By Dave Tishendorf
Paul was aware of all the conventional reasons to stop smoking.
I mean, how could you not be, even in the late 1970s, when he and I first met in a midsized city in southern Oregon. By that time, science had already established the dangers of smoking, and information on how to quit cigarettes was everywhere.
I was a working journalist back then, and Paul (not his real name) drove cab. We quickly became good friends. Over the years, Paul and his partner, Sarah, and my then-partner, now-wife, Mary, and I spent a lot of good times together.
The explanation for this writer/cabbie pairing can be found in the folds of community theater. If you have ever been a member of an amateur theater group in a small town, you know what I mean. Cultural lines are blurred there, if not eliminated altogether. Lifelong friendships are formed.
And sometimes love affairs bloom while the seeds of divorce are sown, and marriages are made or broken.
Paul, in fact, had been married and divorced four times when I met him. In a way that I can't fully explain, it was part of his charm. He would joke in his low-key way about each of his three grown daughters, and in time we in the group came to use the nicknames he had for each of them, names that had a certain fondness attached to them, even though they can't be repeated here (they had to do with how the girls were conceived).
It's not that Paul kept the names a secret from his daughters - that would have required a duplicity he was not capable of. The daughters knew full well what those nicknames were, and they were able to laugh with him. How could you ever become angry with Paul? It was almost impossible.
But if Paul was a loser in the game of love, he was brilliant onstage. This son of a Protestant minister had a lean figure, a deep voice, an aquiline nose and a profile to die for. He could not be called handsome in the Hollywood sense, but when he walked onstage, the effect was striking.
Onstage he was able to draw on the power of whatever demons and angels were residing in his soul. He acted from the inside out.
Paul and I were in several shows together. He was always the star, whether he had a leading role (Henry Drummond in "Inherit the Wind") or a minor one (Leo Herman, aka Chuckles the Chipmunk, in "A Thousand Clowns").
Had circumstances been different, had not one of his devils controlled and ultimately destroyed him, he might have been a professional.
As it was, he simply succeeded in being the most gentle person I have ever known.
I think, if Paul had stated his philosophy of life, it would have gone something like this:
"I will judge no one or no one thing. I will accept the flow of life as it comes and not try to change any of it. I will let it take me where it will, neither accepting nor rejecting it. Nothing is good or bad, it simply is. I am merely a passenger, and I will enjoy the ride."
Cigarettes entered Paul's life because he allowed them in, probably with no questions asked. How many decades did he end his day with a cigarette, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly? How many times did he light up first thing in the morning almost before his feet touched the floor? I don't know.
Yes, he knew all the reasons to stop smoking. He knew all about the information on how to quit cigarettes. He had seen the statistics; he had known people who died of lung cancer, or emphysema. He had seen the x-rays of blackened, rotting lungs oozing slime.
He had even tried a time or two to quit. He tried will power, he tried the gum, he tried the patch, but nothing ever came of any of it.
In the final analysis, he embraced this particular devil. The fact was, he enjoyed smoking, he loved to smoke. Cigarettes took him to a place he could not get to any other way. A place where he felt safe, free from all the gathered turmoil of the world. It was a place he could not, and would not, trade for anything, even for his life.
Paul's unspoken message to his friends, his family, to the world, and to himself was, "This is where life has taken me. I accept it. One way or another I am going to die. We all are. So, given the choice, why shouldn't I die on my terms? No reason. So that is what I'm going to do."
And that is what he did.
Not long before Paul died, when everyone in the theatre group, including Paul, knew his days were numbered, we staged a roast in his honor.
When Paul, emaciated and stooped, walked into the theatre the evening of the roast wearing a bright blue cowboy outfit, the house came down. It was one of his grandest entrances, and it was a perfect Act 1, Scene 1, for what was to follow. Despite the sobering subtext, it was an evening of rollicking good humor.
But at the very end of the evening, I, as emcee, injected the only serious note:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have known Paul for 20 years, and in that time he has become my brother. He is family.
"And in all that time I have never known him to be anything other than who he is.
"There is a beauty in that. There is an innocence in that. But most of all, there is a purity in that.
"And so I'm glad that you're all here tonight. Because it gives me the chance to say publicly what I've always said in my heart:
"Paul, I love you madly."
A few months later we scattered Paul's ashes on a nearby mountaintop.
That was almost 20 years ago. Now, from the vantage point afforded by time, I look back and I think I can understand why Paul thought the way he did about the reasons to stop smoking. And despite everything, I can even admire it somehow, however grudgingly. I mean, he had the courage to live the way he wanted to. How many of us can say the same?
At the same time, I am filled with anger.
I said earlier that it was almost impossible to become angry with Paul. But I am angry with him now, and I have been angry for 20 years.
I am angry at his outrageous selfishness. I am angry because he felt that his personal pleasure was more important than anything else. I am angry that he left us because he thought his obligation to a weed was greater than his obligation to the people who loved him.
What kind of person would do that?
If Paul could send a message today, I hope he would have the wisdom say to all the smokers of the world:
"Here is one of the main reasons to stop smoking; here is how to quit cigarettes:
"Remember that you are not in this alone. This is not just about you. Nothing you do is just about you. This is also about the people who count on you, who need you for a million reasons that neither you nor they may even understand. This is about the people who love you.
"If for no other reason, do it for them."
I'm still angry with Paul.
And I miss him. Every day.
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Dave Tishendorf is an ex-smoker. He invites you to find out more about how to quit cigarettes by clicking Here.
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