Hal Smarkola was eating lunch with three friends on the patio of a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio when his phone rang. It was a warm, mid-September Friday, and he recognized the number right away. Mary Thorsby, executive director of a nearby home for people on hospice care, asked if he could come over before the day’s end. A 90-year-old veteran had arrived the night before, she said, and he didn’t have long to live.
Smarkola, a 75-year-old veteran of three wars, finished lunch and drove home to put on his uniform. His dark blue T-shirt declared “Air Force DD-214 Alumni,” the number a reference to the form all veterans get when they’re discharged. The words “Air Force Retired” adorned his trademark baseball cap. Smarkola then headed off on his mission: to meet a military veteran before he died.
Between 20 and 25 percent of Americans now dying each year have served in the military, according to figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many veterans don’t share details of their battles with family members. Veterans like Smarkola share experiences from their time in uniform that help start conversations. Those can lead to never-before-heard memories from dying veterans.
Abode Contemplative Care for the Dying is a typical one-story house on a residential street lined with towering, full-canopied live oaks. Except for the long U-shaped driveway and six parking spots out front, passersby might mistake it for any single-family home in south Texas. Inside, staff and volunteers provide a place for guests to die in comfort, surrounded by family and friends.
“We are extensions of our guests’ families,” Thorsby said. “So we don’t consider ourselves a hospice. We’re not. We are simply a residential home where people who are on hospice can come and be, and we take care of them just as we would our family members.”
When Hal Smarkola arrived at Abode, Thorsby took him down the hall to the “peach room.” There, Freddy Tidwell lay in a bed, his eyes closed.
Tidwell’s wife of 38 years, Jerri, sat on the chair next to the bed. Two of Tidwell’s daughters and two grandchildren crowded onto a nearby couch. Like Smarkola, Tidwell had served in the Air Force, putting in 26 years before retiring to San Antonio in 1977. Service to country ran in his family: His father served in World War I, and his family beamed with pride as they showed Smarkola pictures on a cell phone of Tidwell’s father and brothers in uniform.
The room was quiet despite the number of people squeezed inside. The only sound came from a TV hanging on a wall. Smarkola made his way around the room, introducing himself in a voice so low it was almost a whisper. He joked about wanting to return to the Air Force if they took 75-year-olds and then asked in a louder voice why one of Tidwell’s family was wearing a Houston Rockets T-shirt. He got laughs and an “Oh, yeah!” from one of Tidwell’s daughters when he suggested her dad was a kidder and that he and Smarkola would have been good friends.
Smarkola then sighed. “Alrighty,” he said and moved in close to the head of the bed.
“You know, Freddy, we’ve never met,” he said. “I just want to say thank you for your military service. Speaking for all the veterans here and everybody that went through all the different bases here to say, thank you for answering your country’s call.”
Tidwell’s eyes never opened, but he occasionally answered “yes” to questions from his daughter about past assignments. Smarkola held up a miniature flag in a clear bag for the family to see before laying it on the hospital bed next to Tidwell’s side.