THE BLOG

The Unthinkable, Part 2: She Was Lucky. I Was Blessed.

She missed it all: planes spearing into the iconic World Trade Center towers, the west side of the Pentagon, and the verdant countryside of Pennsylvania. She missed the eerie absence of contrails over America for the next week. The national horror. The biggest thing since the Kennedy assassination.

She missed the feckless launch of a new Cabinet-level bureaucracy named to evoke the comfort of a Norman Rockwell painting. She missed our two current foreign wars, and the only things to show for it after more than $7.6 trillion of spending us into near economic depression: a silly color-coded terror semaphore, over 6,000 American military men and women killed and 50,000 wounded, and Job Creation in the form of hourly employees who harass commercial airline travelers over footwear, medical accoutrements, and not stowing our toiletries in the mandated Baggies.

She missed the Internet entirely. She never knew the virtual universe of dotcoms, apps, http:// and www., tweeting and texting. She never heard of Mark Zuckerberg, the Kardashian sisters or Honey Boo Boo--all of which, as I see it, have infinitely more insidious capacity for collateral damage than religious fanatics with boxcutters.

In all of this, she was lucky. I was blessed.

Paulina died on February 6, 1996 at the age of 53, eight months after being diagnosed with a Stage IV glioblastoma multiforme, the most malignant form of brain cancer. Symptoms surfaced the previous May in Taiwan where Paulina, a world-class pianist, suddenly suffered the textbook ominous nauseating headaches, garbled speech--yet still flawlessly performed her concerts and led her master classes. Paulina would.

The day after returning home to Los Angeles, she was rushed to UCLA Medical Center and sent into emergency neurosurgery. I was standing in the intensive-care unit with her husband Norberto, post-operatively, as the impeccably poised neurosurgeon Keith L. Black gave us her death sentence, sotto voce.

My best friend, swaddled in a post-surgical fetal curl. Tiny, ethereal, pale as porcelain and close enough to touch behind the bedrails. This special one, so beautiful, gifted and generous, who hand-carried an Etruscan vase all the way back from Italy to California as a present for me; who mailed exquisite notecards on a moment's loving whim to "Carissima Mimi," who performed with the greatest orchestras in the world including the Berlin Philharmonic where her in-laws were first violin and first viola; for whom the incomparable Lalo Schifrin had composed a complex work titled Resonances, which Paulina premiered at Lincoln Center in 1988.

I remember thinking in the ICU, as I do writing this, that her anesthetic coma was deceiving. Paulina was riding a comet. Skating the rings of Saturn. Taking master classes from Liszt himself.

The invitation was for an "early birthday party" a month ahead of her September 2 birthday--what well-intentioned fool inflicted the unthinkable "early" on it?--at the home of the gentle Emmy-winning director Charlie Dubin and his wife Mary Lou, also a gifted musician. The expatriate daughter of the last Minister of Education in the Ceaucesçu régime and her husband--her former architecture professor--who in a storybook cover-of-night escape had refugeed to America from Communist Romania with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The wonderful, kind, hilarious comedian Louis Nye and his wife, Anita. About thirty other people. Us.

Paulina, chic of course in an auburn bob wig with bangs, walked very carefully to the grand piano in the Dubins's living room, and flawlessly performed her own witty signature composition: "Happy Birthday to You," reprised six or seven times in the styles of the familiar classical composers. We had all had this gift performed for us over the years. Enchanted applause, breaking hearts. Her last concert. Unspoken, everyone knowing this.

A month later, this very week of the year, Paulina and Norberto called and, with all four of us on the line, calmly conveyed their decision to forgo all further medical treatment for her. The aggressiveness of her cancer had blown her through every conventional therapy in the first eight weeks post-diagnosis, but after only two sessions in an experimental therapy which she found unseemly, degrading and without promise she had said, Enough. She was calm. He was angry and bitter against all of medicine, and would remain so. Not only would they never see another doctor, but Norberto took on her entire care himself, with only occasional support from our circle of friends. With evil, mathematical timing her seizures immediately began to increase in frequency and severity. By Christmas Eve, she was unable to either walk or speak.

I last spoke to Paulina that afternoon. Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve together had become a tradition for the four of us, and we all got on the line together to, what? Exchange love, good will, try to conjure something desperately appropriate, important, but not morbid. "She's smiling and nodding," Norberto kept saying, as from ineffable well I draw warm, persuasive sentiments; but when the call ended I knew, as with the early birthday party, this was our last conversation.

Standing there in our library, with a line of sight across the 30-foot entry hall to the tall Christmas tree in the living room window, seeing nothing. For the first time in my life, on the world's traditional eve of promise, I understood the definition of despair: the absence of hope.

I knelt down on the carpet, where I had taken the call and, if that abyss of incoherence can be called a prayer, prayed in the depths of my soul for a very, very long time. From that bending of knee arose, for me, another definition. The definition of strength: resilience and self-knowledge. Her last gift to me.

It seems to require catastrophe before we grab, panicked, for God. The tornado sirens go off; the child's fever hits 104º. The second 767 hits the second tower. The beloved friend is dying. As though to speak God is to win luck. Some kind of holy tweet. Singled out, saved.
The truth is that living without answers takes more than faith, it takes strength. Resilience and self-knowledge. Why them? Why Paulina? Why us? What was I asking?
Who, really, keeps answering?

The mystery remains as great as the gift.

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