September 20, 2015

Reflection on a life too soon gone


As I write this morning (Sept. 19, 2015), 50 years ago right now I was in the delivery area of the Charleston (Ill.) Memorial Hospital waiting for our son to be born. James Byron Elliott arrived a little after noon and gave the family—mother, grandparents, sisters, the whole Elliott Clan and me—a sense of happiness and pride in him and for all he accomplished in the next 48 years. Sadly, he died of a heart attack on Dec. 5, 2013, at his home in the Oakland, Calif., Hills. The call from a deputy in the Oakland coroner's office at 3:23 a.m. the next morning was the saddest and most heartbreaking moment I can remember. Life stopped awhile for me at that moment and hasn’t been quite the same since.
Jim and I when I was in California for his wedding.
       But Jim always faced things head-on with confidence and perseverance. I had to do the same. Many instances during his life come to mind, but the one that always sticks in my mind was the eight-hour operation where his overbite was corrected by breaking his jaws and moving them forward, then taking bone chips from his hip to lower the upper jaw. In recovery, he looked like he'd been beaten severely about his head and had his jaws wired shut for six weeks while they healed. He got tired of the liquid diet, but I heard few complaints. He always did what he had to do, when he had to do it.
       I wasn't always with him while he was growing up, but he came to live with me in Champaign right after he graduated from Hinsdale South High School and enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he got a degree in physics and astronomy. He immediately found a job in a fast-food restaurant and then worked on a paint crew each summer, running the crew the last two summers and working his way through college. From Illinois, Jim went to Purdue, where he earned his Ph.D. in nuclear physics and went to the University of California-Berkeley for his postdoc work. Jim and I drove from Urbana to California when he moved out the last time. We got to spend several days on the road together and then at his apartment before I flew home. It was a delightful time together, and gave us both a sense of satisfaction that he was doing what he wanted to do and was on his way to the career path he always wanted. Frank Sinatra's song, "My Way," always comes to mind when I think of the way Jim charted his life.
       Somewhere along the line, Jim met the love of his life, Linda Haymes, a psychologist who works with autistic children and teaches, was hired for a position at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory as a nuclear physicist and had two lovely daughters, Mia and Noe. It was during that part of his life that it ended abruptly when all was going so well. He never smoked or drank and ran many marathons—he asked me to run one with him in Chicago several years ago. Which I did. We lined up together at the Daley Plaza and started off together. After about 100 yards together, he said, "See you later, Dad." I laughed and said, "But I thought we were running together." He was already gone by then, so I didn't hear his reply and never saw him again until I reached the finish line hours later. He had waited for me at the finish line, shaking in the spitting snow and blowing wind. That's the way he was.
      I could go on for hours, but I'll stop. This has been a catharsis of sorts as I reflect on a life too soon gone. He still had much to offer as a father, a son, a brother, a scientist and a human being. I leave you with a quote from a memorial card my wife prepared after his death:

"Even though I was a tiny speck
in an infinite cosmos,
a blip on the timeline of eternity,
I was not without purpose."
— R.J. Anderson