Small, thin cow. “Hole” Foods. Klokora Rrrrrovel. Fortuna’s Wheel (that wench). Rojo Pony. Desmond. Paul Robynson.
I love inside jokes. They bring depth and creativity to a relationship. They are pieces of absurdity that no one can understand, other than those who have shared in a particular experience. There is a sense of freedom with this type of humor. Who doesn’t love taking the liberty to say something to a trusted friend that would be deemed completely unsuitable for the rest of society to hear? Inside jokes provide us with hysterical laughter, countless conversations that start with, “Remember the time when…,” and unique ways for people to deal with things in the context of their own relationships.
The words at the beginning of this piece may seem random and nonsensical to you, but to me, they mean everything. For me, each statement makes sense because I am one of the keepers of the inside jokes to which they are attached. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about those stories, and I smile to myself. The smile turns into a giggle. The giggle turns into an urge, which turns into a strong physical craving to talk to the other keeper of the jokes. There is but one person in the known universe who would understand the hilarity of the “small, thin cow.” If I tried to explain any of these stories, I’d probably be caught in that awkward moment of an amused look, followed by the statement, “I guess you just had to be there.” What happens to the inside jokes and the stories when one of the keepers is gone? I think about this often because on April 30th, 2012, this particular collection of private humor was, all at once, suspended in a space where perhaps only unused inside jokes can float around. The warden of the “small, thin cow” (and many others) was Paul. When Paul died in 2012, I carefully hung up our jokes and stories, and I didn’t start taking them out again until very recently.
Paul’s death was hard on me for a ton of reasons. We spent a lot of time in a parallel process of growth-- recovery from things we had been through, and learning how to manage our lives differently than we had before. We worked on this mission alongside each other, with the light falling upon us differently, and sometimes, not at all. One morning in April, I lost my journey partner when Paul ended his own life. He did so in a way where he could protect himself from anyone having to interrupt his objective (because I had tried so many times before), and in a way where he could protect me from having to agonize that he wasn’t doing better this time (although I never stopped worrying about him for a moment). I will always remember the last text that I received from my Paul: “It’s a beautiful day. Using coping skills. Love you Blu J.” Two days later, I woke suddenly, my brain racked from a terrifying early morning dream. A frequent and intense dreamer, I distinctly recall sitting in bed, thinking how it was the worst I had ever had. The panic of what had disturbed my sleep hung around through my waking hours, despite my efforts to peel it off entirely. I had not experienced anything like this before. Two days later, I would learn that this horrific dream took place around the same time my dear friend had ended his life. Partners, we were. Connected, I suppose, even in living and dying.
There are better things to remember Paul by. Of course, I experienced anger, devastation, sadness, and guilt. There was confusion, forever questions without answers, and more anger. These feelings, although not meant to be minimized, are obvious byproducts of a suicide, and are not the reasons why I wrote this piece. Because there are better things.
I work in a field where, sadly, I have seen suicide attempts, accidental overdoses, and completed suicides. I have also lived a lifestyle that has allowed me to develop close friendships in the recovery communities of substance abuse and mental health. Unfortunately, when you collect enough of those friends, you almost inevitably end up seeing some sadness on the other side of the people you have had the fortune to know. Every single one of those lives is so much more than the reason, or the manner, in which they left this world. Because there are better things.
Paul bought me my first pair of running sneakers, and even some super sporty highly ventilated socks to go with them, just because I said that I thought about running. He also knew me well enough to know I would probably never follow through on that particular ambition. We routinely hit up the Whole Foods buffet for takeout, which we would eat at his apartment. He would arrange the items in his container in a fairly organized manner, while mine was disaster of foods that do not go together. We were regulars at the “The Last Drop,” a coffee shop that we refused to acknowledge by it's proper name, preferring our own name, “The Lost Drip.” Most street corners in downtown Philadelphia remind me of him, of us. I always felt safe and comfortable around him, and that is the reason he was so special to me. I have forever struggled with having relationships that feel genuine. Historically, it has been difficult for me to feel that I can just be who I am, in any given situation. For me to come upon that type of a friendship, as I did with Paul, is an extraordinary occurrence. To lose it, is incredibly difficult. I thought that Paul’s death would be a reason for me to shut down-— a kind of confirmation that there is no point to opening myself up to such relationships if they are going to be painful, and ultimately, lost. Instead, it is his living that taught me that I am capable, and willing, to continue to build relationships with depth.
Paul’s struggle with suicidal thoughts was no secret to those who were closest to him, and they were evident throughout our entire friendship. It came up in our conversations, emails, and texts. Sifting through my old emails between us, I found one dated 7/29/11, in which I had written, “I’m glad you want to live. It would suck if you were dead because then we couldn’t be friends.” I did not know that nine months and one day after this, this would be a world without Paul. However, I was wrong about something. You see, Paul and I would not, could not, cease being friends, if he was to die. It would be impossible. I know that now because I have finally figured out where the inside jokes go when one of keepers is no longer around. I found that we still get to hold them between us. They never disappear, and no one ever takes them away. I know that, because Paul is forever the keeper of the other half of our inside jokes.
In memory of Paul R. 4/13/1964-4/30/2012
Philadelphia cannot possibly be the same city without you in it.
I hope, that wherever you are, you are looking down in disbelief, and laughing at me when I jog. I think of you each time I do it. Your presence is with me in all that I do.
“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
From “Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann