An Asshole In Plain View
“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
—Zora Neale Hurston
I met the family—Susan his wife; Caitlyn and Lisa, his daughters—right after they viewed and identified their man, Paul (66), a veteran. Paul had checked into the hospital with flu-like symptoms and then discovered he had pancreatic cancer. It was all very sudden. They thought Paul would survive this battle, too. But then he suddenly got worse and died. The family was shaken up and tearful. In shock. When the nurse asked them which funeral home they wanted, Lisa named ours, the only one she knew, because she drove by it every day. Now death was more than a passing glance through the windshield. In 48 hours, I'd host Paul's memorial.
After we shook hands, Lisa said, smiling through tears, “I guess it's fitting that you're a Paul, too.”
I would learn that Paul joined the Army in 1967. While battling in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the Americans to strip the jungles so they could see their enemies. In the 1990s, Paul was given full medical discharge benefits. His symptoms progressively worsened.
We sat down, and I offered a sample Order of Service and described the elements, any of which they could change. They said they didn't plan to write an obituary until after the memorial. And I said, okay, but the story of that person’s life grounds the leave-taking. It’s important to review what he did, where he walked, how he spent his time, what his primary concerns were, who he was connected to, who he was born to and who he leaves behind; to reflect, in a plainspoken manner, on the span of his life. The anecdotes, vignettes and storytelling are the meat on this frame.
“So, tell me about Paul,” I said. “What would you say about him to help me know him?”
“Well, the first thing,” Caitlyn blurted out, “is that he was an asshole!”
All three of them laughed, so I laughed along, a little uncomfortably. The assholes I'd known were no laughing matter. But they cried and laughed.
“Yeah, he was the crankiest son of a bitch. So damn cranky,” Lisa announced. They laughed harder.
Susan, the wife, piled on, “He was a prickly scorpion. Stubborn as an ass.”
They cackled while they cried.
I felt at ease then. This grouchiness was his identity: he was the lovable crank, a lovely curmudgeon. They could say these things because they adored him. The caricature of him as lovable asshole warmed them.
“He was a tender-hearted marshmallow, a teddy bear. He loved nothing more than to spoil his wife and his girls. The Grouch Syndrome was just his way of loving you on his terms. That way he didn’t have to expend his energy on people he didn’t like. He would just push them away. If he liked you, he teased you. If he didn’t like you, he provoked you,” Lisa said.
Caitlyn declared, “He was my hero. I aspire to be him. He never did anything to make people like him. He cared the least for people’s approval of anyone I’ve ever known.”
The picture of Paul didn’t totally come into focus; I couldn’t understand how such a man, such a “character” could really be a role model, though authenticity sounded about right. Being true to himself. Still, I was fuzzy on how to admire him. I chose to just take them at their word. Their responsiveness to him was so overwhelmingly positive.
Two days later, I praised a man who didn’t just tolerate but embraced the consequence of wholly being himself. Paul stood uncamouflaged before his people, a bare trunk in clear view.
In the hospital, Paul said, “After I’m gone, cry for 15 minutes. Then, have a party. Celebrate how much I loved you.”
Paul had scrabbled his way through the jungle. This was a war he had won.
About the Author: Paul Boardman is a writer and inter-faith Funeral Chaplain and Celebrant living in Seattle, Washington. Two of his enduring thematic obsessions in writing are: what constitutes a good life in the face of death/loss and the nature of yearning, even greed, for love. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Good Men Project, Living Better 50 and ICCFA magazine, and in the anthologies Just a Little More Time, We Came to Say and We Came Back to Say. He is looking to place his memoir.