Finding Angus: A True Story of Love, War, and Family

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A World War II love affair and the efforts of two families to learn about the mysterious man who has brought them together.

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The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother's ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother's ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat's paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

Allen wouldn't get a better cue. He lifted the leis one at a time and dropped them onto the water. They formed a loose, expanding circle around him. He turned the latch on the box and opened it; the contents looked denser and darker than he expected. They shished and gently rattled when he tilted the box. He had traveled a long way to bring her here, but there wasn't much to return. Five pounds of hard ash. He tilted the box and poured her into the sea. Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, as if eager to get there, dove straight for the bottom.

Four months earlier, she had been lying in a bed in Houston's Methodist Hospital, where decades before she and my father had trained as physicians and where she had given birth to four of her six children. She had long been fearsomely strong. Tough? we used to joke. Our mother's so hard you can roller­skate on her. Now she struggled to breathe. Her once thick hair lay thin and dank. Tubes fed and drained her. Purpura stained her skin. She was 80 years old and had been sick for most of the previous decade—breast cancer, hip replacement, bowel obstruction, pelvic stress fracture, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis. She'd had enough. "A stroke," she said. "Why can't I just have a stroke and die?"

Allen, an emergency‐room doctor, stood at the head of the bed holding her hand. "Mom, I hate to say it. But a fatal stroke is about the only thing you don't seem at risk of."

"Damn it, Allen, I'm a doctor, too," she said. "I'm quite aware of that." Allen looked at us helplessly. Until then it had seemed as if the world would need her permission to finish her. Now she had given it. She closed her eyes. Allen shuffled. No one said anything. After a while she said, "Children, I want to talk about later."

"Okay, Mother," said Sarah. Sarah was the fourth of the six children, the one who lived nearest to her and had done the most to look after her. "What about later?"

"When I'm gone," she said, "I'd like to be cremated."

This was new. In the past, she had talked about getting buried next to her father, who was in a leafy cemetery in Austin.

"Okay," said Sarah.

"And I want you to spread my ashes off Hawaii. In the Pacific. Will you do that for me?"

"Sure, Mom," said Allen. "We can do that." My mother smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

"Mother?" Sarah asked. "May we ask why the Pacific?"

She closed her eyes. "I want to be with Angus."

We children exchanged glances: Had anyone seen this coming? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged.

What we knew of Angus was this: Angus—the only name we had for him—was a flight surgeon our mother had fallen in love with during World War II, planned to marry after the war, but lost when the Japanese shot him down over the Pacific. Once, long ago, she had mentioned to me that he was part of the reason she decided to be a doctor. That was all we knew. She had confided those things in the 1970s, in the years just after she and my father divorced. I can remember sitting in a big easy chair my dad had left behind in her bedroom, listening to her reminisce about Angus as she sat with her knitting. I remember being embarrassed, and not terribly interested.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

"Of course," said my brother. "We'll do that for you, Mom."

A week later, seemingly on the mend, she was sent home to the elder center where she lived. For a week or so she continued to gain strength. But then she started to have trouble breathing, was admitted to the home's care center, and, on her second day there, suddenly stopped breathing. Despite a standing do‐not‐resuscitate order, the staff tried three times to revive her, to no avail. The doorman told me later that when the ambulance arrived and the medics rolled her out, she was "blue as can be, Mr. Dobbs. Blue as can be." The hospital, too, tried to bring her back, and they were still trying when Sarah arrived. By that time, our mother was brain dead but alive and could breathe only with a tube. Exactly what she sought to avoid. Sarah gathered her strength and told the nurses that this was against her mother's wishes and she must insist they remove the breathing tube. "It was like jumping off a cliff," she told me later. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was harder than pushing out a kid." The nurses called the doctors. As they pulled out the breathing tube, my mother bit down on it. Sarah screamed, "Oh my God she's fighting for life!" The doctors assured her that this was a common reflex and tugged it free.

Then they left. Sarah sat next to the bed and put her head next to my mother's and held her hand. With the tube gone, her breathing slowed. Sarah cried against her neck. It took about 10 minutes. Finally, the room was quiet.

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David Dobbs writes regularly for The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and Wired. His most recent book, Reef Madness, looks at a long argument that Charles Darwin had about how coral reefs form.

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