Saying Goodbye to our Friend, Paul

Written by M. Scott Morris

We started a fire in the backyard the other night. We’ve lived in the house for nearly 15 years and have never done that before.

Forty days and 40 nights of rain meant we didn’t have to be too careful. We used a little lighter fluid and had a conflagration of red, blue, purple and orange. We kept it small. It didn’t smoke much.

If my friend Paul “Stone” Dunklee hadn’t died earlier that day, I probably would’ve stayed in my comfy chair and binged something on television.

Our usual ways of dealing with coronavirus felt wrong, so we threw some twigs and sticks together. It was a small offering but the best we could manage that night.

All my life, I’ve heard the phrase “good people.” Though people is plural, it usually refers to one person as in, “He’s good people.” No one has ever been more deserving of that title than my friend Paul.

Paul “Stone” Dunklee

He was the kind of guy who reached out, who asked questions, who laughed at stupid jokes — not that any of my jokes could be described as stupid.

My family has hit some rough patches in recent years. They seem tiny in light of his passing, but they felt monumental at the time. Paul was there with wise counsel as well as invitations to just get out and have some fun. I have hermit-like tendencies and sometimes surround myself with myself, as the old Yes song goes. Paul got me out of the house to watch a game or listen to a band. I never really thanked him for that.

People around here know Paul from Wizard 106, WTVA, Woodmen and Allstate. During his job changes, he went from wearing sweatpants to suits, but he was always Paul. His friends were lucky wherever he found us, and we’re all suffering.

Of course, nothing compares to what his wife, Lea Ann, and sons, J.D. and Ryan, are experiencing. Their grief is probably bigger than everything except Paul’s overwhelming and ever-constant love for them.

Coronavirus will make it harder to say goodbye simply because funerals and social distancing don’t mix. But these days will end, and we’ll gather again. Paul played guitar in a seemingly endless array of cover bands. There will be more than one show in his honor. “This song’s for Paul,” they’ll say and then play something incredibly loud.

Speaking of loud, Paul was a giant Van Halen fan, so we’ve been rocking out at the house in his honor. Our grief included singing and dancing, which fits our friend.

On the day he died, I’d driven up the Natchez Trace with the family just to look at something other than the house. As I watched the swollen Tennessee River flow by, I pictured my friend’s smiling face. “Man, just have fun,” he said.

Maybe it was a memory. If so, I couldn’t tell you when he’d actually said it. Maybe it was my imagination, which seems most likely. Or it could’ve been one last message from a friend. Wouldn’t that be nice?

“Man, just have fun.” I could think of worse messages from beyond.

The other night we mourned in the backyard with an impromptu fire. We remembered and told stories. I don’t know if it counted as fun, but it was good.

Because of Paul, the days ahead will be much harder and more meaningful. I’m not promising more fun, but I’m going to try. Man, I’m going to try.

M. Scott Morris teaches English at Shannon High School.

Oxford, Mississippi | United States

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