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Sunday, July 07, 2013

Robert Haydon DeWolfe

The first time Rob made a pastoral call to my home was late June of 1981.

He was coming to convince Ms. Conroy and me to become members of his church in Saco, ME where he would baptize our newborn child.

The Cathedral where we were members was in transition and things were not going well at the time. We didn't know what the interim - or some of the more conservative members of the congregation - might do about baptizing the child of these two women who always sat off to the side with all these kids and no man in sight.  One of the women we had asked to be a godparent was a member of Rob's congregation and had convinced us that we should at least meet each other.

Moi, Rob and Ms. Conroy. Rob's 40th b'day
It was 10 o'clock in the morning. All the children - except the baby, of course - were off at Summer Camp. Ms. Conroy was on the sofa, having just been released from hospital after having fallen down a flight of stairs at work and broken her back in three places.

My ex-husband was furious that the children had announced that they did not want to go back with him and his new wife and her children at the end of the summer. The children wanted to stay with us. We were Really Afraid he might do something stupid.  We had more than a few phone calls with him that peaked our suspicions.

I thought I had recognized his car, parked down the street. We were nervously watching the car from the window.

Rob came into the house, decked out in a black clergy shirt and crisp blue pinstriped seersucker suit, looking for all the world like a proper Episcopal priest in the heat of a Maine summer. Oh, and he was very handsome, too.

Ever observant, Rob immediately noticed the tension in the air. "What's going on here?" he asked.

Ms. Conroy reached under the sofa, pulled out a baseball bat, handed it to him and said, "We think Elizabeth's ex-husband may be watching us. If he comes to the door, you answer it, and if he makes any false moves, hit him with this."

"JESUS CHRIST!" Rob yelled.

He took the bat, sat down on the chair next to the wood stove, patted his brow with his handkerchief and said, "Well, I knew this would be an interesting pastoral call, but, you know, I have a strange feeling that this may just be the start of a long relationship."

He was absolutely right.

Turns out, the car didn't belong to my ex-husband, but we did become members of Rob's church. He baptized our child along with our good friend, Brooke Alexander, the first woman ordained in the Diocese of Maine and thus began our long, rich, riotous, loving, amazingly wonderful relationship.

Over the years and the many stories we had to tell about each other, the one of our first meeting remained one of Rob's absolute favorites. Except, he told it far, far better than I.

I won't be hearing him tell that story again.

I received an email message yesterday from one of his friends in Thailand that Rob had apparently suffered a heart attack early in the day which had proven to be fatal.

I have been practically inconsolable.

I  have had telephone conversations with his daughter and son, his ex-wife, his brother, and a former mutual colleague.  It's been awful to have to break the news to them, but there is something wonderfully consoling about sharing your grief with people who loved Rob as much as I did.

Rob with Mickey-D in Pattaya
Rob was a true eccentric. Quirky, in a sometimes maddening, sometimes wonderfully humorous way.

I think his son looked at him as a creature from another planet, in another galaxy, far, far away.

Rob loved both his children with all his heart. Indeed, when he and his wife divorced, they lived at opposite ends of the same town and the kids spent part of their week with both their parents.

That limited Rob's employment possibilities and, for a time, he worked at Macy's to be able to care for his children. But, he did it.  "At Macy's," he'd say, "Special people care for special customers. When have you ever heard THAT in church?"

When his son Tom was in Iraq, Rob would write me that his prayer for his son was to sing that song from Les Miz, Bring him home. "That song and my tears are the only way I can pray," he'd say.

I went to visit him last March and spent three weeks with him in Thailand. He had retired and moved there seven years ago after serving churches almost a decade in Hawai'i. Before that, he served several churches in Maine and Vermont.

I asked him, once, while we were together in Thailand, why in the world he, a boy from Vermont, decided to move to a steamy hot tropical country with little of the "modern conveniences" of "home".  If finances were a concern, I told him that he could certainly afford to live in DE on his pension. I was sure it was as small as mine, since he had always served small, rural congregations.

He assured me that the economy was such that he could live quite well in Thailand. That was pretty clear to me after only a few days. I don't think I ever paid more than $2.50 for a full, two course meal. My one room apartment - with AC - cost $300 for the three weeks I was there.

"Cheap as chips" as Rob would say.

I pressed him on how he could live so far away from his family. Why Thailand, for goodness sake? And, why so many trips to Cambodia and Viet Nam?

Rob looked away for a long time. When he looked back, his eyes were filled with tears.

"You know I was a soldier in Nam," he said.

"Yes, of course," I said, "I love the stories you have told me about being the Chaplain's assistant."

"Well," he said, "I wasn't always assistant to the Chaplain......"

Another long pause. A tear ran down his cheek. After all these years, and all we had been through together, it was the first time I had seen him cry.

"I have a lot to atone for for Viet Nam," he said.

And then, he said no more.

I understood. And, I didn't.

Rob and his beloved Parn
I made a mental note to leave the conversation there and pick it up again on our next visit.

