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Tom shut me out of his life for 10 years

March 10, 2022
Tom with his high school friends.

My brother Tom and I had not spoken for about 10 years.  He got tired of me: he was disabled with schizophrenia and agoraphobia, but damned intelligent, with a degree in English.  He believed in the concept of “voluntary simplicity,” of living well with little money.  A perfectionist, he didn’t like my pragmatic ways.  He was one of the last of his bohemian generation, one of the last who never sold out.  I, on the other hand, went to school, got a degree in pharmacy, worked a career to support my family.  I don’t remember why Tom finally had enough of me, but he was blunt.  I was working on a guitar solo in his small house in Missoula.

“Fuck you,” he said.  I put down Tom’s guitar.  My family and I stood.  We filed out in silence.

We drove away from his house and although I later tried to reestablish our friendship, it never took.   One time I sent Tom a message on a scrap of paper: just a scrawl telling him I loved him. He gave the scrawl back to me later without comment. We were still not friends. Another time I knocked on his back door. I opened the door and called his name. He hollered back, “what the hell do you WANT?” I asked him if he wanted me to leave him alone. He screamed back, “YES!”

In my basement, the other day, I found 31 color photos from early September, 1997. My brother Tom Struckman died then, 53 years old.  Tom had severe chest pain.  A couple weeks before that our nephew Geoff Angel telephoned me from Missoula that Tom asked him to return a copy of Adam Smith’s book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), usually abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations.  Tom was destitute, but was interested in wealth as a social phenomenon.  
[Wikipedia said Smith’s book “is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics. Smith is cited as the “father of modern economics” and is still among the most influential thinkers in the field of economics today.”]  Tom was good at using books for knowledge, for instruction.  Once he reviewed a book about swimming for The Whole Earth Review.   

Tom had gotten the book from a Missoula bookstore, but it was an abridged edition, so he was returning it. Geoff also helped Tom get a wool blanket for his bed to use as a mattress. His wooden bed had sublime, but simple, craftsmanship. It also had a plywood deck for sleeping.
            Like I said, Geoff called me from Missoula because Tom had complained of the severe chest pain that had lasted many days. He told me that Tom had taken so many over-the-counter pain remedies that his ears rang. Tom had no telephone, so I phoned the Missoula police to ask them to check on Tom. I got no report back, so I phoned the police again the next day. Someone there said that Tom told the police officer he was   “fine,” so the officer left.           

I called back to Geoff to tell Tom that a doctor at the emergency department could treat him with a drug. 

Later, Geoff told me that Tom said, “There’s a drug? Let’s go!” Soon he had been admitted for a heart attack that had destroyed about a third of his heart. The people in the ER told him that he had been misinformed about the drug. It was far too late, they said. No use giving him any hope, I thought. Anyway, I had been thinking morphine—palliation, not a clot-buster.
            Geoff visited Tom the next day in the hospital. Said Tom was hip to the pathophysiology of a myocardial infarct, but also turned on to the philosophical, wondering about losing a third of his heart, the center of his emotions. Tom dug the sound of his own heart on a doppler when he was undergoing tests.
            My nephew Jon Angel spoke to Tom in the hospital by phone and he said he seemed cheerful. 

I quickly telephoned Tom when I heard about Jon’s success, and Tom answered, “hello.”

 “Hello!” I said, “Tom it’s me! It’s Dan! How are you?” I heard a clunk, then a dial tone. Hurt my feelings, sank my hopes.
            That evening Jon told me he was going to Missoula with his 1-year-old son, Bradley, and he insisted I go along. “Well, he hung up on me,” I protested. But I went.
            We got to Tom’s house on Missoula’s north side the following afternoon. I knew Tom used chewing tobacco so I bought a generous supply of Copenhagen and Skoal as a gift.  

At Tom’s little house, we walked up to the back door.  Jon barged in without knocking, and I followed. I sat across the room from Tom who sat on his bed and to my surprise he didn’t object to my being there.. Turns out Tom dropped the phone in the hospital and didn’t know that it was me calling him. We talked. We reminisced about our days working for the Northern Pacific railroad. 

