I never knew Thomas R. (“Tom”) McGetchin personally. Terminally ill with cancer at age 43, he had left his position as Director of the Lunar & Planetary Institute in July of 1979 — just seven months before I started work at LPI — and had died a few months later in October of 1979. But almost all the scientists and staff then at LPI knew him and had been very much affected by both his life and his rather premature death.
When Tom McGetchin left LPI, he and his wife Carle went to Hawaii to stay with their close friends, the McCords, for Tom’s final months of life. Tom kept a journal during this time, and while I was at LPI, I got from my office mate, Caroline, a xeroxed copy of one of his handwritten journal entries. It affected me very much, so much so that I quoted from it at the end of my father’s eulogy nearly 20 years later.
Here’s that journal entry:
[Sunday, July 22
Honolulu – McCords]
Geez Hawaii is a beautiful place and the McCord’s front porch is just one of the good places on this earth; good memories mixed with spectacular views and the kissing of a climate — whatever it’s doing whether sunny or raining — it’s just mellow.
Reading, sleeping, talking and thinking lots — about how short life is regardless of how you cut it, cancer aside. There are a few decades we have which just swim by in the blind procession of days. What matters? From where I sit, I see several really simple and important things.
- shaping your stone well; that’s your part in civilization
- loving — other humans matter most
- taking the next step; it’s always hard
Shaping your stone means quietly doing your job, as well as you can. Your identity will soon be lost to history but your stone, if well shaped and polished will fit into the structure we call civilization and hold its weight, as time sweeps past us and others build upon us. History is full of greed, horror and the worst in mankind — but humaness is built of well shaped loving lives. What we do matters and if there is beauty in the world it is because many quiet souls have shaped their stones well and the cathedral of life is beautiful after all.
Loving matters most — friendships are what make living good and full or empty. Giving and being real, the good and bad, but sharing it all in loving acceptance and without judgment. We are so similar under the skin and we need each other.
Taking the next step, is about the hard part of life. It’s about courage and it does mean trying to do what’s next, even though it’s painful. It also means taking the next step, not the next 10 at once, but the important (essential) thing is to keep moving, even if however slowly it seems.
What death and life mean are beyond knowing for now. I don’t believe we blink out like a light but that could be egotism or false hope. It doesn’t matter for now; for now
there is my stone to chip and polish, souls to love and be truly myself with and always the next awkward step to take.
Tom’s words have stayed with me in the nearly 30 years since I first read them and continue to influence my outlook on life.
This all comes up now because I received an e-mail last night out of the blue from Tom’s sister, Bow. She had googled her brother’s name and ran across my eulogy for my father (posted on one of my other blogs). She wrote me to ask how I had known Tom, which gave me the privilege of explaining — thirty years later, to someone who knew and loved Tom very much — how his insights had affected my life, even though I never knew him personally.
That is a note of life’s grace that I think Tom would have appreciated. ..bruce..