Somethings just get buried with us when we die.

Perhaps that's for the best.

For now, while I'm waiting for the US Embassy in Bangkok to call me about ..... "the disposition of the body".... (Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!) I'm allowing memories to cascade over the eyes of my heart, which brings me great solace and comfort.

Like: The first post-divorce Thanksgiving dinner in the rectory where Rob insisted on cooking EVERYTHING, but forgot to buy potatoes, so he opened a can of boiled potatoes and tried to mash them. "They'll be fine with butter and milk, salt and pepper," he kept assuring us.

They weren't.

Even thought the turkey was fine, we never let him forget those horrid potatoes.  Ever.

Whenever he would say, "Oh, it will be fine," I'd say, "Oh, right! Like those mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. Sure! Sure!"

Like: The camping trip we went on when, at the last minute, Rob decided to join us and had to sleep in an extra pup tent and one of the kids' sleeping bags. Rob, his feet sticking out of the end of the tent, called out, "Night, Jim Bob. Night, Sue Ellen. . . . . .". Pretty soon, the entire camp ground was chiming in. And, everyone in every last tent and pop up camper giggled hysterically in the darkness.

And then, of course, it rained, and since Rob's tent had not been treated with water repellent, he had to join us in the pop up camper. At 3 o'clock in the morning. On a mat in the floor. He barely had room to turn. We giggled and laughed and snorted until 5 AM.

And then there was the time I visited him while he was in Hawai'i. I was upset. Grieving. Weeping. Inconsolable.  Rob was holding me as we sat on his sofa. It got to be late. "I have to go to bed," said Rob. "Oh, okay. I'll be okay," I said, lying through my teeth.

Suddenly, Rob got up, went out of the room and came back with a pair of brand new pajamas, still in the plastic packaging. He held them up and said, "THIS, is how much I love you!"

"Whaaat?" I said. "Is that what I think it is? You never wear pajamas!"

"Right," he said, "but it's pretty clear that nobody's going to sleep tonight unless I put these damn things on and you come into bed so I can hold you while you cry."

He was my brother, sure and true.

I'm also remembering the one time Rob got really angry with me when we were in Thailand. 

I had refused to rent a ride on a "motocy" (motorcycle) home one night after dinner. He was tired and didn't want to walk. I thought the "motocy guys" were C.R.A.Z.Y. and didn't trust them. 

He tried all manner of persuasion and then said, all in a huff, stamping his foot,"Well, that's it! I'm going to tell Barbara. RIGHT. NOW." 

I thought I would pee myself laughing. So did he.

Then, he got angry with me. He thought I was being, in his words, "such a girl". 

I wasn't angry until then.  Then, I got pissed.  I stormed off to walk the half mile to the condo.

Rob's 70th b'day celebration - Thailand 2012
He got on the bike, gave the guy his address, and called out to me something hateful. When I got back to the condo I saw him, pacing back and forth in front of the entrance. He apologized profusely and insisted I come up to his apartment so he could rub my feet. 

My feet were not sore - not in the least - but I let him. Because, well, because that's what people do who love each other.

I loved him dearly. Adored him. I have always said that if anything ever happened to Ms. Conroy, after the dust settled, you would find me living with Rob.

He always told me that he loved me "more than my luggage," but, he said, "If anything ever happens to Ms. Conroy, you can come here but you'll have to get your own apartment. After the first three days, we'd kill each other."

He was right, of course.  When I announced to him that I was coming to visit him in Thailand, the first thing he said was, "I'll get you your own apartment. Three flights down from me. It's the only way we'll survive the three weeks."

He told me that he would come fetch me for coffee every morning at 8 AM sharp - quite generous since he always arose at 5 AM. But, he would always be at my door at 7:30, just as I returned from daily prayers at the Wat (Buddhist Temple), a fresh cup of coffee in his hand.  We'd talk until about 8:30 and then I'd shower and we'd be out the door by 9 and off for the day's adventure. 

He had recently moved out of that condo and into a proper home in the "suburbs" of the city with Parn - a Thai man he had met and fallen in love with. They were so very happy together. Rob had a real kitchen with a real stove and oven. As if that weren't enough, he also had a garden which he and Parn tended to with great care.  And, a mother cat. TupTim. "The gift that keeps giving," he said.

He was supposed to come back to the States the last two weeks of July, first two weeks of August. He was planning to go to NYC to visit his brother, then to Maine to visit his daughter and son and friends, then down to DE to stay with us, then home again, home again, jiggidy jig. 

Instead, he spent his money on having some important facial surgery. (Americans have to pay cash for medical expenses in Thailand. It's far less expensive than in the US, but cash only.)

That was June 17th. It was a wonderful success. He looked marvelous. Okay, tired but marvelous.

Except, Ms. Conroy and I both suspect that, given his age and the rigors of lengthy surgery and the status of medical care outside the hospital in Thailand, he may have formed a clot. I suspect that's what we'll see on the coroner's report when it arrives from Bangkok. 

