At this stage in our lives, there’s a whole lotta reflection going on.
Here in Silicon Valley, we are awash in stories of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who – deservedly or not – hit what’s known as “the Silicon Valley lottery.” They were in the right place at the right time with stock options, and their biggest problems become how to spend their time and how to handle capital gains taxes. There are many, many more stories of others whose timing was not as good, whose options were never worth anything, whose timing or choice of start-ups was faulty, who reflect on “might have been.”
But in my mind, there’s a third category, one that’s much sadder: what never was. I am reflecting on this category because of the passing last week of a classmate’s mother. May was in her 90s, and had been in hospice for quite a few months. When I was a teen-ager, I was best friends with her son Paul (see photo).
Sometimes I wonder what drew us together way back in junior high school. I was happy-go-lucky; Paul was cynical. I loved writing; he loved photography. I wanted to make writing my career; he planned on being an engineer, because he was so good at math. I was a klutz at athletics; he was a graceful ice skater, bicyclist, and kayaker. I was a spendthrift; Paul was thrifty (a trait which, like many others, he took from his father). But we liked movies and exploring the bay area on bus, train, or bicycle, and I have many fond memories of trips with him and his family to San Francisco, Monterey, and Yosemite.
I often write about inflection points in life, and the inflection point for my relationship with Paul was the summer of 1972. I spent five weeks that summer between my junior and senior year on a student tour traveling around the United States. Paul denigrated it in his cynical fashion, questioning why “anyone would want to spend 10,000 miles on their ass,” but I suspect that his thrifty (to put it kindly) father had balked at the $790 price tag. I made other friends on that trip – particularly another happy-go-lucky soul named Steve – and after that Paul and I were never quite as close as we had been.
Looking back, I realize that summer was an inflection point in Paul’s life, too – a really, really big “what might have been” on the way to something else. Because before we were allowed to join this particular tour, purely as a precaution, we had to take a physical. I often wonder if he had taken that physical, would the doctors have discovered the tumor on his leg that remained undiagnosed until early in his freshman year at the local junior college.
It was bone cancer. Paul said he couldn’t understand why the muscles on his left leg were more pronounced than those on his right leg – that’s how advanced the tumor was. Doctors amputated his leg above his thigh and fitted him with a prosthetic limb, ironically leaving the guy who’d sat on his ass for 10,000 miles whole and the skater off the ice forever.
As radical as the surgery was, it wasn’t enough. The cancer spread. One summer night a few years later, Paul died. The year was 1976. Paul was 21. May, bless her soul, lived without him for 37 years, almost twice as many years as she lived with him.
I remember that night vividly, because Steve and I were visiting Disney World, enduring one of those vicious Florida thunderstorms that I only realized in retrospect was an omen of bad things transpiring. When I arrived home in the middle of the following night, my father got up to tell me Paul was gone and that the funeral would be later that day.
All that engineering talent went to waste. Even though he was in the right place at the right time, he would never use a personal computer. He would never see Silicon Valley soar to its greatest heights. I imagine he would have had his choice of jobs, and that he might even have won that vaunted lottery that other classmates did. He might have even become a spendthrift like me, though I doubt it. But I like to think he would have enjoyed himself, that he would have liked being in a place that cherished his talents.
I look back sadly on a career that never was.