A Eulogy for my Brother

My brother Paul died in March 2015, at the age of 37, from lung cancer – he was not a smoker. He was an amazing person: a neurosurgeon, scientist & writer, trained and loved at the world’s best educational and medical institutions. I gave a eulogy for him at Stanford Memorial Church, and some have asked me to provide a written version.

Here it is. I don’t know how well translates from speech to print, but: here goes.

We stand in memory, and in awe, of Paul. Not because Paul was exceptional – he was – but because he was not merely exceptional. Paul was also normal: flawed, real, human, mortal, specific.

Paul is my brother. I want to tell you more about him.

Paul was exceptional. He was not only intelligent, perceptive, clear – more than that, Paul had an unfailing, unflagging, relentless insistence on correctness.

Paul and I got into chess when we were kids. Actually, he got into Chess and I got pulled along in the wake. For Paul, playing Chess was not about fun. It was about total and complete mastery and understanding of the game.

After school, this went down, day after day.

I would be watching cartoons.

Paul would interrupt and say, “want to play chess?”

Me: No.

Paul: C’mon, let’s.

Me: Nah.

Paul: What’s the point of playing the game if you don’t want to get better?

He was obsessed and he would guilt me into playing, game after game. It was exhausting. It wasn’t fun. I really did not and could not get into it in the same way he did. 

Paul was exceptional.

Paul was insistent on correctness not just in chess, of course. But in everything.

He was insistent on correctness even in the face of the hardest human problem: death. Paul could not leave death alone. He picked the hardest thing the human mind can contemplate, and dedicated his life to understanding it – as a thinker and as a surgeon. He had to confront it. Embrace it. Know it. This was his unfailing, unflagging quest in life. And he succeeded.

Webster was much possessed by death

And saw the skull beneath the skin

So wrote TS Eliot in “Whispers of Immortality,” He could have been writing about Paul.

I was with Paul when he died on Monday, March 9th in room E261, at Stanford Hospital. He died with total mental clarity on what was happening to his body, and he made a decision that it was time to go, with his baby daughter Cady in his arms, and his family around him. Paul chose to forgo invasive life support, seeing, the doctor he was, what that would mean for him and his family. No compromises, no loose ends, no reconsiderations: Paul saw death, as he had done as a doctor so many times before, now he saw it firsthand, confronted it, embraced it, knew it.

Paul understood death.

“He died” – that sentence is worth understanding, because its syntactic structure applies to Paul in a way, I think, won’t apply to many of us and has applied to few of those who have gone before us.

Death did not happen to Paul. He, as the actor, the subject, of the sentence, chose this verb – to die. He. Died. He accepted and embraced his mortality – as an active, lucid agent – not as a victim.

How many human lives that have come forth, lived, and died, over the two million years of our species’ time on this planet – how many can we say understood life and death like Paul did? I just don’t think very many, at all.

In dying in the way Paul did and in living the way he did, he reached an apex of human understanding and a kind of perfection that few do. I stand in awe of this. That is the miracle of his being.

Paul was exceptional.

Paul was normal. He liked bacon. And a fine steak. And basically all other meats.

Paul was for quite some time a vegetarian, in the most convoluted, inane sense of the word. He knew that being a vegetarian, is you know, probably the right thing to do.

Paul couldn’t quite do it. I can remember, I think it at 521 Court Street, the apartment in Brooklyn that Matty Merrill, Chris Cary and I shared about ten years ago – we were eating a pepperoni pizza . And we couldn’t quite finish it, there were two slices left. And Paul proceeded to eat them.

At which point I believe Matty says, “I thought you were a vegetarian.”

Paul replies, “I am.”

Matty: “Those are pepperonis on that pizza. Which is meat.”

Paul: “Yes, I know. But because this pizza would otherwise go uneaten, the resources that went into the pig, which should otherwise have more rightfully gone into vegetables for economic and moral reasons, are now going to be wasted, so there is no reason why they shouldn’t be eaten, in this case. So it’s fair game.”

To which I responded, “good luck keeping that system going.”

Which of course, Paul did not.

Paul was normal.

Have any of you borne witness to any of his bedrooms? Paul’s messiness was epic, and profound. It reached its zenith in New Haven, unchecked by anyone (unchecked by mom, who was 3000 miles away), and definitely unchecked by Lucy, who decided, correctly, that it was not her problem.

If you entered Paul’s bedroom, you could not be sure that there was a floor. So covered with junk was what could possibly be but not definitely known to be, the floor, that it wasn’t clear that the bottom surface of the room was carpet, hardwood, or a small body of water, on which a mat of clothes, books, and crumpled up photocopies, floated. If you were to step into the room, would your foot hit something firm, floor-like? Or plunge into a swamp of pants, colorful and certainly unclean socks, camping stoves, and dog-eared copies of Being and Time? Really you couldn’t know.

I’m not exaggerating by the way. In a room of Paul’s, the floor was unseen. As if Paul was trying to make a point about faith. Like God, you cannot see the floor, but you must have faith that, Yea, it is there. Its rod and staff will comfort you.

Paul was normal.

My mom said something to us last week, amid all the tributes to Paul coming from across the world. I think mom, seeing something not quite present in those tributes, said, “You boys knew how to have fun.”

So. Paul was normal. But he was also exceptional.

We stand with Paul, alongside him, near him, because he was normal: flawed, real, human, mortal, specific. We stand in awe of him because he was exceptional: brilliant, relentless, a master of his own – our own – mortality.

But Paul was not merely exceptional. He was far better than that. And he is my – our – brother.

One thought on “A Eulogy for my Brother

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s