Often, during the holiday season, as the year draws to a close, my thoughts return to friends who departed the planet earlier than they should have. The memories remind me that I never achieved a natural closure with them, that their premature deaths inflicted wounds that are slow to heal.
Gary Gibson Stoecker is one of those friends. Gary and I were young Pan Am pilots when we met in 1972. We both lived in Mill Valley and flew out of San Francisco at the time, and our paths continued to parallel each other as we moved on to Ketchum Idaho in 1973 and then to Berlin in the late ’70’s.
We shared a number of interests but we were different, most notably that I was married and Gary was not. He was a lifelong bachelor whose closest companion during the early years of our friendship was his dog, Jomo. There’s a line in the song Mr. Bojangles where the singer says, “After 20 years he still grieves” referring to the death of his dog. That might have been Gary’s truth too. I never spent time with Gary that we didn’t talk about Jomo.
Jomo Kenyatta Stoecker was a muscular black Labrador with all the traits familiar to those who know the breed. He loved Gary, loved chasing balls, loved chasing birds, and most of all he loved the water – any water. Gary named him after the African chief who was the first freely elected president of Kenya.
My wife loved Gary and Jomo and during the Ketchum years we were surrogate parents. Gary would drop him off at our house when he left for work and pick him up when he returned a week or two later. We had three young kids, an acre of lawn, and a river running along the back side of the property. Jomo loved it there.
Sometime in the mid ‘80’s Gary was promoted to Captain and transferred to New York. He sold his house in Ketchum and moved to Connecticut where he rented a new home fronting on Long Island Sound. Jomo was aging and slowing down, but he still loved to chase balls and birds and swim in the Sound
Eventually, arthritis limited his mobility and about then an annoying goose appeared on Gary’s property. The bird sensed Jomo’s limitations and took great delight in tormenting him from the water’s edge. Jomo would stand and bark but wasn’t able to chase him down – until one day late in the fall. That day, when the goose appeared and began to taunt him, Jomo stood, barked, shook himself, and gave chase. The surprised goose took off across the lawn with Jomo in pursuit and on into the cold waters of the Sound. The last Gary saw of them the dog was still swimming far from shore. He never made it back, and Gary and I agreed it seemed a fitting final act for the big retriever.
Gary always lived well but he wasn’t much interested in material things unless they engaged him in other ways. He owned houses in Mill Valley and Ketchum, a sailboat when he was based in Miami, and two racy little Porsche’s over the course of his lifetime but he was never flashy or showy. And, even though he was smart, affluent, and good looking, he never found the right woman to share his life. He dated beautiful, intelligent women but never had a serious long term relationship that I knew about. It may just be that he couldn’t find a woman as beautiful, loving, or loyal as Jomo. My former wife, who was his good friend, talked to him about it often and thought it was a tragic waste. I thought his high standards combined with his desire not to disappoint others made it hard to commit to that kind of a relationship.
As an engineering grad from UC Berkeley he could have had a lucrative career in the private sector, but he was was restless, endlessly curious and loved adventure, so instead, of engineering he followed his father’s footsteps and joined Pan Am at 23 just out of college. I think that choice haunted him later. He always wondered what his life would have been like if he had taken that other fork in the road. He talked about it openly and often.
As it was, he had big shoes to fill; his father was a tall, former USC football player, who became a senior Pan Am Captain (with a reputation as a womanizer – something that probably played a role in Gary’s decision to remain a bachelor). Nevertheless, Gary’s restless nature led him successively from San Francisco to Ketchum, Berlin, Miami, and Connecticut during his years as a Pan Am pilot.
After the loss of Jomo, Gary never seemed to find a real home. When Abby and I visited him at an apartment in Greenwich, Connecticut the room was lined with unopened moving boxes – and he’d been there for a year.
In 1997 Gary’s life took a turn for the worse. At that time, he was flying the Delta Shuttle between New York and Boston, part of Delta’s acquisition of Pan Am assets. That summer he met Delia Cabe, a Boston-based science writer, someone who shared his wide ranging curiosity and interests. Their friendship grew and they spent time more and more time together over the next few months.
That fall he began to express concerns about his health to Delia. He was also having bouts of depression. Delia encouraged him to see a physician but he resisted, saying that he didn’t trust them and didn’t want Delta to find out he was seeking medical help on the outside. Later that fall he took a medical leave to sort things out and around Christmas-time, because of his increasing symptoms, Delia forced him to consult with a neurologist in Boston. Within days of that visit Gary was admitted to Beth Israel Hospital where he underwent surgery for glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. He was 53.
Following this devastating diagnosis, Delia and Gary became a team whose mission was to beat the odds and overcome the glioblastoma. They moved Gary out of his Connecticut apartment and into Delia’s in Boston. She was a great companion and resource – smart, connected, and scientifically sophisticated. Gary had always been interested in science but this was personal – it was a life and death struggle. Together they devoted themselves to Gary’s case. Over the course of his treatment, including three surgeries, chemo, and radiation Delia provided a home base, exhaustive research, accompanied him on doctor visits, cooked his meals, and helped manage his care and treatment.
Delia and I became friends during this period, and the three of us talked often about his condition, treatment, and progress. In the beginning we were all optimistic, but when I think about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief I realize we were all suspended, with fingers crossed, in the “denial” phase.
I’m not good on the phone, but during his illness I found a place in myself where I could be of use just by being available to him, to Delia, and to others to talk over the situation and be a friend.
