Godspeed, Gary Stephen Thompson (1945-2012)

Scanning from left to right in the adjacent picture from Christmastime 2008, you will see Bob Rainey, Mark Warbington, Paul Talamas, Gary Thompson, and me. This was the last time that I saw my friend Gary jovial and excited with life.

On my way home to visit my family that year, I stopped through Atlanta to see the good friends that I made during my Mindspring and Georgia Tech undergraduate days. The five of us in the picture often met up at Mark’s house to tinker with computers (and technology in general), watch Red Green episodes (among many other things), and play Battlefield 1942 (with the Desert Combat patch).

Since I had left Atlanta for graduate school at the University of Liverpool and Kent State University, I had not stayed in touch as much as I would have liked to. However, news has a strange way of finding its way to you through unexpected paths or random encounters. In Gary’s case, I knew that he continued with his annual participation in the Stone Mountain Highland Games, worked with another group of friends building an experimental kit airplane, and recently retired from General Electric where he was an highly experienced machinist.

When I received a postdoc offer from Georgia Tech, I was excited about the prospect of catching up with my friends and hanging out again like we used to do at Mark’s. I realized that time and life had continued during the six years I was absent from Atlanta, but I did not expect the terrible event that coincided with my moving back to the area.

Shortly after Y and I moved to Atlanta, I received an email from Mark telling me that Gary had suffered a massive stroke and he was in intensive care at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. When Y and I received this news, we had been in Atlanta for only a week and we were still restoring our house to a livable condition after it being empty for six years.

At that time, Gary’s prognosis was not good, but he was placed in a medically induced coma while doctor’s attempted to relieve pressure within his skull due to complications of a medicine intended to help dissolve the blood clot that caused the stroke. His family encouraged his friends to visit and talk to him in the hospital.

I felt an uneasy irony about Gary’s bad fortune. I had been studying neuroscience and strokes as part of my dissertation on science fiction and neuronarratives. In fact, one chapter of my dissertation is about Philip K. Dick and the possibility he had suffered a series of strokes in 1974, precipitating his so-called 2-3-74 religious/mystical experiences.

On the afternoon of Thursday, July 26, I drove to Kennestone and navigated its labyrinthine structure to find Gary peacefully sleeping in his private ICU room. I had brought William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” to read to Gary, but it took me some time to get around to that.

It was a sad and strange experience to carry on a one-sided conversation with someone you care about who happens to be unconscious. The movies make it look so much easier than I found it to be. Nevertheless, I marshaled on, hoping that my words found their way into Gary’s mind. I told him about my past six years–finishing graduate school, working in the Science Fiction Research Association, marrying my sweetheart from Kent State, and moving back to Atlanta for my new job at Georgia Tech. I told him that I couldn’t wait for him to get out of the hospital so that he could show me all of the work that he had done on his kit plane. I was also curious about the other technical work that he had undoubtedly been involved with during the past six years.

I read “Burning Chrome” aloud, pausing when Gary’s left arm or foot might move and wondering if Gary’s mind was present in some way, and I would use parts of the story to tangentially diverge into a memory of something that we might have done at Mark’s in the good ole’ days.

Halfway through the story, a young nurse entered the room and politely told me that she needed to do some things to care for Gary. She warned me that some of it might be disturbing, so I didn’t have to watch if I didn’t want to. I stayed and I watched. I was impressed by how careful she was as she went through her routine–checking and caring for Gary’s needs while he was in such a helpless state.

I asked her about Gary’s condition and when his doctors might try to bring him out of his coma. Her happier expression turned troubled–the slightest turning down of her lips, a troubled furrowing of her brow, and a displaying of compassionate concern in her eyes. She said that while she could not tell me everything she felt that I should know that Gary was no longer in a medically induced coma. He was now in a permanent coma with very little likelihood of spontaneous recovery.

This was hard news to take. I had begun the visit hopeful that Gary might somehow pull through this terrible occurrence–perhaps not retaining 100% of his mobility or speech, but somehow beating the odds with his physical wherewithal and intellectual tenacity. Then, my hope fell out beneath me. The damage that had been done to Gary’s brain was significant and the pressure within his skull continued to do damage. In my mind, I imagined the Gary that I once knew was no more. His body lived on, but his personality, memories, and intellect were destroyed by the massive stroke and its ensuing complications.

I read on through “Burning Chrome,” but the pauses for asides were replaced by pauses holding back an intense sadness. My new awareness of the reality of Gary’s condition changed the meaning of the story from one of nostalgia to an uneasy acknowledgement that the “Black Ice that kills” is all too close.

The next week, Gary’s family made the hard decision to remove the tube draining fluid from his skull and to move him to hospice care. He passed away on August 6–five days after his 67th birthday.

His family arranged a fitting memorial service for him at the McDonald & Sons Funeral Home in Cumming, Georgia. At the service, Gary’s many circles of friends converged and shared their memories of a giving polymath. Representatives from the Stone Mountain Highland Games showed their deep respect for Gary’s many years of service and friendship. Mr. Hogan, one of Gary’s airplane builder friends, spoke eloquently about Gary’s exacting and cautious approach to building and his putting other people’s problems ahead of his own. Then, Mark Warbington delivered a history of how Gary found his way into our circle through Rainy Day Records and the Atlanta music scene. From Gary’s brewing of beer at the record store to finally finding a good use for his telescope’s solar filter during the once in a lifetime Venus’ transit of the solar disk, Mark gave a fitting eulogy for our friend Gary.

I wanted to add that I always enjoyed hanging out with Gary. Not only was he just a friendly, outgoing person, he had a contagious enthusiasm for whatever bit of knowledge or technical work he was currently occupied with. When he lived with me for a short while after a tree fell on his house, he enjoyed sharing his knowledge with me and for that I am very appreciative.

Shortly before he passed away, I spent an afternoon with Mark and his five-year-old son Ian. After lunch at a pizza buffet, we went back to Mark’s new house where he lives with his wife Brenda and their son to play Battlefield 1942. Ian and Mark had their own computers to play with and I was assigned to use Brenda’s computer. When we launched the game, we saw that it still had Gary’s handle saved–Psychodog. I choose to play as Gary, and I hope that I did him proud.

Take that hill!

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.