The last days of Paradon Munro were not like the first.
Born in Thailand, he was left at a Buddhist orphanage as a baby. He grew up among other children, sitting on meditation cushions in the heat of the day under fans blowing down humid air. He didn’t know who his parents were. At an early age he was taught to listen, observe, and be present.
Some years later a couple visited Thailand looking to adopt. They were western, cosmopolitan, well-educated, political, entrepreneurial, and socially unlike the privileged but sheltered suburban parents in Philadelphia’s posh Main Line towns. Don, as he came to call himself during his middle years, moved into their sprawling colonial house just a minute’s walk away from the famed Barnes Museum.
I met Don before I knew him. I was the pitcher in our little league team, known for my consistent fastballs right down the plate. Don was the catcher. He would bend, lunge, and dive, using his body to stop my throws in any way and to defend homebase from invaders. He was strikingly alert but virtually silent.
I played soccer, and he played soccer. I decided to join the wrestling team, and he decided to wrestle too. In those days he asked to spend time at each others houses. I usually went to his, a foreign place with strange pieces of international art, an obedient black labrador, and lots of empty rooms.
Don had an iconic poster of Bruce Lee on his wall and aspired to be like him in the way one sculpts themself into the image of an idol. Don was short and had tan skin, was nearly hairless, and cultivated a martial-artist like physique. He was toned and strong in a way that most kids are not.
One afternoon Don cajoled me into trying something. He took a goopy substance wrapped in a green leaf and microwaved it. I was hesitant but at his urging tasted for the first time banana sticky rice with black beans. It was his favorite treat from Thailand. It was new and good.
Don had an interesting and diverse collection of hobbies that intrigued me and a way of studying them that seemed to surpass my casual tinkering. One afternoon Don and I went biking. He had a set of tools with which he could fix gears and replace tires. I barely knew the rules of traffic and Don chastised me when I went through an intersection without checking for cars turning right into my lane. He knew things in a more worldly and concrete way than I did. I was used to wandering around random cul de sacs with no particular aim.
Our worlds collided most on the wrestling mat. Don lacked talent, but he was hardened and hard-working beyond his peers. I was busy learning advanced maneuvers while Don was stuffing my head in the mat showing me that I hadn’t mastered the basics.
Don began to emerge as more confident. He attended wrestling camps and developed an arsenal of moves I had not seen before. His conditioning was unparalleled and his intensity could be fierce. I had an advantage though, he was just 120 pounds and I had been growing and lifting weights. I could toss him off balance when I wanted to, but he continued to put me through drills that made my head sore. “Come on,” Don would say as he sought more from me in one arena or another.
Between semesters Don spent a summer in Thailand, living on a rice farm. He spent the day hard at work in the fields and still made time to jump rope under the hot tropical sun.
During student government elections for our last term in high school Don decided to run for class Secretary. I was a 3-time returning Treasurer and had prepared a noble but trite oration about vision and cooperation. Don stepped in front of the audience, and in a flash of bravado tore off his warm-up pants and removed his t-shirt to reveal a taut black wrestling singlet. He gave a rousing speech to the crowd who cheered him on.
Don joined AmeriCorps and was placed in a poor minority school. He volunteered to become the wrestling coach, biking 45 minutes to school each way, even after a grueling session on the mat. I don’t know what the kids learned about takedowns, but Don sat them all in a circle after their workout and talked to them about values, integrity and how to grow into a good person.
We had left for different colleges. I attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Don went to Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania. We both wrestled our freshman year. He became a driving, young leader on his team. I became quickly disillusioned with the stifled pace of grown muscle interfering with my seasoned tricks and the inane locker room banter. Don wrestled for four years; I dropped out of the team to practice yoga postures and visit the gym when I felt like it.
Life went on and Don moved to Asia where he could hone his first language and become a businessman in global shipping and logistics. I went west to Colorado and started a tutoring company in the groomed mountains of Vail and Aspen, before eventually ending up working for Wikipedia in California with my girlfriend and her daughter.
Don would call me from time to time and try to talk. He would always ask, “are you happy?”
He earned respect, and became a successful manager at a large company in Thailand selling the pride of his homeland’s harvest. He met a wonderful guy from Nepal. They fell in love.
When our high school wrestling coach, who had been crippled with advanced diabetes, finally passed away, it was Don who wrote a eulogy for him in the town paper. He showed gratitude and maturity in the powerful recollections.
Then one sunny morning in Santa Cruz at 34-years old, I saw a ping on Facebook.
Don died from a stroke.
Don was dead.
The comments streaming in recalled a person of unfailing politeness and positivity. Someone who showed up well around everyone he met. There was shock and sadness at the tragedy of it. At a life cut short.
An email came to my inbox, written by his family. “We lost a dear son, life partner, and wonderful man. Please gather with us to pray and honor our beloved Paradon, who left us so suddenly.”
Don died this week.
But he wasn’t alone, and he was happy when he went.