Image: Thom Steinbeck and the author, Diana Raab
When we think of suicide, we usually think of it as a sudden, contemplated, or premeditated act. We rarely regard it as a slow, subconscious demise of the self. Those who commit suicide in this way engage in what experts call, “silent suicides,” or suicides done by nonviolent methods. This type of suicide involves self-neglect, whether it’s self-starvation or non-compliance with medical care. My sense is that this is the type of suicide that took my dear friend Thomas (Thom) Steinbeck, son of esteemed writer John Steinbeck. Thom’s form of suicide focused on self-negligence supplemented with indulgence in alcohol and cannabis.
Thom died toward the end of 2016, shortly after his 72nd birthday. While this was an enormous loss for me, I felt blessed to have been with him on the day of his passing. Thom lived a full life; however, I still wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the man whom I had a unique friendship with.
Thom always prided himself on the fact that he’d lived longer than anyone else in his family, but like his ancestors, drinking and smoking were very much a part of the fabric of his being. He smoked cigarettes and drank tequila every day. He also ate edible cannabis way before it was legal to do so in California. He claimed that this was the only way to deal with his PTSD following a challenging childhood and from his time in Vietnam.
Thom confessed to me that his mother was an alcoholic. Among the genetic traits that can be passed on to kids, a predisposition to alcoholism is one of them. Unlike what scientists call the suicide gene, there is no alcohol gene, although there are many DNA markers that can increase the risk of alcoholism. Mental illness, such as depression and schizophrenia, can be passed down; and alcoholism and other addictions may be associated with those conditions.
My friendship with Thom transcended any other platonic relationship I ever had. We were best friends, literary contemporaries and siblings all at the same time. We met once a week for tequilas and chats at our favorite local bistro. If the bartenders sensed that Thom had become too inebriated, they’d agree to water down his drinks. He was a great storyteller, but it was evident when he drank too much because his voice got louder than usual, and his gait would become staggered. If I noticed Thom’s inebriation before the bar staff did, I would use sign language to tell them to cut him off from any more alcohol. Thom’s best interest was always my top priority. But the fact is, like most alcoholics, he never knew when it was time to stop drinking. And while he claimed that he never saw his father drunk, the biographies say that Steinbeck did, in fact, drink quite a bit.
It’s unclear to me where Thom developed his love for tequila—specifically, Hornitos—but it’s possible that it stemmed from his early years in Mexico. As some Mexican friends have told me, it’s quite common for parents in that country to rub a few drops of tequila on the gums of whining or teething babies, which could possibly give these kids a “taste” for it as adults.
During our weekly meet-ups, Thom would typically, order a shot of tequila with a soda-water chaser. Sometimes he’d order a lamb burger on a bun too; or if he wasn’t feeling well, I’d go to the bistro and grab a lamb burger and bring it to his house, which was about a mile away.
Once in a while, when he was feeling particularly tired or craved a change of beverage, he’d join me in ordering an Americano coffee with a shot of tequila. During the span of our typical two-hour encounter, he’d have only one cup of coffee, but would repeat his tequila rounds, sometimes as many as six times. That was usually about the time when the bartenders would cut him off. There were days when the bartenders offered to drive Thom home or when his wife phoned the bistro inquiring about his whereabouts and safety. On the surface, this sort of attentiveness bothered my friend, but after two decades of marriage, he knew that it showed his wife’s deep love for him.
Thom often shared his fantasies and dreams with me, especially when he’d had more than his allocated number of tequila shots. I can’t say that I did the same. I was a little more guarded when speaking with him; I much preferred to listen to his compelling stories. However, over the years, I opened up and shared some of my most intimate poetry with him, which he greatly appreciated and bragged about to others.
He’d often randomly pick up the phone to call me, and his message would be the same if I picked up or if he left a voicemail: “Diana. It’s Thom [as if I couldn’t tell from his raspy voice]. I haven’t heard from you in a while. Are you okay? Are you in town? Are you traveling? Let me know when you’re back. Let’s have a coffee sometime soon.”
If he left a voicemail and I didn’t return his call right away, he knew that I wasn’t feeling up to par. We were connected in a way that defied description. He knew when I felt under the weather and went into my stealth mode. Similarly, toward the end of his life, I sensed that Thom was the one trying to establish a distance between us—perhaps preparing me for the inevitable.
