Watsonville, California, June-Jul 1998
Tom called from Boise to say that Dad was in Saint Luke’s hospital Intensive Care Unit (ICU) following a heart attack. It was a shock, given the apparent cardiac fitness that he had maintained for years through the upper body exertion of hand-splitting firewood, particularly during the previous autumn. On the other hand, his recent exertion had decreased markedly, as had his remaining expectations of himself. His final four projects could be checked off the list as far as he was concerned.
1. He had built a “dream cabin in the wilderness,” something he had been talking about as long as I can remember. Though in public he was a reliable friend to many, an attentive listener, a leader when leadership was required, a hail-fellow-well-met and all that, he had an intensely private core built on a first-hand acquaintance with tragedy and a self-sufficiency that enabled his default state of being alone, even while living with Mom for convenience and the comfort of proximity, though not intimacy. She was by far his longest-running best friend. The “cabin” design grew into a 3600 square foot, three-story log house (including the full basement), 25 miles out of Boise, and only a couple hundred feet from the nearest neighbor, whose place you could plainly see beyond the knoll from the upstairs bathroom window. It enabled his retirement to include freedom from activities and connections in town, nearly to the extent of his becoming a hermit. People and groceries came to him. Co-designers, Tom and Jill, came up with their kids, time permitting, making use of their residential suite on the top floor. Frances and I made the trek several summers running, bringing family kids with us and tidings of our activities. Dad’s sisters and their kids and grandkids made memorable pilgrimages to The Point on occasion. And Mom and Dad’s golden (50th) wedding anniversary was celebrated up there in 1995, punctuated with a feast of golden delights that Jill conceived and managed, executed with Tom’s able assistance, followed by our live string quartet music and hours of congenial talk. The “cabin” in the wilderness – in the eight square mile, euphemistic “Wilderness Ranch” development – could be checked off Dad’s bucket list.
2. He had completed a first draft of his autobiography and given copies to Tom and me. At 240 pages, it was very detailed in places, with sections exceptionally well written. Following The Golden Rule, I had taken notes while reading it, and had discussed them with him. Beyond typos and a few ambiguities, I mentioned his avoidance of a particularly painful subject in his life: the never-resolved distance and coolness that had grown between him and his father, Herb Tompkins, following the unraveling of Jim’s belief in Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. Herb was a Fundamentalist who could never reconcile an eternal disparity between himself and his only son, in whom he and the local Baptist Church in Portland had had such high evangelical hopes in the 1930s and ‘40s. I also mentioned to my dad his avoidance of topics with emotional context within the family he sired. His answer was that the purpose of the autobiography was not to rehash events of which we have memories of our own, but to chronicle the evolution of his faith, first in his natal family, then in Christianity, then in technical business, then in the art of teaching … as his career compass swung toward science. He felt that he had done an adequate job in the draft he shared with us, and he would leave well enough alone.
3. He had raised his children – two sons – to be good citizens, with a sense of right and wrong, not requiring lock-up in any prison or mental ward, married, and with thoughtful children of our own. Another job well done, he figured, even though the children, wives and grandchildren trended Left of his political Right. It was not long after Dad died that Mom confided in me that for decades she had listened patiently to Jim’s lectures at the supper table and by the fireside about the decay of the nation he loved, that was built on principles that could stand the test of time if given half a chance by subordinating government to the maximized Freedom of the Individual, which should be limited only as far as necessary to prevent the “Tyranny of the Majority” and to block existential threats from wherever it may come. Then she went on to say that in all those elections in which she and Dad had proudly cast their ballots as a civic duty, ostensibly as a like-minded block, she had actually voted as a liberal, often negating his vote. Well, he stayed with the Republicans until their platform on social issues morphed into the undermining of a woman’s freedom to do with her body as she and her doctor think best, the undermining of everyone’s right to die when and how he sees fit, and creating a crazy costly war on drugs. “It is none of the government’s damn business what pill I choose to take or what I choose to smoke as long as I do not endanger others or infringe on their freedom.” Whereupon he switched to voting Libertarian.
4. He had set up a family living trust with sufficient investments, including the house and property at The Point, that Mom should be able to live out her years in comfort. That had entailed intentional deprivation over the years that I remember now in its long-range context. We went to few movies when I was a kid, rarely ate out, and generally chose the low-cost solution when facing a choice. Except when it came to tools. Not a bad way to live. In fact Dad informed me that during all their working years, he and she saved about half of their modest incomes, he in his dozen years with Remington, then Sperry-Rand Univac, plus two and a half decades in teaching at Boise State University; and she in nursing, then in public elementary school teaching, and in giving private piano lessons.
