It is hard to believe but it has been nearly seven months since my friend Paul Coakley went to receive his eternal reward. His wife, Ann, has asked people to write about how they have since been “living like Paul.” It is difficult to explain how I have been doing this without going into the background.
Paul’s death had a huge impact on me. I was at work and practically glued to the Internet for updates. When I was notified by phone, somehow I managed to get through lunch and my next class—albeit barely. I went to the restroom shortly after class and had a moment. Later on, a friend mentioned that at the services I needed to be strong for everyone and not cry.
Yeah, that effort lasted a total of zero seconds.
I walked into the Church where the wake was held and quietly sat in a pew at a distance from the coffin. To me, this was not real until I was standing over Paul’s body and witnessed reality with my own eyes. Even then, and those who know Paul understand this all too well, I half expected him to pop-up out of that coffin and welcome everyone to his wake.[i] The moment I broke was upon seeing Paul’s then 19-month old daughter attempt to climb over the prie-dieu calling out, “Daddy! Daddy!”
I made a bee-line for the bathroom.
The next day, just before the funeral Mass, there was one last opportunity to pray before the coffin was closed. As I turned from the coffin after it has been closed for the last time, I completely lost it. To be frank, I don’t know if I have ever wailed like that in my life. My eyes had cast themselves for the last time in this life upon the remains of my friend. The moment was just too much and I grabbed onto a friend to my left in order to pull myself together.
At the burial, a number of events took place, but one in particular stands out. Throughout the obsequies, the song The Parting Glass was in my head. I thought it would be fitting were it to be played. Present was at least one or more men from the armed forces and I heard them singing it. It was, however, a different version and did not have the same impact upon me. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a violin began playing the song and the sorrow that only the sound of a violin can bring sent a knowing twinge through my heart. I know not who the violinist was, but gave her a hug afterwards.
In these intervening months, the impact of Paul’s death continues. It has been a serious reality check. His death and my reaction to it served to confirm some deep and personal events of my life. For the purposes of this reflection, I will only say that I ask myself more about what it means to love and how have I been living up to this?
Paul lived with an amazing (dare I say heroic) and intense love. I always knew that I never could hold a candle next to him. He attracted people to himself and I confess that in many ways, I wanted to be like him, yet feared being so. My weak human nature, sinfulness and general stupidity seem to get in the way more often than not. Someone once said in a video that I saw, “Love is terrifying.” Indeed, for it calls us to great things and I recognize my weakness.
I cannot say that I have experienced a “glory moment” wherein suddenly everything has come together. The struggle goes on, and I am doing my best to “love like Paul.” I am trying to make reforms in my life; to see the good and the bad, fix what needs fixing, and pray God’s mercy and grace for the rest.
Love changes people, and Paul Coakley changed me. I will always honor him and keep alive his memory. Even in death, the man calls me on to greater holiness because keeping him alive means his witness is ever before me, a double-edged sword. It has now passed into canon, one by which I now judge how well I am living for Christ.
I said at the end of my memoirs of Paul Coakley that I thought Our Lord’s words impoverished if I did not hear Paul afterwards. Implicit within this is a call—a call to work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I want to see Jesus and Paul someday. To do so, I must love as them, and it is a battle while in this vale of tears. The battle is worth it though. The prize is life everlasting with Christ and, for me, there is the added feature–I pray–of seeing my friend once again.
How do I answer the question how I have been “living like Paul?” By trying to love as he did by the little reforms in my life that lead to greater things.
[i] Turns out, after taking a straw poll, I was not alone.