I was with Tom yesterday morning when he died. I didn’t expect to be. His wife, Cindy, had called me at 4:30 a.m. to say he was breathing his last, so I took her at her word. I asked Cindy if it was OK if I didn’t come over, and she said yes, that she just wanted me to know. She added that she’d just called hospice to come to confirm his passing.
So imagine my surprise four hours later when I arrived at the apartment and found that Tom was still with us. Being the stubborn cuss that he was, his “last breath” was a very long one. I sat quietly with Cindy and Tom’s son, Mark, for a while, and it was then that Tom’s big heart finally quit pumping. Mark whispered, “I think he’s gone,” and indeed he was.
What a moment. I haven’t fully processed it. Other than the urinary catheter a nurse had inserted a few days earlier, his death was as natural as if he’d left the room and quietly shut the door behind him. He was here, and then he was gone. The morphine obviously helped, and I have no doubt the end would not have been so serene without it. But Tom was at home, where he wanted to be, with friends and family, and the sky outside was a brilliant blue—like any number of carefree days when he as a kid exploring the woods near his home in Alsea. It was a great day to die.
We’ll be celebrating Tom’s life in a few days, probably after he is buried with full military honors at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland. Like so many who served in Vietnam, Tom’s life was disfigured by his war experiences. It was something he didn’t like to talk about, and yet he proudly wore his Marine vet medals. Life has its contradictions, and Tom certainly had his. He was a man of duty, a man with feet of clay, and ultimately a man of honor.