There are people in our lives who are so eccentric, so outrageously unique, and so beloved that they almost seem like characters in fiction. Kendall’s Uncle Thomas was one of those people, and living in a house full of writers, he often made appearances in the plays, books, and screenplays of various family members. But the fictional Thomas Hailey never surpassed the real Thomas Hailey as a character worthy of attention. Uncle Thomas died yesterday in his bed at the Hailey homestead. It was only the second death I’ve witnessed firsthand (the first being my mother’s in 1999), and while I can’t bring myself to use words like “beautiful” or “peaceful” to describe it, I will say that his death was as it should be— at home, surrounded by loved ones, and not tethered to a network of unnecessary tubes or machines.
I feel so grateful that my first entrée into the Hailey family was at a time when the entire cast of characters still dominated their Laurel Canyon home. I fell in love with the Haileys before I ever met them thanks to Kendall’s wonderful memoir, “The Day I Became an Autodidact.” I was happy to discover that the lot of them, parents Oliver and Betsy, grandmother Hallie May (known as Nanny), sister Brooke, and crazy Uncle Thomas were every bit as break-the-mold unique as Kendall had described. They were a closed-knit family unit full of idiosyncrasies, creativity, dysfunction, and a fierce family loyalty that made Don Corleone look like a lightweight.
Kendall’s indomitable father, author and playwright Oliver Hailey, was the first to depart in 1993, his early death leaving a wide gash in the family structure. Oliver and Thomas’s mother, Hallie May, was a true Texas character whose idea of a health food salad involved a banana covered in peanut butter and gobs of mayonnaise. Nanny helped foster Kendall’s love of old movies and the stars who inhabited them. In her book, Kendall noted that Nanny was an encyclopedia of scandal about the stars’ personal lives but always remained devoted to her favorites. As Kendall wrote, “This woman lived through a son crippled by polio at age ten, horrible poverty, a terribly painful marriage, yet says the saddest day in her life was when she found out Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck were getting divorced.” Nanny died in her sleep well into her 90s just before Christmas 1997. Brooke and her husband Scott named their first baby after her. And now, with Brooke about to deliver her second child any second, Thomas is gone. One life ended, another beginning, and yet I’d like to take that damn Circle of Life and tie it into a clove-hitch knot if it would bring Thomas back.
Walking into Thomas’s room was like entering a museum of American Folk Art, with separate wings for political memorabilia, posters of classic cowboy films, and a history of American Theatre as seen through the plays of his family members. I always told Thomas that the contents of his room needed to be cataloged by the Smithsonian. Yellowing photographs covering the wall by Thomas’s bed revealed scenes from Oliver’s many plays and featured some of the best actors who ever graced a stage, actors who invariably loved Thomas and would make pilgrimages to his lair whenever they were visiting the Haileys. Included in this cache are scenes from “I Won’t Dance,” the black comedy Oliver wrote in the early 1980s. The main character in this play was, like Thomas, a man confined to a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio. As the play opens, this man’s brother, a Hollywood celebrity, and the brother’s wife, an acclaimed novelist (like Kendall’s mom) have been murdered. Is the wheelchair-bound character guilty of the murder? Family friend David Selby (of “Dark Shadows” and “Falcon Crest” fame) played the Thomas character on Broadway, but the play was savaged by the New York critics. During a 1983 production in Los Angeles starring Greg Mullavey, the headline of the L.A. Times review was “Handicapped Comedy About a Cripple.” Damn those critics, the play was a worthy tribute to a great real-life character.
I’m so glad that Thomas and all of the Haileys are captured so well in Kendall’s book, published just before I met her. Here’s how she introduced her clan:
We are an odd bunch. A father, a mother (not too odd yet), a younger sister (getting odder), a grandmother (approaching the bend), and an uncle (and round it).
It was my uncle who sparked my first battle with formal education. He had infantile paralysis when he was ten years old, and one day when I was in kindergarten I decided to paint a picture of his wheelchair. My teacher looked at it and said it was the most depressing picture she’d ever seen because it was all gray. And wouldn’t it be nice to put some yellow in it? At the age of five, I did my best to explain that the painting was a true rendering of my uncle’s wheelchair, not a comment on my life.
And that was the only trouble my uncle Thomas’s being in a wheelchair ever caused me. When we went to Europe as a break from kindergarten, I rode in his lap across the continent. There is little better in life than a moveable lap.
In addition to providing handy transportation for Kendall and Brooke, Thomas was also the family typist (typing all of Oliver’s plays and scripts), stockbroker, telephone operator, and human VCR (they never needed to learn how to program their early Beta recorder since Thomas would make sure to tape every show they wanted to see).