Tom didn’t want the chewing tobacco. “Causes heart attacks,” he said. He showed me his two medications: lisinopril and nitroglycerin tablets. Tom said he wouldn’t take the nitro because he wouldn’t need it. Tom said he tried to dig in his garden but he felt so short of breath and weak he had to stop.
            I promised Tom we would come back when he felt stronger. I was amazed that he was alive after such a massive heart attack. We shook hands all around and Tom made a saluting gesture toward me as we departed. I told him I was glad to be his friend again.  We didn’t embrace. We touched when we shook hands.
            We spent the night with my oldest son Todd who was staying by himself in Missoula because his fiancé was out of town. Jon and I slept in their bed and Bradley vomited on us in the night. The next day Bradley had such a foul-smelling diaper on the road back to Billings that I nearly vomited when we stopped near Big Timber. Nonetheless I was elated.
            Mark Fryberger phoned me a couple weeks later: “Tom died,” he said simply.
            Mark said he had had an extra cat and wanted to check with Tom to see if he was still between cats. When Mark looked through Tom’s back door window he thought he saw a scarecrow on the kitchen floor, so he opened the back door. Then Mark called the police. I thanked Mark.
            Our daughter Clara was home with me and we cried. Later that day Todd phoned me. He had helped put Tom’s body in a metal box with rubber seals. Tom’s body was decomposed, full of maggots, putrid smelling. Todd said he went to Tom’s and encountered a pair of guys from a mortuary who told him to go home and leave everything to them. 

Todd said he started to leave, then realized he didn’t have to do as they said. In the end Todd stayed at Tom’s until late, scrubbing the floor, then scrubbing the steps leading into the cellar. Tom’s body had lain on the trapdoor.
            I started to ask Todd if the body could have belonged to someone else, but he quickly disavowed me of that. Much later, I asked Todd about his experience. He said he felt it was an intimate experience with Tom and a great honor and responsibility. Perhaps that is why Todd eventually studied medicine after completing his master’s in fine arts in poetry.
            Todd asked us to come to Missoula because he didn’t want to spend a night home alone after cleaning up Tom’s house. We drove to Missoula that night. At Tom’s some scented candles were still burning throughout the house. It had the cloying putrid smell of death. A rubber glove lay on the ground near the gate to Tom’s backdoor. We snuffed the candles.
            The next day I walked over to Mike Fiedler’s house to tell him the news. I made numerous phone calls.
            We phoned lots of family and friends to tell them about Tom. Tom’s daughter, Hannah, was angry with me for not telling her when Tom had the heart attack. Lots of family came to Missoula. My sister and her family from Nebraska. Hannah and her family from Yakima, Washington. People from Missoula. Our aunt Corinne from Kalispell. Todd’s siblings from Berkeley and Billings.
            Most stayed with Geoff, except Hannah and her family stayed at a motel downtown. We ended up sending most of Tom’s stuff home with her and her husband Jason in a rented truck. Other stuff got divided up among everyone else.
            The 31 photographs show what Tom’s house looked like before we emptied it. Tom had been a recluse for nearly 20 years, living with schizophrenia, untreated. He was a voracious reader. He made cassette tapes for his nephews. He raised vegetables, he made things in his wood shop.  He kept meticulous lists of the songs on each of the cassette tapes, so to avoid sending duplicates.
            Todd said Tom’s desk light was on when he died. Looked like he had been applying for heat aid when he walked into his kitchen and collapsed on the floor. His body was spread eagle. We could see his imprint on the linoleum where Todd had scrubbed with an abrasive cleanser.

Tom's image showed as a light-colored area on his floor.

Tom’s image showed as a light-colored area on his floor.

            Tom’s life was remarkable for a number of reasons. He lived humbly, yet had a monumental ego. He told me that he didn’t believe in God’s existence, but took responsibility himself. “Isn’t that noble?” he asked. He was well-educated, not quite achieving a master’s in English from Eugene at the University of Oregon. I think I’ll write more about Tom later. He was 5 years older than I, prone to pummeling me, but he inspired many. He lived with a certain elusive feeling. He read a book about swimming, then used it to learn to swim. He did the same with drawing, skating, riding a bike, juggling, building musical instruments, carving classical statues from soap, and playing classical guitar.

The next night we prepared a meal in Tom's kitchen to remember him.  From L:  Mike Fiedler, Jason Wild, Hannah B. Wild,  their son Jacob, Bob Struckman (with back to camera) and Penny.

The next night we prepared a meal in Tom’s kitchen to remember him. From L: Mike Fiedler, Jason Wild, Hannah B. Wild, their son Jacob, Bob Struckman (with back to camera) and Penny.

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