We emailed each other several times a day, several times a week. The last email I got from him was on Friday. He wrote, "I have never felt better or been more happy in my entire life."

I'm grateful for that. I only wish he had more time to enjoy his good health and happiness. Alas, it was not to be, and that simply breaks my heart. 

Oh, I'll be fine. What am I saying? No, I won't. The honest-to-God truth is that I'll be grieving his loss for a long time.  And then, I'll not be fine, but it will be alright. 

It's just the way life is.

I've had my heart broken by grief before. It hurts like hell. You cry until you think you have no more tears to cry and then you cry some more. You cry when you least expect it - in the supermarket hearing a song that reminds you of something. On a birthday or anniversary. When you smell a certain smell - aftershave or perfume or newly mowed grass or the ocean or dust. 

And you cry and cry and cry. Right there. Wherever you are. Right in front of God and everybody.

And then, you dry your eyes, blow your nose, pull up your socks and get on with it. 
Rob and me at Alcazar. March 2012

Life, that is. 

It's such a gift. We don't always appreciate it until it's gone. 

I love you, Rob. More than my luggage. And, I do love my luggage and the memories it carries. Especially my memories of our three weeks together in Thailand, but all of it.

All of it. All of it. All of it.

Rest well, my darling.

You deserve it.

When I see you in heaven, I fully expect you to be standing there with a baseball bat in your hand.

And, we'll laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh.


Dee said...

Elizabeth, I am so very sorry. Prayers for you and all who loved Robert.


Nancy said...

Elizabeth, I am so very sorry. What a great friendship! I loved reading your posts from the Thailand visit and getting to know both the place and the much-loved-by-many-people man. Prayers for you all and for him.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing; I hung on your every word. I wish I could hold you until your tears run dry (in my pajamas of course). All my love,

8thday said...

I am so very sorry for your loss. And so very glad that you have such wonderful memories of him to help sooth the hole in your heart.

I also wanted to comment that when my partner and I were looking for a church to baptize our children, a local Episcopal Church was the only one who would do it without requiring us to become members. At the time it was done at a "separate but equal" gay service but I will never forget the warmth and generosity of the priest there.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Dee.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Nam - My visit with Rob in Thailand will be a real highlight in my life. Thanks for your kind words.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Juli,

I may need you, dear friend, so let me take a "rain check". Thank you.

Unknown said...

Elizabeth, I am sorry for the loss of your dear friend, Robert. And this was such a beautiful, moving tribute to him and your friendship.
My prayers are for you in your grief and for all those who knew and loved him.
Your life is so much richer for having traveled the road with Robert.
May Robert Rest in Peace and rise in Glory!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Susan. Ms. Conroy has always said that Rob and I deserved each other. She may be right. Again, thanks for you kindness.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

8thday - So glad you found an Episcopal Church that was welcoming. Thank you for your kindness.

JCF said...

Robert Hayden DeWolfe: Memory Eternal. May he rest in peace, till he rises in glory!


[My, weren't you a cute young thing back in the day! (And you've held up mahhhvelously. I bet Rob told you that a time or 3.)]

whiteycat said...

Elizabeth, prayers and my sympathy to you at this time of grieving the loss of Rob. You have very special memories. Hold onto them!

Jim Von Dreele said...

Rob and I were classmates at Berkeley Divinity School ('71). He was a great person with a wonderful sense of humor. Thanks for your thoughtful memories and peace to you in your loss.

it's margaret said...

Dear sister --yes, I know you know what to do with pain and grief... but, still. What an awful loss. You and all his family are in my prayers.

Muthah+ said...

Dear friend, I am crying with you. You need something, just call. I love this tribute to him. What a wonderful picture of you both. Why can't people in the larger community understand this kind of love? I am so tired of pigeon holes. You have showed how rich life is when we can live in that freedom. His love for you you will always pass on, Elizabeth. You always have and will continue to do so. It is the only real tribute that we have for the ones who have loved us.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you all so much for your kindness and understanding. Rob was my brother. I was his sister. I loved him. He loved me.

I'm sure there are some pin-head Calvinists out there who can't understand that and will make great hay out of what I've written. I've already gotten a few comments with that theme from a few of the brave, great unwashed "anonymous" posters out there who can't think outside the size of the head of a pin or beyond the gutter from which they snipe. What they don't know is I get great enjoyment out of laughing hysterically at their small mindedness and take great comfort in sparing them the embarrassment they would face if anyone knew their true identity and saw how intellectually challenged they really are.

Meanwhile, my grief has been somewhat assuaged by learning that Rob did not die alone or in great pain and that every attempt was made to treat his apparent heart attack. Apparently, it was a massive heart attack. But, Parn was with him every step of the way until he took his last breath.

He was loved. He wasn't alone. He was the happiest he had been in years. For all of that, I am deeply grateful and that gratitude is a balm to my soul.

Thank you, each and every one of you, for your kindness and understanding and mercy and prayers

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

William - Thank you for your kind words.