Henry took in the late November sun as he sat in his silver wheelchair outside the Pasadena Hospice Center. “To be ejected from hospice does not happen often,” he thought. “But two evictions in two months from the same hospice center? That must be a record.” He hadn’t so much been ejected as encouraged to leave. Now he would have to figure out what to do next. He hadn’t liked the center nor it’s terminal patient care. He was happy to be out.
However, for the time being, he just wanted to enjoy this peaceful moment in the warm California sun. His spiritual advisors had frequently counseled him: “Be at peace with each moment of your life. Jabbering monkeys are always trying to intrude upon transcendental moments. Resist. Repeat your mantra to clear your mind, and remain calm.” This moment was troubling, yes. But there was no need to dramatize the situation.
Ever since he had arrived in Southern California sixty years earlier, he had adopted this mellow mind-set. From his first day in Los Angeles, it had always been about the sun. The warmth. The optimistic, brighter-tomorrow ambience. This thinking had become part of his DNA. He had been thrilled to leave the darkness of the West Virginia coal-mine town where he was born. His subsequent career as an engineer, surrounded by NASA space jockeys, only reinforced his sunny, can-do outlook. Yes, he was now dying of terminal cancer. Yes, he had no place to go for the night. He didn’t even have a plan. His situation would be a crushing fixation for others, but Henry was not like others. This was a passing cloud on an otherwise sunny day.
The first time he was asked to leave the hospice center had been awkward for the nurses. When they had asked him to leave, Henry had simply wheeled himself out the door, down Fisher Avenue for six blocks, then turned and wheeled back. By the time he returned, the night shift had come on and hardly noticed him wheeling into his old room. In the morning, the supervising head nurse erupted. “You can’t just sneak into our hospice!” she yelled as she stomped into his room. “You have reneged on our agreement. We are not a hotel where guests can drop in for free drugs and leave when they choose. You were discharged! You have no business being here.” Under normal circumstances, a hospice center would never toss dying inmates out on the street, but Henry’s case had been exceptional from the day he was admitted.
Upon arrival, there had been no question: the doctor’s prognosis was “terminal.” It was a routine case, Henry was told, and the end would come in less than two months. But it didn’t work out that way. Three months passed. Henry did not. Not only was he still kicking; he seemed to be rallying. From the time he was admitted, Henry had been intolerably disruptive. The final moments for hospice patients are supposed to be sedate, appreciative, and penitent.
Henry, however, was foulmouthed. He found fault with every aspect of the care the center provided. He would bark at the nurses. “You can’t force me to take quack medicine! It’s poisoning me!” Neither did he hide his contempt for the center when talking to other patients. One day he confronted the head administrator. “You are not even trying to honor my requests! I am going to pack up and leave!”
The administrator’s face had brightened. She had had enough and encouraged Henry to check out. When the day for his first discharge came, Henry had assured the nurses there was someone waiting to pick him up. He had lied. It seemed a routine release, and the administrator thought nothing of it. She quickly regretted her trust when she found Henry’s grinning face back in his room the next morning.
Two months later, when it came to his second discharge, the administrator took no chances. She had taken weeks to plan everything. The taxi arrived at noon. Henry’s son had assured her he would take Dad in until the illness progressed further. The administrator had packed Henry up, said goodbye, and helped him into the back of the cab. Minutes later, the driver jammed on the brakes. They had traveled a mere four blocks when the driver learned that the destination was bogus and there was going to be no payment or tip.
Henry was out on the street again. And now, here he was, sitting in his wheelchair on the sidewalk, with no money and no place to go. That was a jabbering monkey. Nobody chooses to spend the last days of his or her life in perplexity. But Henry had spent his life getting rejections from small-minded people who couldn’t grasp his view of reality. For Henry’s friends and relatives, it would have been simpler had he been mentally retarded or insane. In truth, he was extraordinarily brilliant.
After being thrown out of high school, he studied on his own. A few years later, he had applied to MIT as a master’s degree candidate in the School of Engineering. He was not exactly accepted, but he talked his way past the admission committee. Soon thereafter, he was somehow awarded an advanced degree in engineering, despite the fact that he had no high school diploma and had never spent a day as an undergraduate college student. Henry’s sister, Mary—my mother—explained: “As a child, he was a wonderfully normal brother to me and my sister back in Wheeling. He played sports with the other kids and helped his dad with the household chores.
But then he went to MIT and studied calculus. It jumbled his brain! He never recovered. Then he moved on to Southern California with all those fruits and nuts.” The family had spent many a judgmental dinner debating Henry’s lifestyle, but that was all in the distant past. What was indisputable now was that Henry had cancer of the liver. It had spread to his kidneys and beyond. His condition deteriorated, and he had gone to hospice. At ninety-one years old, he was okay submitting to X-rays.
He accepted the doctor’s diagnosis—cancer—and the prognosis, which was terminal. But when it came to the recommended treatment and prescriptions, Henry agreed to nothing. He refused chemo and all traditional medicine. Instead, he embarked on his own medical regimen. Acidophilus bacillus, found in expensive yogurt, was the only treatment he would consider. Henry had taken this yogurt most of his life. He attributed his remarkable good health to nothing else. As the doctors became increasingly adamant about the seriousness of his condition, Henry eventually accepted a more aggressive treatment. “More aggressive,” he explained, “but not what the doctors were recommending.
You see, many of the good acidophilus bacilli die when they pass through the stomach-acid bath. To get a stronger implantation in the intestines, I now must approach the problem from the other end.” That “other end” thing was what had gotten him evicted from hospice. The nurses had initially agreed to provide him with the costly yogurt, but they drew the line at yogurt enemas. The nurse-patient relationship went south from there. Henry protested. “If the center won’t provide me with my lifesaving treatment, then they are trying to kill me.” Confronted with wild accusations of homicide, the center quickly warmed to the idea of Henry’s departure.
