This sunny day, Paul and I sit on the wall outside my apartment building. My good friend and neighbor, Paul admires my purple-painted toes.
“You don’t want to see mine,” he says. “Especially since the chemotherapy.”
We live in efficiency apartments. Nothing fancy. No parking lot, and in Clifton street parking is a bear. On a good day, I get lucky. But often, when I get home, usually carrying bags of groceries, Paul is there, resting on the wall. He holds the door open for me, always greeting me like this: “Welcome home, my lady.”
Paul has lived in Clifton his entire life, 59 years.
“In Clifton, they don’t care who you are as long as you behave yourself,” he says. “Every now and then, we’ll get some knucklehead here who will cause problems, but that’s normal for anywhere.”
He saw The Grateful Dead perform at the Ludlow Garage. Fifteen years ago, he scored his aviator sunglasses at IGA. “I don’t like heavy glasses,” he explains. His belt is ancient. His jeans are dark. Now, they’re loose.
Let me back up. I first met Paul about four years ago. We sat on the wall, talking about hippies, concerts and ancient T-shirts. Most days, when I came home, Paul was sitting there. Before I went inside, he’d shoot the shit with me, happily sipping his mug full of beer, enjoying the after-work moments.
Back then Paul had a wild, bushy beard and unkempt grayish hair. Round in the middle, he was quick to smile, his cheeks full and pink.
He wanted to know how my yoga was going. He wanted to know if I was happy, and if not, he wanted to help. He wanted to know how my book was coming along. No matter what, he wanted to know about my life.
One day in June 2008, I came home from teaching yoga, and I saw Paul sitting on the wall, looking strange.
Dead serious. He said there was a blood clot in his leg. He was on a blood thinner. Day by day we had our “wall talks,” and he gave me updates. Later they found another clot in his arm. Then cancer in his lungs and lymph nodes. He doesn’t smoke.
At his first oncologist visit, they started chemo: “In a word, it was hell … extreme fatigue,” he says. “You cannot explain it unless you’ve experienced it. You just can’t fathom how bad it got. I’d already lost my appetite from the cancer itself, but then everything I ate except puddings and chocolate, it tasted like metal. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. It makes you really, really sick.”
Paul lost 70 pounds. Borderline emaciated, he lived on liquids. Over nine months he had nine treatments. There were days when he couldn’t leave his apartment. There were several times when he ran up to hug me that I didn’t recognize him at first. His eyes had changed shades, turning a clear, shining, blinding blue. The otherworldly blue scared me. Surreal blue. Too surreal. But even in the thick of his battle with cancer, he still persistently asked me how my life was going.
Then, miraculously, it went into remission.
“So they fixed me, but pasta still has a plastic taste,” he says. “The only permanent side effect is the nerve damage in the legs and fingers. Numbness and pains, like electric shocks.”
There is a 60 percent chance that his cancer will return, but his view isn’t grim. He shrugs.
“It’s part of life,” he says. “You play the cards that are dealt. I’m still that same goofy guy that you see sitting on the wall and saying ‘Hi’ to people. So I don’t really think it’s changed me, but I will admit for a while there, as you know, I was a sick puppy. I couldn’t get from my building to IGA without almost collapsing.”
But he never gave up. He smiles, quietly stating, “To me, the most important thing in these treatments were people. You, my friends here in Clifton, my family, the medical staff and God were the most important things to me. I’ve always believed in God. I haven’t preached on street corners, but if someone were to ask me, I’d tell ’em, ‘Yes.’ ”
Lately, Paul again often sits on the wall. When I come home, he bear-hugs me. He’s still thin, but the color has returned to his formerly pale skin. Now he drinks Earl Grey tea. We talk about nothing large and nothing small. Most of his hair has grown back.
Grinning, Paul says, “I was told that the type of cancer that I had, only 20 percent of the people with that type survive the first six months. And here I am. God’s will and good care. Good friends.”
Right here, right now. Although Paul is back to his jovial self, his eyes still hold that curious, streaming blue, a sky blue that tells of a sharp battle, as if during his fight Paul went up to the clouds, stole some color from the atmosphere and decided to come back.
“What are you looking forward to right now?” I ask him.
Without a pause, he kicks at the wall and says, “I guess to continue to be with family and friends. Yeah, that’s the big deal.”
Then he shoots a blue gaze my way, asking, “Are you happy?”
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