Gary was very private but his diagnosis took our friendship to a new level. I learned that there was a woman friend from his days in Miami, who wanted to be kept in the loop. Ria, was a Miami-based flight attendant, with a child, who seemed particularly close to Gary. Delia told me she thought Gary felt bad about the way their romance had broken off, and later in the evolution of his illness Gary told me he wanted to do something for Ria – leave her something if and when he passed away. Gary had many girlfriends, but Ria was the only one that was part of our conversations during his illness.
We all deal with grief in different ways; when I tried to follow up with Ria in 2012 she told me that Gary had, indeed, left her something but she felt my call was an invasion of her privacy and asked me not to call again. I respected her wishes.
The final phase of Gary’s illness wasn’t pretty. After his third surgery he had a psychotic episode and became physically threatening. Delia contacted the doctor and together they were able to get Gary to the hospital where he was sequestered in a psych unit. He flew into a rage when he realized he was being restrained and he blamed Delia for everything. The hospital held him but neglected to take his cellphone, so he called Bob and asked him to come and get him out of there.
The next day brother Bob flew to Boston and Gary under heavy sedation was taken to California. He was seriously failing, irrational, depressed, and lashing out. Bob flew with him home to California but left him with his parents, then in their ‘80’s. Delia, who had devoted 18 months to Gary’s care, never saw him again, though he did call her several times after his return to California. Gary’s folks also kept her in the loop and up to date on Gary’s condition. They appreciated what she had done for him and knew she had nothing to do with his breakdown.
Bob, on the other hand, blamed her for everything, including Gary’s failed medical treatment. As an interesting aside, she told me that when they heard about the tumor, prior to the first surgery, Bob and the parents had flown to Boston, and as he was being taken to surgery Gary had pulled her into a women’s restroom and told her that Bob was a bully and told her not to let him bully her. Interesting in the light of the way events played out.
I was living in Salt Lake City when Gary returned to California, and we continued to talk. I told him I wanted to visit and he seemed pleased. It was a hard decision and I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. I had no idea what he would be like, what kind of shape he was in, or what I would say once I was there, but I flew to San Jose, rented a car and drove to the Stoecker home in Los Altos Hills.
He looked bad. His clothes were rumpled. He’d lost weight and was unshaven. He was glad to see me but not himself – obviously depressed and spacey. We both knew what was coming. He was unsteady and stumbled when he walked. His parents greeted me cordially then left us alone. We talked for a couple of hours, then he asked if I would take him out for a drive. He wanted to stop by his brother’s house and asked me to help him buy a suit. His nephew was getting married and he needed one for the wedding.
It was an interesting afternoon. We drove to a lookout spot above Palo Alto where we talked a little, then made a quick stop at Bob’s house. I had never met him and I doubt he knew anything about me. It may have been my friendship with Delia or simply that he was being protective, but I felt uncomfortable with him. It was as if he was suspicious of me. He might have worried that someone outside the family would take advantage of Gary, but in light of the warning Gary gave Delia before surgery I have a different, less personal perspective.
After the stop at Bob’s, we drove to Nordstrom in Palo Alto. I must have parked the car near the entrance; I don’t remember. I do recall getting a wheel chair and wheeling Gary to the men’s department where I explained to the saleswoman that Gary needed a suit for his nephew’s wedding. Privately I told her why Gary looked and acted as he did. She understood and couldn’t have been more professional. All the time I was thinking that this suit was really going to be for his own burial. Maybe he’ll last long enough to wear it to the wedding, but it’s really his burial wardrobe. Gary and I settled on a medium gray suit with a dark pinstripe and bought a dress shirt and tie to go with it. I made arrangements for the family to pick up the suit after it was altered.
I drove Gary home and left for the airport. I never heard from the family again. When Gary died a few months later I called Bob to ask about the funeral. The call was obviously unwelcome, and I was made to feel that I was prying into the family’s private business. I haven’t spoken to him since.
I’m not sure there was a funeral. When I searched Google for an obituary I couldn’t find one though I found them for Stoeck (his father) and Winnie (his mother) both of whom died a few years later.
I’ve lived long enough to watch others grieve the death of a friend, lover, or family member and to have experienced all of them myself. There are many manifestations of grief. Some are mysterious. Some are devastating. Some are angry, and some are simply sad, but I’m always drawn to those who are generous and dignified as they work through the process. I never understood Ria’s hostility or Bob’s suspicions. I didn’t know them as friends and we didn’t share our friendships with Gary. They each had a different relationship with him. I was an outsider to them. I have never gotten over Gary’s early passing. 53 is not old. I have a son older than that. It’s unimaginable to think of him without friends, adventures, and a future.
I think about Gary fairly often and he continues to pop up like this at Thanksgiving or Christmas. I think about all the years we missed out on together, but also about the gift he gave me near the end of his life. Delia Cabe, his friend and caregiver, became my friend and has remained so since his passing. We see each other on Facebook almost every day. She’s married to a college professor now and has a new book coming out in June, Storied Bars of New York, about the bars where writers go to drink in The Big Apple – a subject near the center of my world. Yesterday we talked on the phone for over an hour. Life does go on and we do our best to make a difference until our time is up.
Gary and I led very different lives – my three wives and three children contrasted with his lifelong bachelor existence – but our lives intersected in a special way. We appreciated our differences and shared common interests. This remembrance is a celebration of friendship and memory. It’s about the loss of a friend and the 19 years he missed out on. It would have been fun.
In the best of all possible scenarios Gary and Jomo are together again, in the words of Peter Matthiessen, “at play in the fields of the Lord.”