Well, I was preparing a post about our beach vacation – kids riding waves, boardwalk adventures, and all the general beachy, fun, summery stuff, but it’s not going to happen. Because I don’t feel like it, and hey – it’s my blog. I’m sad today, and my summer feels ruined, because The Unexpected happened today.
For every person in the Foreign Service, there is The Post. Our “The Post” is Accra, Ghana. At The Post, you make the closest friends imaginable – the ones who you turn to first in your Foreign Service Family. It’s where you found the girlfriends who you email, message, or ring when you have good news, bad news, or just want to catch up and you know they are the ones to call. It’s where you had a baby, or where your kid graduated high school, or where your spouse got that one BIG promotion or got tenured. It’s where everyone was AWESOME and you clicked with so many people and you realized that even if what was outside the Embassy or Consulate gates was harsh, or dismal, or difficult, it didn’t matter, because you were at that post with The Most Fabulous People on the Planet. It’s the post you mention so often to other FS folks at following posts that they want to just barf, or at least roll their eyes behind your back.
You convince yourself that one day, all of you will serve together again at some imaginary perfect post of your choosing – The Fantasy Embassy.
And then The Unexpected happens.
I opened up my Facebook account this morning and was shocked into tears within seconds. One of my Accra People had passed on. The Unexpected.
Paul Sanchez was one of the most extraordinary human beings that I have ever met – and with this lifestyle, I’ve met a lot of people. You hear people say, “he’s a ray of sunshine”, but Paul was the Sun. He was the kind of person that everything good and bright and wonderful revolved around. He walked into a room and you couldn’t help but smile; he could literally turn the worst day of your life into something good and memorable. He made everyone matter – not just think they mattered. He lifted you up and made you into a better version of yourself. I struggled sometimes to describe him, because words just didn’t suffice. You had to meet him, and then all I would have to say is “Paul”, and you would understand.
He landed in Accra with his husband, T, and threw himself into life at post with enthusiasm. Our little group, The Tea Ladies, had to change its name, and believe me when I say that he outdid all of us with his tea spread – he was the host with the most. Before Paul showed up, I felt that I owned that title, but I bowed down Paul and handed over the crown, gladly. I am certain that he would laugh, knowing that right now I have a picture of me in my head sweeping a crown off and bowing deeply in front of him with a large table filled with a medieval feast spread out in the background.
It was during this time that I was on the American Embassy Association board of directors and we hired Paul as the AEA Director. He brought skills to the table along with his magnetic personality and winning smile. The commissary is one of the key things at a remote/hardship post, and while the commissary was on an upswing from the previous manager’s tenure, by the time Paul was finished with it, I probably would have chosen to shop there over Costco. By the end of his first year there we saw things like Easter candy (Peeps!!!), ground bison, and black beans hit the shelves. When Halloween rolled around, he organized a pumpkin patch for the kids (and for me, probably). The second year he was there, his staff had come into their own, and were making suggestions, following through on projects, decorating the building and they were participating in CLO and community events as the AEA hadn’t done in recent memory, if ever. In 2010, he was the Commissary Manager of the Year.
His employees were a group of young African men, most of whom had barely a high-school education. In other words, young men that many people wouldn’t trust, wouldn’t move into management, or wouldn’t put faith in. But Paul did. And they rose to the occasion and shined. When I left, Paul hired my driver, B, to drive the school bus for the American School and to help in the commissary. Two years later, when B visited the U.S. for the first time ever, Paul hosted him out in New Mexico and showed him the American Southwest.
He also sponsored a young man to come to the U.S., initially as domestic help, I think – I can’t remember – the lines between N and the rest of us blurred eventually, and he became just another “Accra Person” in our tight-knit community. With his encouragement, N graduated with his LPN, and continues to study to this day. Paul also helped out others who did not come to the U.S. from time to time and his generosity and mentoring made a huge difference in a way so many other things might not. He was proof incarnate that what one person did could truly matter.
Sometimes, I can be such an insufferable know-it-all, and I need someone to put me in my place or to keep me going. I’ve been a DiploWife or DiploMom for a looooong time. I am often, due to my, ahem, Senior Lady status, a person to whom a lot of folks go to for information, for support, or for sharing secrets. It’s exhausting though, and Ghana is where that dynamic began in earnest. It wore me down. There were days when I just wanted to go to the airport, buy a ticket and leave. Times I had to be Suzy Sunshine when all I wanted to do was go home, crawl into bed, and cry for my Mommy. Maybe the water and power were both out. Maybe I heard that a good friend’s husband back home had died. Maybe my housekeeper just broke something that my grandmother had gifted me (wah, wah, #FirstWorldProblems, I know). But either way, when the cracks in my normally tough outer shell were becoming serious fissures, I knew were I could go.
Walking into Paul’s office, I would already feel about 25% better. Then he’d smile, and it’d up to 50%. By the time I left, my burden would be lighter, my ridiculous worries put in their place with a borderline sassy/snotty comment that was completely warranted and appropriate, and I would feel like I could almost fly. He made you feel that way.
I hadn’t seen Paul since the day I got on a flight for the U.S. from Accra, even if I’d talked to him, chatted on FB, and generally kept in touch. I tried desperately to try and work it out so that I could be there when they say goodbye to him, but I cannot. I, and so many other Accra People are devastated by his death. Facebook has exploded with grief among My Accra People. The Unexpected has happened, and one of our own has left us.
One of the most difficult things about the Foreign Service is the distance. It’s knowing you can’t make all the family gatherings, weddings, baptisms, and births.
And memorial services.
Some day in the not too distant future, family, friends, and loved ones will gather to wish Paul Sanchez farewell and to remember and celebrate his life. The place where they gather, be it a church, a home, or a treasured and loved place, will be full, even if there are empty seats to those who cannot see, and who do not know what I know.
And what I know is that we, the Accra People, will be there in spirit. From Warsaw, Mumbai, St. Petersburg, and Williamsburg, VA. From Fair Haven, NJ, Pretoria, Accra, Sao Paolo, Washington, DC and Frankfurt am Main. From all four corners of the earth, across every ocean, and in churches, mosques, and temples in many far away places, candles with be lit, prayers will be said, and his life will be celebrated. And we will pack that venue with our love and prayers from across the miles.
At about the time I suppose all of this is going on, I will take the DiploBoys by the hand, board a plane back to “normal life” in Mumbai, and tell them to look out the window on our flight back for angels. I am sure that this time, I will shed tears when I say this, because I know the newest member of their ranks.
Rest in Peace, Paul Sanchez. You will be missed. You will be remembered. You will be loved.