One time when we met at the bistro a few months before he passed away, he looked rather pale. I wondered if his oxygen level was lower than usual. Sometimes his iron levels were quite low because he had a condition called hemochromatosis, a hereditary disease that causes the body to absorb too much iron from consumed foods. Since too much iron can lead to life-threatening illness, once a month he’d need to have all the blood removed from his body (phlebotomy). Toward the end of his life, he also had to use a portable oxygen unit because of his COPD.
Watching his labored breathing took me back to the end of my own father’s life. Like Thom, my dad had also been a cigarette smoker, and only gave up the habit when he coughed up blood one day. I vividly remember being seated next to my father in his pink Impala when that happened. He quickly tossed his box of cigarettes out the window and shakily drove himself to the hospital, only to find that the reason he’d coughed up blood was that his lung had collapsed, My father died during his next hospitalization about 20 years later at the age of 71, due to complications from COPD and congestive heart failure. It’s never easy watching a loved one gasping for air.
Sometimes Thom’s breathing difficulty was exacerbated by the Santa Ana or sundowner winds that frequently blow from the north in Southern California. They’re most common in the late-spring and early-summer months. In extreme cases, the force of the winds can be the same caliber as that of hurricanes.
A few weeks before he passed, we’d scheduled one of our meetings and it was one of those windy days, but Thom decided to venture out to meet me at the bistro anyway. While sipping his third glass of tequila, he stopped to look at me, and said while gasping for air, “Diana, I’ve had enough. I’ve lived a full life, and if it ended now, that would be okay.”
“You’re not going anywhere. You’ve survived so much, and you’ll survive this episode too,” I told him.
We all deal differently with illness and the demons from our past—I don’t mean in the strictly religious sense where if you don’t deal with them, the devil will overtake you—but just in the way we manage them as we navigate our lives. “Demons” can be considered persistent psychological issues or deep emotional wounds that affect present-day experiences and prevent us from moving forward.
We all have some demons. Mine stem from my mother instilling in me a lack of self-esteem by being overly critical and rarely offering compliments. As I grew older, I began to understand that it was probably as a result of her narcisstic personality. My other demon, more pertinent to this discussion, stemmed from my grandmother and caretaker’s suicide when I was ten years old.
My grandparents lived with us and my parents were at work. I’d wandered into my grandmother’s room asking to go swimming in my friend’s pool. She did not answer me. I called my parents and within minutes my grandmother was being taken down the stairs on a stretcher. It was 1964 and was never discussed until years later. That story became my first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal.
My mother was an English major and her way to help me cope was to buy me a journal, and from that day on I realized that writing heals and it continues to do so for me this many years later. To further compound the issue, I was silenced as a child, told that children should be seen and not heard. While this led to my becoming a writer (everyone needs some form of self-expression), it also affected my personal and professional relationships in that I had difficulty verbalizing my feelings. I was fortunate that I had writing to help me, as well as a husband who encouraged me to speak my mind. Gradually, the demon of my lack of confidence faded away.
In the same way, Thom’s way of coping with his demons was similar to his father’s, and that was to turn his back on them while deciding to choose his battles—but at the same time, self-medicating with alcohol and cigarettes, which eventually led to his demise. But, like me, Thom also turned to writing as a way of healing and coping with life’s challenges. The only difference was that he chose to write fiction, while I chose poetry and nonfiction. In fact, my way of healing from losing him was to write a memoir about our friendship. Also, during our ten-year friendship I also coached him on writing his own memoir. It remains unfinished, but perhaps one day I will be called on to finish it for him.
Most of the times when we got together, after a few tequilas Thom became even more relaxed and would begin complimenting me, telling me how lucky my husband was or what a great writer I was. Then he’d elaborate and tell me why. I would blush and then thank him. I’d return home and jot down his comments in my journal. He frequently spoke about and quoted his father, and those memories were usually quite perceptive and amusing.
Thom didn’t like to celebrate his birthday, and I was curious what had caused him to feel this way, so after one of our many tequila encounters at the bistro, I returned home to study all the historical events that had occurred on his birthday, August 2. Sure enough, I found that Thom had good reason not to celebrate on that day.
For example, On August 2 in 338 BC, a Macedonian army defeated Athens in the Battle of Chaeronea; on August 2 in 216 BC, the Carthaginian army defeated the Roman Army in the Battle of Cannae; on that date in 1377, the Russian troops were defeated in the Battle on Pyana River; and in 1914, the German occupation of Luxembourg began. Just for good measure, I will add two more significant events that took place on August 2: first, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed (a positive occurrence!); and second, in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, thus beginning the Gulf War.
