Friday, June 06, 2008

So Long, Smith

I was notified by email yesterday that Smith Kirkpatrick has passed away. His daughters, Anna Marie and Katie, were at his bedside, and it seems to have been a peaceful event. Plans for a funeral and wake are unclear, but his ashes will be taken "to Arkansas to be scattered among the mountains."

Rick Barnett writes: "I am grateful to have known him and had the chance to learn from him...Truly, 'history {including our own} is in the hands of grace.' I will be out of town next week, but I hope for the chance to be with you and the others at some point to give our Old Pilot a proper wake and remembrance."

Old Pilot. Ain't that the truth. And, indeed, he was a pilot, for either the Merchant Marine or the Navy, during WWII.

When I visited last month, I hadn't seen him in about 18 years, though he was never far from my thoughts. He's hoisted anchor now, but I'll try to keep him close. As I wrote Anna, "I can safely say he was the most important teacher in my life, and I'll miss him a lot."


I wanted to get this down while the details are still with me.

Anna called last week to relate the story of Kirk's exit. Initially she was going to email but, with the event so fresh upon her, decided it would be too much of a labor. And, indeed, I was glad she picked up the phone. Nuances are missed in an email; voice inflections are sounds to see by. It was good to hear her, and the story from his own flesh and blood.

Early in his last week he spent a couple of miserable days and nights without sleep as it seemed his lungs were filling up. In her words, they "sounded so liquidy I thought he was going to drown." Her own and her sister's efforts availed nothing, so the hospice lady was called in to "work her magic." And what magic was that? I asked. Positioning, she said...and drugs. At last he was able to sleep, even if only fitfully, but the two days without it had exhausted him. Gradually he regained some strength, but they could see that a corner had been turned. Up next to his hospice bed they shoved another, so that someone was always beside him, and he did not have to sleep alone. He was surrounded now, day and night, by family - I remember her mentioning various cousins - touching him, stroking, punctuated by little effusions of spoken love, for Smith himself could no longer speak, his efforts emerging in wheezy whispers that others understood only with great difficulty, and sometimes not at all. At night, Anna fell asleep with her hand on his chest, lest he slip away unnoticed. The last great effort he made was to reach an arm out to his grandson, Anna's son and just a young boy, presumably to embrace him, but I can't remember if it was accomplished. In the early morning hours he tried to speak. No one could understand him. Finally the word "paper" was deciphered, but they didn't know what he meant. Anna grabbed the newspaper and asked if this was what he wanted. He made a motion as if to write. She found a piece of paper and scrambled around looking for a pen. All she could find was a sharpie. She placed them in his hands. He could get down only two letters: W A. They finally figured out that it was a cry for water. He couldn't swallow (I had seen this myself during my visit) but, she said, "How do you deny him?" And so she held the glass of water to his lips. I didn't ask for the details of how this went. Not long thereafter his gaze became distant. She told him she loved him, but his attention was reluctant in its return. At this point (and I'm sorry I can't remember precisely what she told me) she either went outside to make a call to someone who needed to know what was happening, or was called by that someone. Katie, Anna's sister, was still beside him and watched him draw his last breath. "I got back inside," said Anna, "just in time to see the color leave his face."

They dressed him in one of his favorite shirts, a purple thing, and then lifted him from the hospice bed to another, the one in which he was born. And there he lay for twenty-four hours before the funeral home came to retrieve him. They watched it down the street till it was out of sight, waving all the while.

I remembered how Kirk would on occasion go all sentimental in conversation. We might be talking about the state of the arts, or politics, or any number of things, when suddenly he'd sidetrack into a story about how Anna or Katie (they were still little girls then) had suddenly, for no discernible reason, thrown their arms around him and said, "I love you Daddy," as little girls will. And Kirk would conclude this annoying diversion with, "That's what it's all about. It doesn't get any better than this." It was annoying until later I understood he didn't care about much else. The writing, the work, was important, but it wasn't what "It" is all about.

And how, I asked Anna, was she doing? Bittersweet, of course, missing him, but at the same time "excited for him." He was going off on this new journey that none of us know anything about.

All I could think about was her watching the color leave his face. I could still see him leaning against the desk at the front of the classroom in Anderson Hall back in 1968, the first time I ever saw him, his hair just starting to streak silver, bathing us in that perpetual smile - gentle, gracious, indulgent - and wondering aloud how many geniuses he had before him, which we greeted with a nervous titter.

"But most of all," said Anna (and finally I heard a hitch in her voice), "I just feel so lucky that he was my Dad."

It doesn't get any better than that, Kirk.


alaiyo said...

I am sorry to hear of this loss, Bill, for you and so many others. May God be glorified.


William Luse said...

Thanks, Beth.

Lydia McGrew said...

Rest eternal grant unto him, oh Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

William Luse said...

That's a nice thought, too.

Terry said...

I am so sorry, Bill. I will include him, his daughters, and all those he touched, in my prayers tonight.

William Luse said...

Thanks again.

alaiyo said...

Thanks for sharing this, Bill.

Lydia McGrew said...

Let's hear it for that last sip of water, and for all the other things they did, too.

Terry said...

How very lovely, and loving. They did well by their dad, as he had done well by them. While it made me cry to read, my heart was lifted when Anna said that she was "excited for him". Wonderful.

William Luse said...

did well by their dad

Yes. I don't know if she has any overtly professed religion, but she was there for him, and seems to hope for something beyond this vale.

Doesn't take much to get you crying, does it?