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Learning how to die

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mitch02Paul Singer is dying. If you have read this newspaper for any length of time, say the last decade or so, then you know him. While you’ve not formally been introduced, you’ve met him through my writing. If a story of mine that has touched you or has given you a moment’s pause in thought, Paul was there in my words.

Without trying to do so, Paul taught me to do good. To do better. He taught me to laugh in times when all hell was breaking loose. He taught me to break rules when breaking rules was the right thing to do. He showed me how to be a better person; and in many ways large and small, taught me how to live.

And now he is teaching me how to die.

More than 20 years ago Paul became a rising star in a Fortune 50 corporation. He had just been promoted to vice president — no small feat for a man of his relative youth. I was entering the business world in the same company, but was much further down the corporate food chain. Somehow, I had the good fortune to have made a connection with him. At one point I introduced him to paying bills electronically — it was almost unheard of in those days before the Web. Sometime later I saw him in the elevator at the corporate headquarters, and he said in all seriousness: “I’ve named you in my will.” Everyone else in the crowded elevator — most of whom were my superiors — immediately took notice. He was a high level executive, and I was a mere underling, after all.

Later in his office, he explained that I was named in his will so that should anything ever happen to him, his wife could call me in order to explain exactly how the electronic bill payment system worked. I suspect, however, that he knew exactly what he was doing when he made that proclamation in the elevator. He knew how and when to make waves.

Paul is a calm and gentle man who somehow creates a whirlwind wherever he goes. He is the very epitome of energy, curiosity, accomplishment and decency. All of which I was privileged to see and experience first hand. I worked to adopt those same qualities for myself.

From a corporate standpoint, Paul was hardly the traditional executive. When he was promoted to Vice President of Information Systems, he filled his office with computers and monitors and every sort of cool gadget available at the time. It’s possible that he even controlled a satellite or two from his desk. He had no interest in just dictating from the ivory tower — he kept his hands in things.

Yet in the most important sense, he was the absolute definition of tradition. Despite his lofty perch in Corporate America, he made no bones about the fact that his family always came first. And that family extended well beyond his wife and children to include his employees. It wasn’t just a role for Paul — the guy sincerely cared. He had a heart and was willing to show it — something none too common in Corporate America today.

Over the years he was promoted further to senior vice president and then to chief information officer. He recently left that company to go on to do great things at another large corporation.

Paul was successful because of his heart, passion, intelligence and commitment to others. He trampled no one on the way to the top. He earned one of the highest possible positions in business technology despite having no technical training — his college degrees were in music and theology. And along the way, he worked to pull others up the ladder with him, myself included.

Through all of his success, his principles and priorities never wained. He is passionate about adoption and created an in-house program for employees interested in adoption. He is also a board member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and the Joint Council on International Children’s Services. Paul proved to me that a person can be successful in business and be a decent, wonderful human being while doing it. From my years in the corporate world, I know all too well there are precious few examples like him.

In late 2008, Paul began suffering confusion and memory loss. He shared his story via a website named CaringBridge.org with the literally thousands of people who love and care about him.

He wrote, “I went to the doctor and unfortunately we discovered that I’m not just totally stupid. I don’t know how else to say it, but to throw it out there ­— I have a brain tumor.”

Since then he has been through surgeries and all of the invasive treatments that go along with cancer. But now, all of that has come to an end. Paul is dying. He is only 57 years old.

Along with his wife Teri and their children, the man who showed me how to live is now teaching me how to die. Their faith and sheer grace in this process is stunning to the degree that it reaches into the very depths of my heart. Ironically, for all of his numerous accomplishments in life, this is possibly his greatest.

Paul is no longer directly updating his journal on CaringBridge. In the last entry, sent just a few weeks ago, Teri thought not of herself or of her grief but of others. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, many times over for allowing God to speak His love and faithfulness to us through you,” she wrote. “You will never know how your willingness to be ‘angels of encouragement’ has blessed us.”

I’m not sure if Paul will ever know how much he has blessed me and so many others. I am where I am because of him. So now I dread the next email from CaringBridge telling me of an update. I pray for a miracle, but I know when it arrives my heart will sink, and my hands will shake as I click on the link — hoping for the best yet fearing the worst.

Thank you, Paul, for the example you have set. Thank you for showing me the path that has led to a better life. I wish I had the magic to stop you from dying. But I don’t. Not for you or for me or for anyone else. So for now I will think about and take comfort in your wife’s words: “His work on this earth is almost done. Apparently, you and I have a lot more to do. May we all carry on our God ordained assignments each day through God’s grace and strength.”

Fair winds and Godspeed my friend.


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