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Cloying smell of death. April 6 is bitter sweet for me.

April 6, 2021
Tom poses for a picture with two of our children. He lived across the alley from the train yard in Missoula.


My brother Tom would be 77 today if he had survived the heart attack he had in August 1997 in Missoula.  In his Northside house where he collapsed on the floor, alone. 

Our friend Mark Fryberger discovered his body, perhaps a week or two later, badly decomposed.  Mark said he looked through Tom’s kitchen window and thought he saw a scarecrow on the floor, at first.

Our oldest son Todd helped a couple of professionals clean up the mess, putting the remains into a metal box with a rubber seal.  The peculiar cloying smell permeated everything.  Todd bought a bunch of scented candles and placed them all around the kitchen.  He scrubbed the floor with Ajax.  This removed the design from the linoleum, so that a body-shaped image remained on the floor.  A spread-eagle image of Tom’s body. Later I snapped a photo.

Todd much later wrote a poem about this experience, part of earning a master’s in creative writing at the University of Montana.  Then he studied medicine at the University of Washington and became an emergency room doctor.

We drove to Missoula after Todd phoned us, saying he didn’t want to be alone with the trauma of the intense experience. 

Tom’s Northside Missoula neighborhood was dark, but we saw candlelight flickering through the kitchen window of Tom’s house.  I picked up a discarded rubber glove from the gravel path as we walked past Tom’s old blue volkswagen.  The first thing I noticed was Tom’s stove with its electric frying pan next to it.  Tom inherited the pan from our mother.  The stove had several scented candles aflame.

Mark Fryberger had visited Tom to see if he wanted to adopt a cat; in his words, to see if he was “between cats.”

I didn’t see the image of Tom on the floor because Todd had thrown down an old rug to hide it, presumably.  We didn’t linger in the house with its stench of death.  We piled back into the car to head across the river to visit Todd, to stay up with him.

Next day we checked into a motel near the Safeway store where I plugged up the toilet.  The manager thought I was joking and the next person to flush flooded the floor.

Nobody touched any of Tom’s stuff in his kitchen, except we pulled away the rug that hid Tom’s image on the floor.

I didn’t hang around.  I asked around, found Mike Fiedler’s house, begged him to come with me.  Of course he did.  I also phoned Tom’s daughter Hannah.  She was angry because I hadn’t told her about Tom’s heart attack, even though I knew about it several days before he died.  

She wanted to burn Tom’s bed.  Tom built the bed himself, about the size of a cot.  Nobody wanted to burn the bed because the workmanship of the simple construction was excellent.  We gave it to Mike Fiedler who took it home.

Many years later Fryberger and I were searching for Fiedler near South Fifth Street.  We drove down the alley and spied Tom’s bed, still in good shape.  Sure enough, Fiedler was in the house and he received us with much joy.

Two days later, after Hannah and her family arrived in Missoula, we had a feast in Tom’s house, even though the stench of death permeated everything. From Left, Michael Fiedler, Jason Wild, Hannah and Jacob, Penny, and Todd (with his back to the camera).

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