Ever get those sudden feelings of overdue regrets - those ugly, dark twitches of sore guilt pangs related to events of yesteryear that bang at your heart and knock consistently at your soul?
Sometimes, especially in those long, long traffic jams of bumper to bumper cars that wind around the endless NJ Turnpike when Sam is on his way home from work at rush hour and there's nothing else to do but tap fingers nervously on the steering wheel, stare at the unending stretched line ahead, and wait for some movement up ahead, his mind drifts back to distant memories of Paul - and he gets those awful feelings of belated regrets.
It's been years now since the two were together in elementary school but Sam can still picture Paul as he was back then. Paul sat there in the row just across from Sam -tumbled blond hair, deep blue mischievous eyes, straight, rather pointed nose, and a smile that could win anyone over.
Yes, that sure was Paul.
Paul had arrived to the class late in third grade after moving from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Shy at first, it didn't take too long until he proved himself as one of the brighter students and although he certainly was no older than any of the kids, everyone soon came to recognize that he possessed a sophisticated 'world wisdom' and wry wit that was remarkable for his age. In time, it demanded our admiring respect.
"That's it," Paul once proclaimed, with his famous grin after hearing about a new school rule that nobody was too fond of, "I'm playing hookey tomorrow; I'm not coming to school!"
In the pure innocence that only average third graders could muster up, everyone asked him what kind of game hookey was.
"Hookey?" Paul answered, eyes sparkling in their own unique magical way. "Hookey is just like hockey, but you play without a stick!"
While some believed Paul, others wondered at the possibility of actually staying home in order to be able to chase after a little black puck without a stick. It was soon discovered that the chair had been skillfully pulled from behind all by Paul's smooth talking when someone's older brother let them in on the secret of what playing hookey really referred to.
That was Paul.
But there was something else about Paul that was different than the rest, something that Sam and the others didn't quite fully understand and appreciate at that youthful juncture; and perhaps it had something to do with his unusual worldliness and knowledge of 'other' things. While all the children would rush at the end the school day to be greeted warmly by their mothers and a prepared hot supper, Paul would slowly drag his feet and make his way to his neighbor's house together with his two brothers, eat supper there, and wait for his father to pick them up after work. Paul's mother, you see, was not able to greet Paul and his siblings at home like the rest of the class because she was not even at home. Paul's mother lay in a bed forty-five minutes away in one of the world's most famous hospitals with an illness that no one in the class had ever heard of before - a disease, talked about by the grownups in hushed whispers - a disease called "Cancer".
Paul never really spoke about his mother and the disease, so Sam and the others didn't either. To them, aside from having to eat supper at the neighbor's house, Paul seemed to be every bit as normal as everyone else and, of course, then some.
Sam became best friends with Paul, a year later, in fifth grade. By then, he didn't eat supper at a neighbor's house anymore because his father had hired a woman to cook for the family and be there when the kids came home from school. By that time, his mother would either be lying in bed behind an ominously closed bedroom door, or away at the hospital for a week or two at a time - or more. Sam would come to Paul's house on occasion after school and they'd do homework together and play with the loads and loads of toys and games he owned. The one thing that struck Sam besides Paul's good fortune in being provided with the 'best' that any kid could ask for was how 'perfect' and in order his home seemed to be. And how unusually quiet it was.
One day, Paul didn't come to school. The teacher told the class that Paul's mother had passed away and that he would be staying at home for the next week. He explained that as soon as Paul returned, everyone needed to be extra nice to him because of what happened to his mother.
Truthfully, at that young age, no one understood what the loss of a mother actually meant.
When Paul returned to school he didn't say anything about his mother. Sam figured that, although it was a bad thing that his mother passed away, since Paul was a tough guy and accustomed to her not being around anyway, it didn't have much of an effect on him. The friendship resumed.
By the time sixth grade came around, Paul had built a reputation for himself as somewhat of a genius. Never putting in too much effort, he'd manage to pull off higher than average grades. Sam, however, was poles apart in the brains department. For Sam to achieve even mediocre results, he had to really work.
For the duration of that year, the relationship was not affected by the pronounced difference between them. By the seventh grade, however, Sam couldn't bring himself to study together with Paul anymore. The fact that Paul wouldn't spend sufficient time on what needed to be internalized wasn't helping Sam any and the knack for coming up with those quick clever words spiced with a characteristic dose of witty sarcasm began to make Sam feel uncomfortably inadequate.
"It's no good," Sam would tell himself. "Why am I such a dumb bell? Why do I put in so much effort and barely make it, while Paul has it so easy?"
It's not too difficult for an immature seventh grader to build himself up about something as ridiculous as someone else being smarter. The more Sam thought about Paul, the more he succeeded in assembling a case against him. Sam remembered an instance when Paul ignored him, another time when Paul insulted him, and still another occasion when Paul forgot to include him in the baseball game he had organized near his house. One thing led to another, and by the end of the year, the relationship had cooled off a great deal and Sam and Paul were no longer were the same buddies they once had been.
Sam became associated with another group of boys - those that he considered 'more serious', but every so often, he'd catch Paul glancing his way with a funny, pained kind of look. Sam made away with 'the look' and dismissed it as it just being Paul's way.
With a diverse choice of high schools a year later, the contact ended completely.
The years passed swiftly and although Sam still maintained a connection to those guys that had continued on his path, he rarely thought about elementary school and the ties that had been severed since then. Eventually Sam married and went to work in his father-in-law's business.
It was on a cold, frosty Friday afternoon while in midst of traffic jam on the NJ Turnpike that Sam received the phone call from Marc Hart.
"Sam," he said. "Sorry to catch you on the road, but remember Paul Stone?"
"Yeah," Sam said cautiously, with a sudden uncomfortable premonition of bad tidings to follow. "What about Paul? What's he up to?"
"Paul's not doing so well now, Sam," Marc said. "His wife was in a car accident and - sorry to be the one to break it to you - she was... she was killed. He's left with three little orphans. At this point, it looks like the funeral will be scheduled for Sunday morning. I wanted to let all the old friends know. I think it's important that we all be there."
Sam swallowed hard. "How terrible," he said, trying to hold back the tears that found their way to his eyes. "I'll be in touch for the details."
The funeral was as awful as any funeral for a young woman that had to depart so early from this world and leave behind a broken husband and three young orphans could be. Sam sat towards the back of the chapel and gazed at Paul. Paul wore that pained kind of look that Sam remembered from somewhere deep in memory...
The weeks and months passed since Paul's wife's death and Sam heard that the family had been awarded a significant payout from the other driver's auto insurance coverage and life insurance policy. Nevertheless, there was much to contend with. The extended family and close friends stepped in very quickly to help him with his painful situation and unfamiliar new responsibilities.
The memories of an old friendship continue to hound and harass Sam with a mature perspective of what transpired between Paul and him, emphasized strongly by the events of Paul's most recent terrible loss. Is it too late to say "I'm sorry"? Sam wonders.
Is it too late to say I'm sorry? Today Sam just can't find the strength to pick up the phone and dial Paul's number. But tomorrow - maybe tomorrow he'll actually do it.
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