To top it off, Thom told me that, in 1971, three years after his father’s passing, he spent his 27th birthday helping to evacuate the few soldiers who were left alive, even if badly wounded, at the lost Battle of Hill 221 in Vietnam. No wonder he hated his birthday, marking as it did what he thought of as the “anniversary of the worst humanity can come up with to celebrate its own existence.”
I’ve always believed that we’re products of our childhoods, and I wondered what Thom’s birthdays were like when he was a child. Did the real cause of his dislike for his birthday originate with some early trauma? Or was his reaction truly due to all the battles that occurred on August 2? Surely, his father acknowledged his birthday, as indicated in his book, The Journal of the Novel written in 1951, the year Thom turned seven. On August 2 of that year, Steinbeck titled the journal entry, “Tom’s Birthday.”
Steinbeck wrote about how he was feeling that day and then added, “Thom got the presents, a boat and a watch and a knife, and he is very pleased. They are going to the pond to swim, if they make it” (p. 138). I recall reading somewhere that it was Steinbeck’s editor, Pat Covici, who’d bought Thom’s birthday presents.
Steinbeck went on to say that he wanted to get some work done so that he could go play with Thom on his special day, “and do all the things that will make the day important. This is his most important day so far because with today he is a boy and he must renounce his babyhood. It’s one of the hardest changes we make. And some never make. But he will have to try, poor kid. We will help him, and we will insist on it. Thom has made great strides this year,” he added (pp. 138–139).
From this passage, it was clear that Steinbeck remembered Thom’s birthday—that year, anyway. Thus, given the evidence at hand, it’s difficult to identify any trauma that could possibly have led Thom to be so averse to his own birthday celebrations.
On August 2, 2016, Thom turned 72, and we’d already been close buddies for more than a decade. His wife had made dinner reservations for the three of us at Lucky’s in Montecito, one of Thom’s favorite restaurants. But at one o’clock in the afternoon, she phoned to say that Thom wasn’t feeling well. He was having one of his breathing-difficulty episodes, and instead of going out to dinner, she suggested buying a cake and coming to his home for a little celebration.
A few minutes later, she phoned back.
“Now I know you’re going to want to buy him a present—you always do—but this year he has a special request.”
“Actually, I wasn’t planning on getting him anything this year; I just want to be with him. I know how much he hates celebrating his birthday,” I told her.
His wife continued, “Just in case you change your mind about buying him a gift, there are two things on his wish list that you might want to know about. He wants a transistor radio—you know how much he loves NPR—but he also mentioned wanting a bonsai tree. Did you know he had about thirty of them that he nurtured daily when we lived in Los Angeles? Unfortunately, due to lack of space, we had to give them away. Caring for them was his form of meditation.
He’d spend hours working and nurturing them with his special tools. He recently mentioned that he wanted to get back into it. I really need to find that tool kit. It’s very intricate work. Bonsais require very delicate care with special tools. He had them all. It would be so good for him to take this up again. He also had a great book about taking care of bonsais. Since we moved into this rental, I can’t find a thing,” she added.
“No worries. Leave it to me. I’ll figure it out. See you later,” I said.
“Thanks, dear Diana. I know he’ll be so happy to see you. You always brighten his day and put a big smile on his face.”
“My pleasure. See you soon.”
I hung up the phone, and being the obliging friend who enjoyed seeing a smile sweep across Thom’s face, I began internet search for the two items on his birthday wish list. I was leaning toward getting him something alive that would nurture his spirit, so the thought of a bonsai plant seemed like the perfect choice.
I’d been told I had a knack for buying gifts, so I followed my instincts. My grandmother taught me that when buying presents for others, not only are you supposed to buy gifts you’d like to receive yourself, but also to listen to the messages others give you about what they like.
During one of Thom’s dozen or so hospital admissions, his wife had texted me to say that I was the only one he wanted to visit him, so I made a trip to the local Mac store to buy him a small iPod (when they were more popular than they are today) and downloaded several spiritual healing tunes. They were the same songs that, years earlier, had helped me navigate my breast-cancer journey after my mastectomy and reconstruction.
If we just allow it, music can be so healing. It has long been regarded as a powerful healing catalyst because it can touch our souls. Recently, music therapy has become quite popular in treating those with brain injuries; and studies have shown that some music makes us relax, feel less stressed, and feel more joyous. It warmed my heart to know that when I made subsequent hospital visits, I found
Thom plugged into his iPod, calmly listening to the music I’d personally selected for him.
