On April 26, 2005, one of my life-long friends, Paul R. Miller, died in his sleep. He was 35 years old.
This past weekend, Paul’s parents held a memorial atop the Blue Ridge Mountains in Waynesboro, Virginia, where Paul spent quite a bit of time as an adolescent with his family, and where Paul brought me to visit several times. Once, after we had climbed a mountain, Paul mentioned how beautiful it was up there and that he would want his cremated ashes to be strewn there when he died. I found such a remark to be both profound and odd at the time, being that we were both amid the years of invincibility that follow the teen trials of high school, so I joked and dismissed them to some degree. But I certainly remembered them. And, as it turns out, he happened to tell his wife, Elaine, the same thing just four years ago, when he brought her to visit the very same spot.
The weather was cold but calm as we approached the beautiful top of the mountain this weekend, but there was a cloud that hung ominously nearby. Sure enough, just as we gathered and the memorial began, the skies grew overcast, a strong, chilling wind whipped up, and snow began to blow up–not down, up!–the mountain peak. During one of the songs that were played and sung, I looked up and noticed that a hawk had caught hold of a gust of wind and was gracefully and slowly spiraling down from above us in a wide, effortless gyre. And as the memorial came to an end, so did the winds and snow, and the sun shone brightly again. I wish someone had recorded the ceremony, because I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.
Paul’s family asked me to write something to include in a book of memories for their son. It was much too cold and windy to read all this on the spot of the memorial, so I made something up to talk about there. But here is the memoir I that wrote for my friend Paul:
As I look back on the time that I spent with Paul, I can’t help but feel lucky to have known him and to be able to call him my friend.Paul was an incredibly honest and open person. He was never afraid to tell the truth, even if it might have hurt someone’s feelings initially, so long as he was telling that person because he cared about them and he believed it was the right thing to say or do. I knew I could always count on him for an honest opinion, and that he would tell me when he felt I was doing something wrong, or even something right. When he had something important to say, he always made sure to look me straight in the eyes when he said it. I knew he was telling the truth and exactly how important something was to him. It sometimes takes a great deal of courage to tell someone something they may not want to hear, but if Paul believed in what he was saying, he had no trouble saying it. I greatly admired him for that.
A few of our friends had children before I did, but Paul was one friend who was genuinely excited for me when I was about to become a father for the first time. He called me “Papa”, kidded that my children would walk all over me, and, most importantly, assured me that I would be a good father. As he and Elaine were expecting their daughter Hailey (and later, Krista), he had lots of questions and seemed a bit nervous about being able to take on such a responsibility, but I knew he would be a wonderful father. We often talked about being parents, making difficult decisions for our children, and being proud of them. His family became the pride of his life, and none of us were surprised at the kind of father he became.
We shared a love for sports, especially baseball, basketball, and football. We talked many times about the Dodgers and the Yankees, and we swore that if they were ever to meet again in the World Series, we would have to buy tickets and see it together, no matter what the cost. He tried to convince me many times that the Knicks wouldn’t be a terrible basketball team for much longer (they still are!). And it’s only because of a promise that I made to Paul a few years ago that I am now a New York Jets fan, and I will continue to be one for the rest of my days.
We also shared a passion for music. We practiced together, played together, and grew together as musicians. We bounced ideas between us that resulted in some pretty good music. And we weren’t afraid to make fools of ourselves, because we believed that what we were writing and playing was good, and that was all that really mattered.
It’s not often that you find a friend that stays with you as the years go by, as life sends you in different directions and changes your world time and time again. Paul was not afraid of life or of change. He helped me to face the changes and challenges in my life, and to be proud of who I was. I wonder whether I had anywhere near the impact on his life that he had on mine; I think we both helped each other to become the people that we eventually became.
People come and go from our lives: we meet new friends, lose touch with others, move to new places, and do our best to deal with the constant change the life brings. But sometimes we’re lucky enough to have someone in our lives that stays with us for more than just a moment, and whom we can rely upon to be there when we need them. I think a lot of our friends would say that Paul was like a brother to them; I’d say that he was my brother and an important part of my life. Paul’s advice, laughter, and friendship will remain with me forever.