He had begun proselytizing the wonders of acidophilus enemas to other patients. “There is no ailment known to man that acidophilus cannot cure or dramatically ameliorate. You must insist the center provide this treatment,” Henry would lecture. His new converts began demanding their own yogurt implantations. The situation became chaos. Nurses and volunteers, unaccustomed to being called murderers, threatened to quit. Now the afternoon shadows were drawing long on Foster Street as Henry sat there on the sidewalk in his wheelchair.
It was time to consider his new circumstances. He was comfortable enough that he didn’t see any urgent problem. It had all come together up to this point. He had enjoyed a fine career, a loyal wife, and a vacation home in Waikiki. He had two fine boys who were doing well, farther down the coast. He took pleasure in the fact that his unconventional lifestyle had been an embarrassment to his family. In turn, the family found it best to give Henry slack and to keep their distance. The sons were good boys. There was no need to trouble them now. He had simply canceled the plan for the boys to take Dad in.
Henry started to wonder: What was the meaning of it all? Had he not played his cards well over the past ninety-one years? According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, contribution and growth are the two most important things for any human being. During his forty years as an engineer at North American Rockwell, Rocketdyne Division, he had experienced nothing but growth and contribution. The NASA space program benefited greatly from his contributions.
Upon retirement at sixty-five, he’d been given a gold watch and a sayonara party. The next day, he had returned back to his old desk and contributed another five years of productive service. In addition to his numerous patents and technical fixes, he had made a significant contribution to the attitude of younger, newer engineers as well. “Those kids, they arrive with blinders,” he would complain. “They never visualize the kaleidoscope of possible solutions in each problem they face.” My Uncle Henry’s life was a monument to unlimited possibilities.
As for Maslow’s goal of growth, Henry never stopped growing. As a teen he had been destined to follow in his father’s career as a local merchant in downtown Wheeling, selling coal every winter and seeds and farm supplies in the better weather. His father had been a pillar of propriety in the small community. Henry’s dad enjoyed a reputation for rectitude all his life, and he wanted the same legacy for his children. But “rectitude” and “tradition” were words that never entered Henry’s vocabulary. His dreams went far beyond anything coal and farm supplies had to offer. Once he arrived in Southern California, Henry never looked back.
Unlike in West Virginia, in California, his disruptive, unconventional attitude was no longer an embarrassment. Wild political ideas, nudist camps, and unconventional health diets were tolerated among his new friends and admired in his NASA community. Long before Birds Eye shipped frozen orange juice and California vegetables to the markets back East, Henry had started his own company shipping frozen OJ. He borrowed heavily to finance his own fine business—packing, freezing, and shipping orange juice across the country. But one day, out of thousands of his packages, one shipment of juice thawed, fermented, and was refrozen and sold. The stinky, rotten juice was delivered. Word got out, and his company’s reputation was destroyed. The business came to a quick end. For Henry, orange juice was a commodity much like coal. His mind was beginning to reach for a grander future. He wanted the stars.
A new company in Pasadena, Rocketdyne, was given a contract to study the German U2 rocket after World War II. With a huge military grant, they soon needed many engineers. Henry was hired and spent the next twenty years working on the engine for the Saturn 1B rockets carrying payloads into outer space. In his late seventies, when he left Rocketdyne for the final time, he retired to Hawaii. There, he formed a health food society and exercise commune.
The community eventually launched its own health food radio program in Honolulu. Henry became the announcer and host. *** How he got off the sidewalk that day in Pasadena is a mystery known only to Henry. Phone calls were made. His children were notified. Henry spent his final days in the loving care of his family. His own final thoughts on his life seemed to be lost. At his funeral, it was obvious Henry had left an abundance of evidence as to how he lived his happy, wacky, eccentric life. Among his family and engineering friends, one speaker told of how Henry had introduced him to the Skylark of Space series by E. E. “Doc” Smith.
This was in the early 1950s, when space travel was beyond comprehension. Henry is gone now, but what remains with all of us is the memory of his unconventional, experimental thinking. Another speaker recalled Henry with a nostalgia for simpler days of long ago. But that was not Henry’s message. He was about excitement and the coming, futuristic world. “There was no conventional activity that Henry could not turn on its head,” another old engineer recalled. “He had a unique viewpoint for everything. He would see me peel my oranges, toss out the rind, and eat the fleshy interior. He would then furnish me with documents proving the rind was the most nutritious part of the fruit. Once with a pain on his face, he moaned, ‘I can’t believe you are throwing out those eggshells! You don’t know the health benefits of ground-up eggshells? Your body is going to hell if you don’t toss out that yoke and white. Eggshells will save your life if you just give them the chance.”
There were other stories and laughter about Henry’s successes and failures. If there is any answer to the question about the value of his life, which I imagine he might have asked himself from his wheelchair as he sat on the sidewalk, it was found in the voices at his funeral. At a time when the country was comfortable, conformist, and conventional, Henry was an eccentric blast of fresh SoCal wind. People said he was goofy and often a failure—and it’s true, but he was also endlessly likable.
We can all take energy from Henry’s life. He spoke to the enlightened, freethinking person we would all like to be. We might not envy all of Henry’s antics, but he offered us a glimpse into a life freed from the shackles of tradition and rectitude. Today Henry belongs to the hereafter. Heaven may also be a place of buttoned-down tradition and rectitude. If that is true, I can’t wait to see how his arrival is working out for everybody else up there.