Thomas and Nanny accompanied the family on all of their far-flung excursions. While on one of their European jaunts, this one with family friend Leona Van Scoyck and her son Matthew Tyrnauer, Kendall described the process of getting Thomas on a train:
As I think we all now know, boarding and deboarding trains are rather traumatic experiences for our group. When Uncle Thomas is involved in the endeavor, it becomes as difficult physically as it is emotionally.
The process of getting a man in a wheelchair onto a train usually comes down to throwing the man in the wheelchair onto the train and then throwing his wheelchair in after him. And next, a prayer that our compartment is not too far away, since it is not easy to drag Uncle Thomas, who manages to maintain his dignity in the damnedest of situations.
We had just thrown in Uncle Thomas and were pitching in the suitcases (trying our best not to hit him) when we looked in to see if Uncle was still conscious (Nanny had been aiming rather carelessly) and saw Leona singlehandedly dragging him down the train aisle. She was doing such a fine job, we thought it better not to throw her off by offering assistance, and have referred to her as Mother Courage ever since.
We were still admiring her when we began to notice that everyone who passed by our compartment was staring in very curiously. We know we are a strange group, but we didn’t see how everyone on the train could have figured it out so fast.
Dad stepped out to investigate and saw that the word Mutilés had been stamped on our compartment. Because of Thomas’s wheelchair. But Mutilés seemed a word full of so many more possibilities than one man in a wheelchair could offer. So as the next group of passengers paused and stared in, we all assumed the most grotesque positions we could think up. I do believe we gave them their word’s worth.
Kendall, who enjoyed reading about the intricacies of Ancient Rome but had little knowledge of current affairs, turned to Uncle Thomas as her primary news source:
I was planning to call Matthew up, but decided it would be wise first to talk to Uncle Thomas about just what is happening in this country politically since, of course, I haven’t got the faintest idea (in the political struggle I care about, Pompey is the man to watch), and I have just escaped from the talkative Uncle’s room after what seemed years of political anecdotes.
In a way, the use of Thomas’ voice has taken the place of the use of his body. He can’t run to the door of his room and throw himself in front of it to prevent exiting while there are still political anecdotes to be told. But he can say, “What was I going to tell you?” and “I’ve got a story for you” till he has forced his listener to the brink of madness. Did I say madness? I didn’t mean it.
I love my mad uncle. It is quite a gift to know someone who has gone my whole childhood without running out of conversation. And it is because of him that I know about the baby Brooke and me, Sherlock Holmes, Roy Rogers, all the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher that Mark Twain forgot to record, and of course, along the way, a little more about Watergate and Bobby Fischer than I ever really wanted to know.
I can so relate to this idea of “escaping” Thomas’s room during one of his diatribes about current events. Thomas was not one who excelled at “reading the room” and he paid scant attention to cues that most people would interpret as a desire to end a conversation. He’d get so involved in talking about some political event or scandal that he could go on for hours, finally forcing his listeners to resort to plain rudeness as an exit strategy. Of course I’d give anything to have more of these conversations with Thomas who was one of the most informed people I’ve ever met about politics. When I say “informed,” I don’t necessarily mean “sane” or “well balanced,” some of his ideas were pretty out there.
Though a die-hard liberal, you’d be hard pressed to determine his political leanings from a quick scan of the political posters and buttons covering every inch of his wallspace. Thomas was an equal-opportunity political critic, and he also appreciated a good slogan even if he didn’t support the candidate. The other day, we were nervous about one of the visiting hospice workers. She came in the room with a huge smile plastered across her face and we were worried she was going to start lecturing us about the need to let Thomas Step Into the Light. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she glanced at a large button next to Thomas’s bed from the 1972 presidential campaign and burst into laughter. The button, created by a rare Nixon supporter with a sense of humor, read “McGovern Can’t Lick Our Dick.”
My last political conversation with Thomas occurred three weeks ago tonight, just a few days before he came down with pneumonia and went into the hospital. He was torturing me with tales of Ann Coulter’s latest ravings, pretending to agree with her just to get my goat. For the past few years, Thomas would present me with Coulter’s latest book at Christmas time, just to watch the pained look on my face as I read passages aloud and then told him I’d return the book rather than put a cent into her unwholesome coffers.
In addition to JFK campaign posters, laminated copies of newspapers heralding Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal, and life-sized cutouts of Bill and Hillary, Thomas also had a huge collection of latex head masks in every corner of the room depicting a range of characters from Walter Mondale and Gerald Ford to Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice. During the holidays he’d put Santa hats on every single one of these heads, creating the most powerful group of Kris Kringles ever gathered in one place.
In 1983, while on a rare family trip to Hawaii without Nanny and Thomas, the Haileys found out that Thomas had suffered a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage.
