Posted by: nedpelger | January 28, 2010

He Was Breathing, Until He Wasn’t

For the last eight hours, I sat with a dying friend and neighbor. I was there to comfort, to pray and just to be. Up until a few minutes ago, he was breathing, until he wasn’t.

Tom Houck was one of the toughest men I’ve ever met. Over and over his threshold for enduring discomfort amazed people. Whether it was steel chips in his eye, chopped off fingers, third degree burns, 7 cops to subdue him (younger days) or finally this lung cancer, Tom just took the pain and kept going.

The doctors treating his cancer would examine his MRI and wonder to his wife how he could still be up walking around with such limited capacity to breathe. “He’s not just walking around, she’d say, “He’s still working full-time as a heavy machinery mechanic in a factory.” Tom was a man’s man. Every year he’d tell me about how he shot this year’s buck and probably couldn’t quite understand how my success rate was about 10% of his.

I was on a jobsite late morning and got a call from TBW that the Hospice people thought he might pass in the next 30 minutes. Tom’ wife, Donna, requested I come. As I drove home, I thought, “There’s no way he is going to die on someone else’s schedule. Tom does things Tom’s way and he’ll still be there when I get there.” He was.

The next eight hours weren’t like any other eight hours of my life. We were focused on helping Tom be comfortable to die…and to provide some peace to those who would remain. We sat quietly, we prayed out loud, we told Tom our favorite memories of him, we prayed silently. Then a woman with a harp came into the room. She seemed to surprise everyone.

She played beautifully simple songs and sang like an angel. The songs didn’t seem tied to a particular religion, they just felt right. She was from they play to help folks pass from this world to the next.

Now I’ve known Tom for 25 years and I thought, “There’s no way he’s going to respond to this music by choosing that time to die.” As usual, I was wrong. As the harpist played and sang, Tom’s breathing eventually got slower and slower. Finally, he let himself go.

I guess I’m writing this to sort out my feelings, to get a sense of what I think about this particular day of living and dying. If you’ve read this far, you’ve realized this post doesn’t really touch on construction. And I can’t bring myself to neatly summarize my feelings with some aphorism about living each day to the fullest.

Maybe tomorrow will bring clarity.



  1. that was a lovely tribute to a real man who lived his life by his own standards. not a perfect person but one who grew. the harp music – how wonderful. is that part of Hospice? both you and Debby know how to be a good friend. that says a lot. I am very proud of both of you and what you have become together as a team. love you.
    thoughts and prayers to Donna.
    send out her address so we can all send a card.

  2. “When it hurts to look back, and you’re scared to look ahead, you can look beside you and your best friend will be there”
    Tom was lucky to have you as friend, well done Ned!

  3. Ned, Thank you so much for being a good friend to my aunt and uncle. Tom was lucky to have someone like you in his life. Thank You!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: