Three weeks ago, the LGBT community lost one of its leaders, Paul Connolly, a luminary in the field of philanthropy and nonprofit management. We and many others lost a dear friend or beloved family member. His partner Chas Nol lost the man with whom he thought he would spend the rest of his life.
Paul died of acute respiratory distress syndrome at age 54 after over a month in the ICU. Chas and Paul were very active in the Radical Faerie and Billy queer spiritual communities. At the center of Billy communities is the “Heart Circle”—as the Billys describe it, “a time to share what’s on our hearts and listen with an open heart” where “everyone is equal.”
As LGBT people, open and authentic sharing of the truth of our lives is something we can offer and model for the world. In tribute to Paul—instead of listing his many accomplishments as a typical obituary might do—we invite readers to join a type of Heart Circle, where we can hear Chas’s words to Paul, the one person who cannot physically join the circle today. We offer Chas’s “Love Letter to Paul” so that we can all be in the Heart Circle together:
It’s been three weeks since you left us. The separation from you has been excruciating. It’s not the first time we’ve been apart for this amount of time, but these are the first three weeks of the rest of my life without you. The prospect of not seeing you, touching you, and feeling you again is unimaginable.
Over the last 21 days, I’ve been reflecting on the deep impact you had on my life in our 13 years together. As you know, I was always the stoic one, and you were passionate and expressive. Except when fits of uncontrollable tears overtake me now, I’m still the guy whose affect varies little more than the sails of a becalmed boat. But as I approach age 60, I see there’s nothing in my life that doesn’t feel somehow rooted or fundamentally informed by you and your oversized presence.
You challenged me and everyone around you to see the world differently. You turned obstacles into opportunities. You lengthened time and made a day seem longer and fuller than I ever thought possible. You forged pathways through impassable terrain.
But as one who conceives of himself as unshakable, what strikes me most is how much you got under my skin. Within the first 12 hours of your leaving on a trip, I would become depressed, begin to procrastinate, and immerse myself in Netflix. Your power over me annoyed me to no end. I saw myself as far too evolved to be so deeply enmeshed with my partner that I could become nearly catatonic when he went away.
And now you’ve left for good.
Three weeks ago, I sat next to you on your bed—one hand on your chest, the other holding yours in my lap. I stared into your eyes as they closed for the last time. I felt the movement of your chest as you released your last breath. And I sensed the warmth of your body as your heart stopped beating. I needed to be there for you—to be your strong, stoic guy, holding you and making you feel safe as you departed. And I needed to know for myself that you were really gone. If I could be fully present for your leaving, I hoped I would be able to let go, too.
And now you are gone.
Every day now I stop somewhere—frozen in place—when I encounter another aspect of my life you so thoroughly affected. The color of the walls in our house. The pictures that hang on them. The clothes in my closet. The plants in the garden. The empty place in our bed.
I know that the waves of grief will diminish over time. In a few years, I’ll be able to go days or even weeks without missing you so terribly. I know that, in time, I will find others to love as much as I love you. And I know I will never stop loving you as much as I do now.
Thank you, dear man, for giving me my life.
I love you dearly.
John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.