Forgive me if this gets a bit 'stream of consciousness' and a bit less structured than some of my other musings. It's an emotive subject and you can't really do that part of it justice if you are quibbling with yourself about where to put an apostrophe, about word order or about which Ben Elton sit-com to quote.
So there's none of that. This is all my own work. I want to talk to you about Paul. Paul is no longer with us. If he had been, then today would have been his 40th birthday. As it turned out he didn't get more than a couple of months past his 26th birthday. The circumstances around the illness which took him are complex and still not absolutely clear to me even now, nearly 14 years on. But then they are not really the point of what I want to say here. I wanted to focus on his life and the effect he had on me, not his death, although that has had a pretty profound effect on me aswell.
Now it is often said that nobody ever has anything bad to say about someone after they pass on. We can all think of people who were considered a bit on the irksome side when they were alive but who turned into legends and geniuses after their death. Yet the plaudits from those who knew Paul came long before he left us. He was possibly the most geniunely nice bloke you could ever have the privilege to meet or be around. Totally and utterly devoid of any malice, Paul was generous, thoughtful and funny. Just well liked. Everybody liked Paul. If it didn't make you a bit of a stalker, you could search my Facebook friends list for anyone who knew him and just ask the question, and without exception they would all agree that he was a top class bloke, and they could all come up with a Paul story. Something that he said or did which made them smile, laugh or just feel better.
Like the tiime he and I were helping out with some wheelchair basketball coaching for some younger kids at our club in Fazakerley. It goes without saying that he was able to pass on the benefit of his 10+ years of experience in the sport, but he made it fun for them too by going that extra mile to entertain. During a break in the session he swapped chairs with one young kid to let him have a go in a proper basketball wheelchair. The only problem was that the chair Paul had agreed to temporarily inherit had no large wheels. This meant that he had to be pushed by someone if he was going to make any headway. Out on the street he would not even have sat in such a wretched contraption. He had that fiersome desire for independence that many of us with physical disabilities possess. Yet here he was letting some kid's dad push him around the sports hall in the name of comedy and entertainment. At this point it should be remembered that he was unable to stop himself since he could not reach down to the low wheels. The entire team falling off the bench laughing as he gamely careered into the wall of the sports hall once the offending parent had given him one big shove and let go.....
He laughed as hard as any of us, which kind of summed him up.
Though that one example may seem like a pretty ridiculous thing to do, he was far from stupid. I geniunely doubt that I would be here now were it not for the benefit of his wisdom over many years. We were pretty much inseparable for a period of around four or five years and he would often stay at our house when I lived with my mum and dad. During such times there was no problem too small for him to help me with or vice versa. We would sit up and talk for hours (sometimes after far too many shandies it must be said) and he would always be the one offering the logical solutions. Where I would fly off the handle and wallow in the hopelessness of whatever drama had beset me that week, he was always the rational presence I needed. He was a genuinely steadying influence, I found, and his absence over all these years may be a contributing factor to some of my, shall we say, less glorious life decisions. Not that I mean to blame him. I'm 38 in a few weeks time, old enough to know better than some of the lunacy I have engaged in. I'm just saying that he helped because he was wise and kind. And now I don't have that and I regret it deeply.
One of the things I am sure he would be able to help me with if he were here now is the darkness of some of my thoughts since his passing. Barely a day goes by when I don't wonder how it came to be that it was he and not I who developed such a tragic illness. Without wallowing again it just doesn't seem fair or just. We were a similar age, proud owners of the same disability and had pretty similar fitness levels since we trained together up to four times a week in those days. Though I have long since learned that the question of how this came to pass is one of life's unanswerables, it does not stop me wondering all the same. In many respects it has never quite sunk in that he has gone. I've always felt pretty terrible about the fact that I never screamed or shouted or cried or ranted or did any of the things that most people would do having suffered such a traumatic loss. Maybe that is just not me, not how I react to genuine trauma. I'm not sure because I have been fortunate enough not to lose anyone else as close to me as Paul was. He was a one-off in so many ways.
So happy 40th birthday Paul, wherever you are. You'll appreciate that I'm not a religious man but I do believe that you are somewhere better now. No doubt there is a bar nearby and that everybody around you thinks the world of you. I'm certain I'll see you up, down or around there one day but for now you'll forgive me if I plod on with this thing called life, with its early mornings and its stigmas and its Wigan Warriors Challenge Cup victories.
And for any of you reading this who knew Paul, well I hope it has brought back some of your own happy memories of him and not made you focus too much on the sadness of his absence from our lives. I'd like to think that he would have enjoyed and approved of every word I have written here and if not, well, we would have thrown a few handbag haymakers and had a good laugh about it in the morning.