So, Frances and I arrived in Boise after driving fast and nearly non-stop. We were promptly briefed with a status update as the family convened at the hospital: the two of us and my son Gabriel, plus Tom, Jill and their elementary school kids, Kevin and Amy. Dad was reclining in a pumped-up ICU bed with all the bells and whistles. A little balloon had been inserted through blood vessels into his heart that helped it run more efficiently than it had for many moons.
He was cheerful and energetic now, with adequate oxygen supporting robust brain functions, and he temporarily put up with the tubes and wires that kept him confined to his thrown, as we commoners petitioned for his thoughts.
Nurses came and went, fussed over his vital signs, and clearly enjoyed his attentions and witty word games with their names. A cardiologist came and explained in simple terms the nature of the critical, untreated cardiac blockage and the risk of more to come. He emphasized that bypass surgery of multiple arteries would have a high probability of success. But he was thorough enough to including a warning that Dad’s kidneys were running at low efficiency and that dialysis might be required for the remainder of his life if they failed completely following the heart surgery.
That was all Dad needed to hear. There would be no surgery. He would go home as soon as possible. For the hospital, that meant he had to stabilize in their care, to be discharged with a feeble cardiac muscle. For him, it meant undertaking his final task: departing from this life in the company of his loving wife in the promontory home he had built in the hills outside Boise.
The rest of us considered this turn of events, each in his own way. Young Kevin was particularly upset, saying, “Grampa, don’t you love us? Don’t you want to see us grow up?” Dad went into the patronizing act we had seen him play occasionally over the years, particularly toward his sisters and mother, and sometimes my mom, expressing appreciation for other people’s sentiments, without walking in their moccasins. He stood his ground through a bit more pleading, reminding us that everyone must live and be answerable to himself, and that he had been orienting toward his own end for years now. No fear, no regret, just another phase. If his time was coming, so be it. The doctors could not say when that would be. So let’s rejoice in the time we still have. No sad faces. “Besides, this place is expensive. It’s the old man or the heritance!”
Without hesitation, Frances quipped, “Pull the plug.”
Dad and I burst out laughing. The life-or-death thickness in the room evaporated. But the kids, with shocked and puzzled expressions, were still comprehending, processing how even this grave moment could be leavened with a deft stroke of humor from the old man’s daughter-in-law who knew, without a second thought, when the time was right.
A day or two later, when Frances and I came back to see him, he was in a convalescing room with hardly any devices hooked up to him. What a difference, like half the previous steam had escaped from his boiler. Eyes not so bright, voice not so strong.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m doing fine, but with less oxygen to sustain my brain.”
“Any second thoughts about the bypass option?”
“So, when do you expect they’ll let you go home?”
“Oh, another day or two. They just don’t want me to die in the wheelchair on the way out to the car. It wouldn’t look good on their records.” A little chuckle.
“Well, I won’t be able to wait in Boise, need to get back to work at California. When will we see each other again?”
“Come back to Boise for Thanksgiving, that’s only five months. I will have recovered some of my strength by then.”
“How are you going to recover? Diet? Exercise?”
“I’m healing my heart … the way I healed my brain, nerves and other tissues after the accident in 1937. And I’m giving up peanut butter.”
“Peanut butter?! But you’re not much overweight.”
“I’m not burning calories the way I did when I was splitting firewood last fall. But I’m already exercising, see?” He reached out his right arm toward the table near the bed, clenched his fist and flexed his bicep. “I did that 10 times on the first try, 20 times on the second try. Pretty soon I’ll be up to 100.”
“OK, that’s good, keep it up.”
Then we fell silent. What more was there to say? Would I ever see him again? What insights from our shared journey and his wisdom might I miss if I left now? Was there anything he should know about me? Could any words convey as much value as the time he spent showing me how to make a big kite out of a bed sheet when I was seven years old, for example? Or how to integrate the physics of the Model T Ford spark coil he gave me as a kid into what I already knew about electricity? I had an expectation of special significance for this hospital moment, but creating significance seemed out of reach.
I moved toward him and bent down for an embrace. To my surprise he put his lips directly on mine for a brief kiss. It had been many years since we kissed like that, maybe all the way back to my childhood when it was part of my bedtime ritual with both Mom and Dad. Maybe he learned a certain intimacy from the Irish half of his mother, my Grandma Grace, who was perhaps Frances’s favorite relative on my side of our marriage.
Now our embrace extended for more than the usual few seconds of recent years. It was an unspoken good-bye and a shared understanding that some of the most potent and specific communication is non-verbal. The release of that embrace was also a mutual encouragement to go our separate ways and do the best we can until we meet again in the flesh or in the spirit of living memory.
As I backed away, he said, “See you for Thanksgiving.”
I nodded Yes, turned, and walked into my future.
In writing this little chapter of my story, I feel that we have indeed met again.
Nor is this the end. When I sing his poem to my music, or hear a recording, our paths cross again. Thanks, “Old Pal“.