When Dad told us what had happened to Thomas, Brooke let out a piercing scream and ran to the balcony of our hotel room. I saw her throw something out toward the ocean, then I realized it was the piece of rock she picked up touring a dormant volcano yesterday. Ancient superstition said that bad luck would follow whoever took a rock from the volcano. But Brooke had picked one up and dared the gods to get her.
As Thomas lay in a coma, the Haileys had a difficult time getting back to the mainland. Several planes were called back to the gate because of equipment problems causing Brooke to let out with more piercing screams. “I’ve got to see my uncle!” she yelled to the hapless airline employees.
They finally made it back to Los Angeles and found Thomas in a precarious state.
We have just come out of intensive care and something is going terribly wrong. Thomas didn’t understand what we were saying. He didn’t want to talk at all, he just kept falling asleep.
Nanny was holding his hand and talking to him, and I glanced over and saw she was crying. I never thought Nanny would be any good at brave fronts, but I was wrong.
What do the Fates have against Thomas?
It is like some awful game and they will not be satisfied until they’ve crushed him. But he has not been crushed yet. During every football game I’ve ever watched with him, whenever there is a brutal tackle, he always shouts, “Cripple him for life!” And then, of course, we both begin to giggle.
Thomas continued to slip away. The doctor told the family that a blood clot had formed and that Thomas needed emergency brain surgery. They sat through the long procedure, knowing at any time the doctor could walk into the waiting room and tell them that Thomas had died. Against all odds, he survived the surgery and made a full recovery. Well, almost full.
When Thomas was in the midst of his cerebral hemorrhage, I was so terrified he wouldn’t know me anymore. Now, he is practically recovered, but I feel I no longer know him. His is so angry. When I asked him today if he was ever going to stop being mean, he said he was through being “milk-toast” Thomas.
He is being unfair to the man he was to label him that. Thomas has never been anything but strong. He survived the effects of a childhood disease without bitterness, and I mean without any bitterness. Dad used to wish that he had been the one who had gotten polio, since he never had any love of sport as Thomas always did. But after he got Parkinson’s, he said he now knew he never could have dealt with being in a wheelchair the way Thomas has all these years.
And God knows a man who has been through polio and a cerebral hemorrhage has a right to be angry. He has a right to be furious. But living with what people have a right to is no fun.
Luckily, Thomas’s post-surgical surliness was short-lived.
Just came from seeing Thomas, who said he had been crying over what a good brother Dad is to him. I am happy to say that Thomas is back to being wonderful “milk-toast” Thomas again. His emotions, which were dammed up by anger for so long, are now overflowing.
The reality that Uncle Thomas will no longer be welcoming visitors to his room at the Hailey house hasn’t fully hit yet. It was agony watching all of his loving family gathered around him as he lay dying. Thomas defied all predictions and lived days longer than the doctors thought humanly possible. His kidneys had stopped functioning completely, he had very few breaths per minute, and his pulse could barely be found, yet his huge, strong heart kept on going.
Sometimes the only access I have to my own emotions is when I witness the heartfelt feelings of others. I remember being numb at my grandmother’s funeral in 1990. The only thing that opened the floodgates was when I saw a close friend of my mother’s embrace her and burst into tears. The love expressed by Kendall, Brooke, and Betsy in Thomas’s room this past week constantly brought tears to my eyes, as did the actions of Thomas’s long-time caregiver Jun and his family who had adopted Thomas as one of their own. Jun’s sons, Kane and Romy, sat by Thomas’s bedside for hours on end, and I could see that the loss of Thomas in their lives was going to be huge. One image I will never forget is Kane, a high-school sophomore, doing his homework next to Thomas during one of the many long nights of the past few days. Though Thomas was on mega-doses of morphine and not conscious, Kane held Thomas’s hand as he worked, frequently reading him excerpts from his English assignment.
When things looked really bad just after his hemorrhage in 1983, Kendall wrote:
I won’t lose Thomas. I won’t lose one of us. I’ll get him back. I’ll make him know me. I’ll call him every silly name I’ve ever called him and I’ll call myself every silly name he’s ever called me. I’ll say, “Jack Toma, it’s your Jalapeño Palomino Pal.” And he’ll know me.
Thomas managed to cheat death 24 years ago, but now life and death have cheated those of us left down here. I’ve no doubt Thomas has joined Oliver and Nanny and is talking their ears off about what his last days were like—as well as what’s going on with the current presidential candidates. Minutes after he died, Jun grabbed a book from one the cases in Thomas’s room and thrust it into my hands. He said that Thomas told him he wanted me to have this after he died. It was a copy of “Godless: The Church of Liberalism” by Ann Coulter. I laughed for the first time in days.