospital number. I expected bad news. Instead, I was shocked to hear his voice on the other end of the line, after I had just spent three weeks crying by his bedside while he struggled to survive on breathing machines, feeding tubes, and dialysis. “Hey,” he croaked. “Hi… Wow. Um… Good. I can’t believe you’re calling me,” I stuttered. His reply: “Hey, can you get me some Castillio rum and a pack of Camels?” When I told him no, he told me I was a pain in the you know what. Thanks Paul. Love you too.

One of my favorite memories of Paul is when he took me hiking in my senior year of high school. He picked me up at my job at Pumpernick’s Restaurant (now Lucioso’s) and we drove straight to New Hampshire, arriving long after dark and finally pulling over at a random spot along the highway, setting up a tent next to a babbling river—because Paul Gedutis does not check in at the front desk of a campground. We woke up early the next morning and hiked up Mt. Adams or Mt. Jefferson or whatever it was. It was a misty day and the air was heavy and still. He moved fast, 30 steps ahead of me the whole hike. I struggled to keep up, but I never felt alone because as I walked along, I kept encountering pungent green clouds that told me he wasn’t far away. Next time, I thought, we’ll skip the beans around the campfire.

Just this morning, my cousin told me another hiking story. Sometime in the mid 1980s, Paul took his cousins Sean and Brian Mitchell hiking in the White Mountains. They were about 15 or 16 at the time, and Paul was a strong 25-year-old. As they were nearing the top, Sean said he was just too tired and couldn’t go on. He had to sit down. Paul tried to encourage him, no doubt using colorful language, but when Sean wouldn’t budge, Paul said, “Alright, I’ll be back.” And that was long before the Terminator. Paul went on ahead to the summit with the other guys, but once they reached the top, Paul did go back. But, according to Brian, Paul was at the summit again about 25 minutes later, this time with Sean in tow, and wearing Sean’s backpack for him to make sure Sean made it. That was Paul at his best.

The motorcycle accident Paul had about a year after my hike with him changed him forever, and I think that what we came to know as Paul from 1988 onward was a Paul who was suffering with frontal lobe injury. We didn’t see it then, but I see it in hindsight. There really there was no widespread medical recognition of this issue in the 1980s, and really there was no one close enough to him to understand the problem. And because my mom died a year later, our hearts and minds were preoccupied. Paul just seemed angry, but we were grieving and we also just didn’t recognize his behavior for what it might have been—a result of a traumatic brain injury. Before the accident, Paul had always taken a beer (or five), and enjoyed his herbal smoke remedies—he was a 70s guy, after all—but up until that point he had been vehemently anti-cigarette, and mostly just drank his Molson Goldens. After the accident, though, he became a Camel chain smoker and a devotee of rum and Coke. We drank one in his honor last Friday night.

As I got older and began to read descriptions of frontal lobe damage, I started to recognize some things. Frontal lobe syndrome can mean a dramatic change in personality, emotional instability, irritability, inability to inhibit one’s emotions, and also depression, anxiety, and apathy. And a noncompliance with rules. I think part of the reason we didn’t recognize his behavior for what it was, was that all of these things were part of his personality before the accident. But it had gotten worse.

Through Paul’s life, as he seemed to be growing more bitter, it became harder and harder to pick up the phone when he called. Sometimes I just couldn’t, and even the best-intentioned people get tired. Sometime in the spring, I started running the lyrics to a Chris Smither song over and over in my head. “I hate to disappoint you but I’ve got no love today,” it said. I felt like I had run out of love in this situation. I was dealing with a lot of other personal challenges, overwhelmed with my own life, and I felt I just couldn’t help anymore. You have to take breaks every now and then.

But we should never fully close the door. And that’s because sometimes, big strong men express their sadness with anger. No matter how hard they seem on the outside, when a very soft person inside feels unbearably sad, they may rely on alcohol to numb the pain. Where did that pain come from in the first place? Is that really their own fault? I don’t believe anyone is born bad. Life does something to them, and if they are sensitive, they don’t always have the strength to resist the pain.

Or maybe he wasn’t in emotional pain at all, I don’t know. Maybe he just loved the buzz. No one can know another person completely. There’s a lot I don’t understand about Paul, and there are a lot of stories out there I’ve never heard, good and bad, funny and sad. But I do know this: He was my oldest brother, and he gave me a model for what is strong and independent, what is powerful, and what is free. He took me on long bike rides and up mountains. He liked good beer. And always he brought shrimp at holidays.

Perhaps I should say something about regret. There are many people in this room who also helped him, even if it only seemed like a small help at the time. We all did what we felt was the best we could at the time.

The most important lesson I have learned from Paul is that we can always love a little more. Holidays are a hard time to lose someone, but maybe we can turn this grief into something positive. Paul’s life can teach us a great deal about the power of love. I am grateful for the lesson of love. Moving forward this Christmas, with Paul’s love, I am going to remember to always make sure there is a little more room at the inn.

I heard a quote from the Puritan writer and preacher John Bunyan in church last Sunday, and I felt it deeply:

“You have not lived until you have done something for someone who can never possibly repay you.”

Paul, thank you for living, and for helping us to live. We wish you safe travels along the long and open road. In the words of Neil Young, “Long may you run.”