Occasionally, tragic loss can lead us to places we haven’t been before and out of those experiences the healing process can begin. Such is the case with the gentle spirited politician Paul Formica. Paul is the First Selectman of East Lyme, Connecticut and a widow since 2009, when he lost his best friend. Paul and Donna met while she was working at the Lyme Tavern owned by his uncle, and he had come to town to oversee a new venture his uncle was starting.
“We fell in love and never looked back,” says Paul. They got married September 11, 1982 and began their life together. They opened Flanders Fish Market and Restaurant in East Lyme in 1983, and in 1984 began their family when their son was born.
“We kind of brought the kids into the business as soon as they were released from the hospital so she could work,” says Paul.
Donna used to bring the bassinet in and put it on the counter and it was clearly a family business They daughters arrived in the years to follow. As the kids grew older, they bussed tables and worked in the restaurant. They were involved in the community with Donna a great homemaker and mother, serving on the PTO at school and working at the fish market on weekends. Paul says it was her therapy to work on Friday nights.
“Donna had a wonderful personality, meeting people and speaking with them. She brought people together. She was kind of the maestro of the dining room, and I really think she was the reason for our success.”
Eventually he took an interest in zoning issues in town and ended up serving eight years on the zoning commission, followed by eight years on the Board of Finance.
In January 2007 he started planning a trip to Italy in October to celebrate his and Donna’s 25th wedding anniversary, wanting to surprise her with the trip of a lifetime. He planned for them to renew their vows at St. Peter’s Basilica, and to visit Paris, and Sicily where his grandparents were from. When he started Italian lessons in January, she thought he’d lost his mind.
In June of that year, he was asked to run for first selectman. But with the election scheduled for early November which was right around the time of his trip to Italy, he initially declined to run. He yielded to persuasion, but still took the trip. When Governor Rell came to town in support, his supporters viewed a video taped apology for his absence to his constituents, which Paul delivered in Italian. He won that election, and enjoyed great support from the community as he was re-elected. In early December 2009, Donna attended his inauguration and his term began. They got through the craziness of the holidays and with her doctors insisting there was nothing to worry about, she went about feeling not quite herself. Paul awoke around 5 a.m. the day after Christmas and found her on the living room floor. She was gone.
“Our kids, then 19-26 years old, were devastated as I was. She was my best buddy,” said Paul.
Their youngest daughter had just finished her first semester of college at UCONN and they were empty nesters ready to rekindle their romance. During that semester, Donna accompanied Paul to a conference in San Antonio. While he attended the seminar she looked around the shops, and at night they enjoyed each other’s company and went out for dinner. They loved being together.
“Since she’s passed away I’ve encouraged my married friends to stop once in a while and hold each other’s hands,” said Paul. “Go for a trip, go for a walk. Do something for each other.”
Asked what his fondest memories of Donna are, he says,” her spirit, her love of life, her ability with people, her complete, absolute faith and support of me and the kids. There was no greater advocate for us than her. And she was my best friend. We just wanted to spend as much time together as possible. I don’t think we said a cross word to each other in the time we were together.”
Since then, life has been very difficult with a tremendous void in their lives. She was 56 years old when she died and it’s been a difficult transition for all of them. Paul is determined to get through it and to support the children in their process. He has dated a little, and had one “fairly long term relationship”, but that didn’t survive the pressures of replacing the irreplaceable.
In 2010, in an effort to help the healing process, the family got involved in the Rocky Neck Heart Walk.
“The community wanted to do something for us and there’s only so many meatloaves you can eat,” says Paul. “The community rallied around this Heart Walk. We ended up with a number of wraparound events that led up to the walk in October 2010. We raised money and people got involved. Three hundred and fifty members of the team walked that day. It was an important part of the healing process.”
One of those wraparound events was a dance event at Arthur Murray Dance Studio. He had gone to other events but remembers being petrified of going to this one, not wanting to have to dance with anybody. He and Donna had tried to take lessons off and on over the years, but life got in the way and they never finished. He always thought he had two left feet. He got up his nerve and attended the fund raiser at Arthur Murray and was invited back for free lessons.
“They talked me into it,” says Paul. “It was kind of a way to get back into the world again. I started dancing and I’ve been dancing there a couple times a week ever since, learning the basic steps to the Rumba, Salsa, Tango and Swing. I ended up getting involved with this wonderful community of young people, a completely new group of friends.”
Since then over the past two years he developed a particular passion for the Argentine Tango.
“I don’t know why. I just love this dance.”
He began taking lessons specifically for that dance and has participated in a couple of showcase events dancing in front of 200 people. He recently returned from Argentina where he spent a week immersed in the culture, dancing the Argentine Tango each night.
“I’ve been blessed with an enormous amount of friends. But this is a whole different community and a passion I’ve never expected to have in my life. It’s given me something to grab on to. When I go into my lessons, it’s like nothing in the world exists except for that dance, for 45 minutes. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to get lost in my thoughts.”
He speaks of his trip to Buenos Aries with fondness. “They dance the Milonga at 2 a .m., and the really good dancers come out around 3 and I wouldn’t dance then. I just watched these wonderful dancers. The culture and lifestyle… you just become part of it. I can’t wait to go back. I can’t wait to get better. It’s been a wonderful resource in the healing process. I credit the good folks at Arthur Murray. I just love the Argentine tango. I just love the music, the feel of it, the tradition, the culture, the subtleness of every move. The slight movement of your foot or twitch of your shoulder makes all the difference. When you dance the Argentine tango you have three minutes with your partner and that’s all that matters, is the dance. It is a whole culture I find fascinating. I’ve never been so passionate about anything like this dance in my life. I’m hoping to get better. It honors Donna’s memory a little bit because of those lessons we never did. And it’s a way to heal.”
Paul feels fortunate to have been re-elected, and is currently running for state senate for the 20th district.
“I’m trying to move on to the next step. We’re getting stronger as a family. I’m finding that the hole that was created with this loss gets filled with love and laughter. I’m able to have this relationship with my children that I wouldn’t have had. Until I get to the other side I won’t understand what God’s will with this thing was. When you stop to think about it, life’s pretty good, but I miss my buddy.”