24 September 2008

Sweet Sue, Disparue

If you are lucky enough to have a largish family, the chances are that you know someone like my cousin Paul. When I was a kid, he was my idol. Enough older to be sophisticated, adept, adroit, he was at the same time close enough in age to be something other than an extraterrestrial alien. I could and did admire him, identify with him, though I was never for a minute intimidated by him.

Over the years, as our grownup lives have carried us remorselessly in different directions, I’ve seen very little of Paulie. I met his wife, Sue, only once. Now comes the news that she has succumbed to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Much though I try to absorb this news, I cannot reconcile it with what I know to be true. For we are not middle-aged people to whom awful things happen; we are young, the bright promise of a still-distant future. We are not finished yet. This cannot be.

As a very small child, I used to sit in my father’s lap while he drew pictures for me — but Paulie was more gifted. As I grew older, he dazzled me with his flawless imitations of comic-strip characters, which he drew on a grand scale, on poster board, with a black Flair pen: Snoopy and Linus, Andy Capp and B.C. Paulie was funny and smart; he was athletic (at least when compared with me), and there was absolutely nothing he could not do. I yearned to be exactly like him. I never replicated his prowess in sports, but I got a Flair pen of my own and began to draw cartoons for myself.

For years, I wore his blue blazer — I don’t know if it was new when he began to wear it, but it was unquestionably a hand-me-down by the time I got it. When I played Captain Spaulding, the African Explorer (Groucho, for you non-Marxists), in the junior-high talent show, my Harpo was a girl for whom I harbored a terrible crush. I wore Paulie’s blazer for luck. I wore it again, for similar reasons, when she and I began to date, and yet again, a few years later, when I conducted my first interview for the high-school newspaper. I continued to wear the blazer, long past college, and I still have it, though it’s too small for me and in an alarming state of decay. No matter. The symbolism is what counted.

He could have loved a monster, and I’d have found something to admire in her. Yet Sue was instantly adorable in her own right, skipping over such inconveniences as the fact that we knew nothing about each other, and she dutifully kept me on her mailing list for years so that I could be informed of the adventures she and Paulie shared. She was a talented artist, too, and more than a match for her husband in wit and fun. The bond between them was almost palpable and entirely reassuring: if these two people could find each other, the world must not be such a bad place, after all.

That conviction must now be revised, but not abandoned. Together, they found for a little while something that most people — including me — have never known. I grieve for them, as I celebrate them.

NOTE: The photographs are from the wonderful adaptation of Peter Pan (2003), directed by P.J. Hogan and starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. Among its other sterling attributes, the film remains one of the most stirring depictions of young love it has ever been my privilege to witness. If you’ve never seen it, you need to. And while you watch, spare a thought for Paulie and Sue. I’m chasing after them — whether I’m Michael, John, or merely a Lost Boy — second star on the right, and straight on ’til morning.

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