“You know, this little thing is terrific,” he said, opening his eyes to greet me and holding up the little device. “It’s saved me from the horrors of being in the hospital. It’s amazing!” He held it with reverence, like a young boy’s fascination with a new toy.
Thom’s parents divorced when he was quite young, and Steinbeck remarried a woman who Thom told me was jealous of his two sons. In one of our more intimate conversations about his life, he told me that there were some secrets from his past, however, they’re beyond the scope of this article to discuss.
Thom admitted to having been treated for PTSD because of some of those secrets, but more importantly because of his years as a Vietnam Vet.
Ever since childhood, the women in Thom’s life were very strong and driven. He always loved and respected women. As a friend he was incredibly encouraging about my creative life. I remember when one of my first poetry books was released in 2008, he and his wife organized a book launch party for me at our local bookstore, Tecolote. I was touched by his words when introducing me. I also vividly remember when my next poetry book, Lust, was released in 2014, he requested a copy before anyone else. After handing it to him, while seated beside him in the bistro, he devoured its pages, telling me he read it from cover to cover numerous times. He said he absolutely loved it and wanted a copy to send to all his literary friends in New York. I’m not sure if he ever did that, but his enthusiasm for my poetry truly empowered me.
Thom often quoted his father and always portrayed him in a positive light. I always sensed there were other stories which he refrained from sharing, knowing the importance of this with a public figure. I honored his wishes and did not probe, but rather focused on all that teachings and love for reading and learning inspired by his early years.
Thom took his last breath on August 11, 2016. He was resting comfortably with his wife and hospice nurses, when his wife texted me to say that he was nearing the end, and suggested I come visit. When I arrived, he was semi-comatose and she told me that he needed to take his prednisone and asked my assistance. My nursing skills came in handy. I went into the kitchen to mix the prednisone in applesauce. I went to his bedside and placed my hand on his shoulder, and said, “Hi Thom, it’s Diana. I have some applesauce for you.”
What happened next had never happened to me before, and I had been at the bedside of many dying people. After hearing me announce myself, Thom suddenly opened his eyes, looked straight at me, and then rapidly shut them once more—for the very last time. The image of his deep blue eyes gazing at me for that split second will hold me for the rest of my life. I swear that it was his way of saying good-bye to me. I was moved beyond words. He opened his mouth ever so slightly and allowed me to insert the spoon of applesauce mixed with the prednisone, and then he quickly closed it again for the very last time. I waited for the nurse to declare his passing and listened attentively as she sang him into transition with “Amazing Grace” and “Imagine.”
A still sadness and emptiness filled the air. Thom was a man of shorter stature, but his large personality could fill up any room. His voice, charm, and storytelling skills could make everyone stop their conversation to listen. At the moment of his passing, he had a peaceful expression on his face—his wrinkles became ever so smooth and relaxed. He no longer gasped for each breath of air, as he had for the last few years of his life.
I stood at Thom’s right side and leaned over his face. I placed my hand on his cheek and, with my own eyes closed, slowly planted a soft kiss on his forehead, which had already begun to cool down. I moved my mouth close to his ear and whispered, “Thom, I love you, and I want to thank you for such a deep and special friendship, which I will forever cherish.” I cupped his hand in mine and stood there hoping he’d respond, as he always had to my comments—returning with something wise and profound. But, it was too late. He was gone.
I looked down at my wrist where there were two green wooden-beaded bracelets embossed with gold letters. They’d been blessed by Tibetan Buddhist monks at Sacred Space, a magical spiritual store and sanctuary in our neighborhood. I removed one of the bracelets and placed it on Thom’s right wrist, and kept one for me—our friendship bracelet. His body was beginning to cool down even more, and the reality of his death set in. He was gone forever and it was a choice that he made for himself, as he took all his demons to another realm where my hope is that he is finding peace.
Diana Raab, MFA, PhD, is a memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and award-winning author of nine books. Her work has been published and anthologized in over 1000 publications. She frequently speaks on writing for healing and transformation. She also often speaks and writes about navigating through the grieving process. At the time of his passing, Raab was coaching Thomas Steinbeck on the writing of his memoir.
Raab blogs for Psychology Today, PsychCentral, Thrive Global, Sixty and Me, and is a guest blogger for many others. She’s editor of two anthologies: Writers and Their Notebooks and Writers on the Edge; two memoirs: Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal and Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey, and four poetry collections, including Lust. Her latest books are Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Program for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life and Writing for Bliss: A Companion Book. Visit her at: dianaraab.com.