We met for the first time around a week before his 26th birthday. It was a small gathering of Toastmasters meeting up at another Toastmaster’s bakery. He pulled my leg endlessly about a million things and made me laugh. A week later, I managed to get his number from somebody just to wish him on his birthday. Birthdays have always been extremely important to me, so I did not want to lose the opportunity to wish him.
Just before the call, I’d left the tap running to get the hot water started so I could bathe. A few minutes in, I realised it was going to be a terrible waste of water and I turned it off. It was a good thing I did. That call lasted four hours. I have never wished anybody happy birthday for that long. That was the day I really began to get to know Leo.
DTM Leo Kurians Paulose. Such a fancy title, such an important Toastmaster, and so respected in the community. A quick scroll through his Facebook profile would reveal he was this loved everywhere: as an NIT-Rourkela alumnus and as an employee where he worked. He was an esteemed leader, guide, and mentor, ever ready to be there for other people in their time of need. People looked up to him wherever he went.
For me, personally, he was a little more than just a leader and mentor. He was a friend. Shortly after the first four-hour call, we went on to have many calls that lasted for hours. Once, he called me after I slept, and I somehow still managed to receive the phone and respond to what he was saying, even though I could barely recollect the conversation in the morning. He loved to listen to everything that I had to say, and he loved talking about what was going on in his life. The best thing about him was that he listened carefully and gave thoughtful responses. He didn’t just hear the words. He really paid attention. There aren’t really many people who can do that, and certainly not many who can do that for hours on end.
He was full of love and very, very fond of me. I badgered him with so many kinds of questions: do you know of internship opportunities for me, what should I write my speech about, where can I find a house after college? He always readily provided answers, no matter how busy he was or where he was. I pulled his leg innumerable times about how often he travelled and there was no need for him to even have a house in Pune except for his few belongings. Regardless of where he was, he still found the time to be around, to talk. We didn’t necessarily meet or even talk very often. But when we did, it was always full of anecdotes, laughs, and hugs.
Last year, I participated in a speech contest and my speech was based on the first time I experienced the death of somebody close to me: Boroma. I wrote about it later. It was a loss that I had never fully dealt with. I had not grieved. I had many doubts about being able to pull it off on stage. But Leo was confident I could. And beyond that, he let me talk about all my fears and sorrows regarding my speech and let me grieve in a way I had never done before. I had thought I would regret that speech, but I didn’t. It made me lighter. It allowed me to accept a loss I had tried to push away for ten long years.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have thought that about a year later, I would have to teach myself to come to terms with his loss in the way he taught me to. It has been a horrible few hours: right since 3AM yesterday when I heard of his accident and learnt he was in the ICU till seeing his coffin in the evening yesterday. Everything has been a crazy blur, like a terrible dream that I am going to shake awake out of any moment. Even as I type this, I can’t fully digest it. We’d talked about catching a movie together and we never did. It still feels like I could make a call and pester him to watch a movie with me right now… but for the first time, he won’t take my call. Leo taught me to grieve and move on and now, it is killing me to use that lesson for him.
But he taught me well and I will apply it well. I will remember that smile, the friendly ‘hello’ before every call, all his speeches peppered with his trademark word ‘folks’. I will remember the night dress he sat in when he listened to my practise my speech, the way he would make it a point to call even if it was an absurd hour at night, and the way he knew what the right thing to say was. I will hang on to every “good luck”, every “congratulations”, and every “I knew you could do it”. I’ll hear those words in my head in his voice and I’ll know he’s right here.
Leo was one of the best persons to have walked this planet and I don’t write these words lightly. He was kind, loving, friendly, humble, sincere, and selfless. He had accomplished so much and so quickly, and it never got into his head. And this is why he was deeply loved by every person he had ever met. He always knew how to make the person before him feel heard and respected. Leo was the embodiment of a person who did not go out of his way to help others; his way was to help others. It seems terribly unfair that when a person was exactly what the world needed, he was taken away.
Leo’s absence will be felt deeply by every single person who knew him. I know I will often find myself thinking ‘Leo would have known what to do right now’ as I am sure will many others. For all of us, I hope that we have the strength to ask ourselves what Leo would have done and do just that. Because nothing can keep Leo’s spirit in a box: it lives on in every single one of us and it is now our responsibility to honour his memory.
Leo, you have left an irreplaceable void in our lives and we will miss you deeply. We hope we can always do right and make you proud. And until we see you next, let me end by saying what you would have said: cheers buddy!