While driving yesterday I was thinking about how to write this update. I imagined I would start with the words "Dear Friends," but every time I think those words, the lines of the chorus of "Canaan's Land" pop into my head.
I'm not sure how to explain how my father is doing. People want to hear good news, but my father is changed. My father has been unable to read for several years; to listen and comprehend things for several months. Will you be surprised when I tell you that he has conversations, in his babble- language, with dream-people? Or that when I am visiting him, he forgets that I am there? My father is gone, though the person that lives in his body has many of his traits. Will you understand if I tell you he has begun calling me "Tommy Thompson," or if I tell you that the name "Tommy Thompson" is the only coherent utterance he can make now?
Helplessness itself is unproductive. We have a hard time being helpless, and we invent hundreds of ways to keep from feeling it. A few examples: we can deny tragedies, we can blame them on ourselves or others, we can endow ourselves with, or project healing powers onto others that they do not really have. Whatever mental tricks it takes to keep from admitting that some things are beyond our control. To me, helplessness is like "the valley of the shadow of death." It must be passed through on the way to a better place. If all the king's horses and all the king's men cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again, what can we do?
If my father were watching this whole experience, he would surely ask what is the light that comes out of the darkness? What is the light? What is the light of the torches our parents pass on to us? What is our job to do with the torches?
At the invitation of my father's high school and college friend, Harley Henry, I attended my father's (and mother's) forty-fifth high school reunion in Jacksonville Beach, Florida in late June. Harley and my parents were friends since at least the eighth grade. Harley is a very smart person who has been generous like an angel to my family since his and my parent's college years. Harley retired from teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN (my alma mater) and moved back to Atlantic Beach Florida where he grew up.
After WWII, my father's family settled near to Harley, and they went to school together. It turned out that Harley and my father shared exactly the same birthdate, having been born not very far from each other, Harley in southwestern Pennsylvania and my father in western West Virginia. Harley's family and my father's family were also both members of St. Paul's by the Sea Episcopal Church in Jacksonville Beach.
When my parents' class graduated
from Fletcher High School, Harley went off to Kenyon College, and dad to
the University of Florida on a football scholarship. My grandfather Thompson
was very proud of his son the football player, and had high hopes for his
football career. Dad must have been inspired by Harley's intellectual pursuits,
and his reports from Kenyon. Dad greatly disappointed his father by giving
up his football scholarship in Florida and accepting one at Kenyon. I think
the problem for my grandfather must have been that dad would not be scouted
for pro-football there as he might have been in Florida. Kenyon probably
did not have Florida's reputation for producing pro-football players, though
dad did become captain of the football team at Kenyon. My dad was rejecting
his father's black and white world. At Kenyon, dad further deepened the
gulf of misunderstanding with his father by majoring in philosophy, the
ultimate exploration of gray-area.
While at Kenyon, my dad became engaged to my mother, a Duke art student. She, too, was from Atlantic Beach, Florida, and she had also attended Fletcher High School. My mother's father, frontiersman Colonel Sydenham, was retired from the army with high-blood pressure sometime in the mid-forties. He and his second wife, my mother's mother Zelma, an operating room nurse, had moved to Atlantic Beach. For the rest of my grandmother's life, Harley's mother and my grandmother were neighbors and friends.
At Harley and my parents' forty-fifth reunion, Harley made sure I had some wise advice and good suggestions about caring for dad and myself. He made sure I had a chance to meet and talk with some of my parents' high school cohort. Harley also took me to see my mother's grave, and my father's parents' graves.
Harley gave me an opportunity to view "Berkeley in the Sixties," a documentary videotape. I saw how the denial and suppression of an academic peace and justice movement pushed some very fortunate sons and daughters into leading radical actions that were hard for their elders to understand.
How that made me think about my generation: people born in the early sixties and our response to the things we saw in the media. Innocent men and women beaten and killed by police for demanding justice. It also made me think about the ways our parents reacted to their parents, their parents who were the in authority in the armed forces during WWII and our grandparents who experienced, who saw overwhelming and tremendous evidence of man's inhumanity to man when Hitler's concentration camps were liberated. They must have been asking, as we now ask ourselves, how there could be a God who allows such cruelty to exist? I know that the effect on me of one or two losses has been great. I wonder what the effects of the Holocaust really are on our collective hearts and minds.
When Harley took me to the airport to fly home, I asked him what he thought about the current generation in college. "Scared," he said. "So afraid that that they do not want to think. They want to KNOW without thinking. When they come to college, they say they already know what they think. They study alternative points of view only so that they can say they have studied them, and dismiss them."
As I write this I am stunned. Harley is right. This is why I encounter so little tolerance for an open mind in the world. Many people are scared. Yes, it is a dangerous world, and it is much safer to know than to explore.
I too am frightened, but it is a different kind of fear. I remember as a child that my grandparents disapproved of our lifestyle. I remember that my mother told me not to talk with the employees at Duke Press where she worked. I remember also that the police were sometimes at our door, taking away driver's licenses. I remember that they had the power to take my parents from me. I remember that they were also the people in the news beating heads in the street with billy-clubs. I did not learn that God loves us, I learned that we were disliked by our God-fearing neighbors.
My dad has moved into a new stage of his disease. He has artistic disagreements with people that are not there. He is angry. He fights. I am only a witness, I am not responsible.
Now I think of the words of those gospel hymns we often sang for the music, but denying the words. Those words aren't bad. We have to look at them again. "I'm on my way to Canaan's Land, where the soul never dies, where all is joy and peace and love, where the soul never dies." Maybe that's where dad is headed. Maybe he will find peace there with all those who have passed on before him. Maybe we will join him there too someday. I believe that. Not the way I believe in tectonic plates and evolution. More like the way I believe I will wake up tomorrow. The faith of our fathers shouldn't help us deny and condemn. It should help us love fearlessly. I think my parents would be proud it they knew that was the way I perceived the torches they handed off to me.
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Tommy's section of the site, the following pages
are also related to Jesse and Tommy:
Blurred Time "The Sleeper": the aftermath of Jesse and Bobbie's car accident
Mike Craver's "Visiting Tommy"
Roots of the Red Clay Ramblers:
Fuzzy Mountain String Band: Jesse's mom, Bobbie, recorded with Rambler Bill Hicks and others
Hollow Rock String Band: Tommy and Bobbie Thompson named this band for their community
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September 15, 2000