Family members got a text yesterday from my Aunt Karen. It read: “Robert is under hospice care and going down rapidly! Will stay in touch! I love you!!”
Karen is my dad’s younger sister and actually held me in her arms before my dad did. Karen worked at Lindley Memorial Hospital in Duncan, Oklahoma, and was with my mom when I arrived, two weeks early, on February 18, 1960. Daddy was in Springfield, Missouri, preaching in revival services and caught the first train available back home. In addition to my parents, some of my earliest familial bonds were with Karen.
This morning I got a text from my brother, Jeffrey. It said: “Robert passed about an hour ago. Funeral arrangements are pending.”
In 1965, I walked down the aisle at Bethany Calvary Church of the Nazarene with Nona Powers at Robert and Karen’s wedding. It took a while for me to understand that being a “mini bride and groom” was purely symbolic, but for a few weeks I thought Nona and I had gotten married, too.
Karen had graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Bethany Nazarene College (now Southern Nazarene University) and was working for the phone company. Robert had taken a few classes at BNC but was working at the Conoco station on 23rd and they lived in some tiny apartments on Asbury. Jeffrey and I liked the apartment a lot, mainly because Robert and Karen had a TV and we didn’t and on Saturday mornings we could watch cartoons there!
It wasn’t too long after they got married that the lure of the Southern Pacific Railroad became strong enough that Robert and Karen moved back to his hometown of Houston.
The Thompsons were a railroad family. Frank and Azalea, Robert’s parents, lived on Pineshade for decades and although Frank was a highly educated man, he loved the railroad and his sons followed in his footsteps. Houston seemed a world away from Oklahoma City back then and I remember my Grandad and Memaw Johnson feeling a sense of loss when their daughter moved away from them.
For several years Jeffrey and I would take a summer trip on the train from OKC to Houston with Adaline, (Sweet Adaline) a lady who lived with my grandparents. We always looked forward to the new adventures those journeys brought us. Our first trips to Astroworld, the Astrodome, Galveston and the Gulf of Mexico happened on those trips. And Jeffrey and I learned to swim in the pool at their apartment complex in the summer of 1968.
I say we learned to swim, but actually it was I who learned to swim that summer. Mostly, Jeffrey learned to hold on to the wall and pretend that he knew how to swim. I wasn’t a great swimmer as an eight year old, but I had at least conquered my fear of the water, which came in handy that fall.
October of 1968 is significant in my mind for two reasons. While on a family outing for a few days at Western Hills State Lodge in Oklahoma, I watched a couple of games of the World Series and decided that I liked the St. Louis Cardinals more than the Detroit Tigers, thus beginning an undying allegiance to the “Birds on the Bat.”
The other reason I remember that trip was that Jeffrey and I were in the pool and he lost his grip on the wall and started going under.
I’m not sure where Daddy was but Mother, who did not swim, was with us and took notice of Jeffrey’s sudden struggle to get back above water. I heard her cries and instinctively grabbed a gulp of air and went down and pulled him back up and felt like a big boy hero for at least the rest of the day. But it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Robert was the hero, too.
Robert and Karen had three beautiful children and we cousins have drifted in and out of each other’s lives at different times. They are each incredible people and I hope we get together more often in years to come. Distance may make the heart grow fonder but it can also make it hard to be together in the same room.
Life takes unexpected twists and turns and sometimes it’s hard to know how things will turn out. For example, Robert and Karen loved their children without question, and I know they had love for each other, but sometimes even that isn’t enough to save a marriage. And so, after 29 years, Robert and Karen went their separate ways to an extent.
Karen is one of the most amazingly energetic people I’ve ever known who still loves the fast lanes of Houston-area real estate. Robert was content with the solitude of a engineer’s cab on a rail system that had only one lane. Both found love in new life partners and our family circle grew even wider as a result.
Over these last couple of years I have been amazed at how Kristal, Shane, and Angel and their families have loved on Robert, even as he was slipping away. Equally amazing to me is the way the Karen and Steve have, too. Redemption is a God-given gift that is always appropriate and always available when we’re willing to be a part of it.
As a part of my work today, I find myself with some free time, sitting in a hotel room on the Gulf of Mexico in Orange Beach, Alabama. I’m watching the gentle lapping of waves on the sandy white shore. And I’m thinking about the day Robert and Karen and Jeffrey and I went to Galveston. I remember how Robert could float on top of the water as easily as he would lie on the couch when he got home from a run on the rails. He would float almost out of sight, enough so that I worried he might never come back.
Texan Pat Green had a great hit on country radio almost 15 years ago and I was always struck by the story line. “You came upon me wave on wave, you’re the reason I’m still here…” The song’s talking about a guy and girl, but I think maybe God speaks through words like that.
A railroad track determines where the train will go and maybe the engineer doesn’t have to pay a lot of attention, but I can see this lyric coming to life as Robert sat in that cab:
Mile on Mile [seems like] no direction
We’re all playing the same game
We’re all looking for redemption
Just afraid to say the name
So caught up now in pretending
What we’re seeking is the truth
I’m just looking for a happy ending
All I’m looking for is You
Robert rode the waves of the Gulf as easily as he rode the rails of the train. And this morning, he relaxed and floated “wave on wave” all the way to shores of sweet deliverance from the bonds of this earth. Maybe Jesus was there cooking breakfast when Robert showed up and that makes me smile!