Miles of Smiles...and a few tears.
My eulogy for Paula By Steve J. Hill
The Shadow of Your Smile
The first thing I noticed about Paula was her smile. It was wide and toothy. Her eyes would go into dark quarter moons and sparkle. She would also smile as she talked. I’m writing this opening from the bedside at her nursing facility. She doesn’t talk anymore. Which is especially cruel since she loved to talk…to anyone and everyone. The nurses and nurses-aids all love Paula and try to coax a smile out of her. On occasion we will be on the receiving end of that smile. And when that happens, the room lights up. One of my nicknames for her was “P. J. Smiley”.
Paula never attended college. She had itchy feet and wanted to leave Queens, get a job and experience life in the big city. After all, this was the same Paula that would sneak out of her bunk at summer camp to watch a young Jerry Herman practice his songs on the recreation room piano. She would skip school
and go into Manhattan to watch tapings of You Do You Trust hosted by a relatively unknown Johnny
Carson—her first crush. She ran away from home at 17 by boarding a bus heading for Florida. Her younger sister spilled the beans to her parents and Paula was apprehended by the Highway Patrol
somewhere in Georgia.
So entering the city at age 19 she began a long list of roommates, apartments, boyfriends, restaurant and secretary jobs along with a stable of dogs and cats.
Her father was Larry Best, a well-known Borsht belt comic. Paula always wanted to follow in Larry’s footsteps and win his approval by also being an entertainer. Larry liked to be on the road and kept Paula’s mother—who was once in his act—at home “barefoot and pregnant.” Paula’s absentee father left indelible marks and she was always in search of a father figure.
Even though Paula never attended higher education I never met anyone smarter or well read. She was inquisitive and highly intuitional. She was an old soul in a pixie body. After high school she began a long process of self-education. As I look now at her bookshelf I see: The Collected Works of Shakespeare and Selected Plays by George Bernard Shaw; An Actor Prepares by Stanislavski; Man and his Symbols and
Synchronicity by Carl Jung; Creativity and the Unconscious by Sigmund Freud; also books by Jean-Paul
Sartre, Kierkegaard and Joseph Campbell. I see books by Mailer, Mamet and Melville, as well as
The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, and The Art Spirit by Robert Henri.
But Paula also read self-help books. She would like to give and receive astrology readings, as well as those from Tarot Cards, I Ching and Rune Stones. Basically she was interested in everything.
Home Sweet Home
Paula and I never married in front of God and country, but she was my wife and my best friend. We lived and worked together in the same small apartment for 19 years. She was enough for me and when we adopted our dog Trouper, we were a real family.
Paula heard about a government housing assistance program. HFA offers tax-exempt financing to multifamily rental developments in which at least 20% of the units are set-aside for low-income residents … the so-called “80/20” projects. If a potential tenant meets certain requirements they can be considered for this program. Paula put in applications to many of these buildings. Since thousands of people apply for just a handful of apartments it is on par with winning a big state lotto drawing. I did not put much faith in Paula’s efforts.
But lo and behold, we won this lottery. We were approved for a new apartment in a luxury Madison Avenue high-rise. We moved into the unit in March 2016. Paula was only able to enjoy our new home for a little over a year before her illness forced her to reside in various hospitals and nursing facilities. For as long as I live in New York City I will have this affordable apartment. I have Paula to thank for this. This is just one more gift she gave to me.
Paula introduced me to the word of theatre. I was rather a shy, inhibited person so Paula made me join some of her classes to I could get out of my own way.
I took some of her seminar courses … ones that ended in performance in front of guests and invited industry. There was one such event where I flubbed my lines and went into a complete meltdown on stage. Later that night I walked the cold streets alone feeling horrible about blowing the performance. I thought that my actions would reflect badly on Paula’s teaching abilities. But when I entered the apartment at four o’clock in the morning Paula was waiting for me with kind words and hot coffee. She said it was all a process of growing…how it happens to every actor and so on.
I realized then and there that acting was not my calling. I much preferred to help Paula in her plays by being a set designer, stage manager and creating the marketing promotions. And this I did for all of her productions. It was a true creative collaboration and my life is richer because of it.
But theatre can be a cruel mistress. When it works and everything comes together, it is a beautiful thing. But often theatre takes more than it gives. Paula’s productions never made money, but it never deterred her from moving forward. She was a total optimist and ran headlong into situations with naïve enthusiasm. I’m thankful that I was able to help channel her many interests into a more focused plan.
Here’s a tissue
Yes, I was a quiet white-bread guy from Ohio. Paula was a gregarious New York Jewish mother, 10 years my senior. They say opposites attract and this case it was all too true. Living together in such small quarters took some adjustments on both sides. We could argue about the big-ticket items like most couples. But we got on surprisingly well despite being together 24/7, and despite me leaving cabinet doors open and despite her placing boxes of tissues every few feet.
Ironically I’ve been thinking quite a lot about tissues recently. Ever since Paula was diagnosed with cancer my emotions were close to the surface and anything could make the tears come. Breaking down in front of people was sometimes embarrassing…for them. All they could say is— “I’m sorry”, or “Stay strong”, or “Here’s a tissue.” And I remember the day when Paula’s oncologist said that he could do nothing further for her, that he was going to stop chemotherapy treatments and recommended going into hospice care. Paula took it all in stride and was resigned and stoic. I of course, broke down and started to cry. The doctor made great ceremony about finding and unwrapping a fresh box of tissues. When he handed them to me I wanted to say—in a fit of miss-placed anger —“You know where you can put this box of tissues…and sideways!” Instead, I accepted them and said, “Thank you.”
Sweetheart, darling or honey
Any one who knew Paula would soon be addressed as sweetheart, darling or honey. This was not mere affectation, she generally felt endeared to a lot of people.
Any one who knew Paula over time would be someone she would love. She would always say goodbye or end a phone conversation with “I love you.” I always found that strange because I probably said, “I love you” to only a dozen people in my life. For Paula, this too was not mere affectation; she genuinely loved a lot of people.
In the last few months I found myself picking up the mantle and addressing certain people as, sweetheart, darling or honey. Not mere affectation but feeling heartfelt towards people and expressing that in the same way Paula did. Maybe I’m channeling Paula after she stopped talking ... or shes' rubbed off on me over the years.
In this journey with Paula I’ve seen sadness and acts of true grace. I’ve witnessed wonderful caregivers, bureaucratic pencil pushers, learned doctors with no bedside manner and nurses aids that lifted my spirits with the attention they bestowed on Paula.
What do I draw from all this dying stuff? Who knows? I guess I would like to speak with someone who’s in charge. But so far I’ve not found that person. I would like to talk to the master designer and tell him/her that their design is seriously flawed and needs work.
Maybe my future outlook can be summed up in the last line from the book Bang the Drum Slowly, — “From here on in, I rag nobody.”
A while after Paula passed I was cleaning up her computer when I saw this document on the desktop. I clicked on it and this is what it said:
If you are reading this, I am no longer physically here. First know that I love you and always will.
I know you’re struggling at this time and I want to make it easier and natural to soften the blow.
Know that I will always be as close or far as you prefer me to be.
I wish you love— of all kinds. Love of people, love of life, but most importantly—love of yourself.
I dare you!
You’ll find some incredible and exciting newness you never knew existed if you just “jump without a net”… why not?
It’s cliché, but it’s only when you are truly faced with loosing life, that you really appreciate it. I know this.
I’m a whisper away…
Yes the tears came, but then … I saw her smile.