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How My Mentor Changed My Life

How the loss of a friend deepened my gratitude and passion.

When we lose a mentor, it’s as if we lose our footing in the universe, but it’s also a reminder to cherish our special connections with others. 

My friend and mentor Thomas Steinbeck, son of esteemed writer John Steinbeck, died in 2016 at the age of 72. We lived in the same community in California, having met ten years earlier when I asked him to endorse my first memoir, Regina’s Closet. We decided to meet at our favorite local bistro to talk about my book, and to discuss the writing life in general. Over the years, our relationship evolved and became quite intense, as I inspired him to write his own memoir about what it was like being the son of a famous author. While coaching him, he also mentored me and inspired my path as a writer. 

Thom loved my poems, and after the release of my last poetry book, Lust,he said, “You have a way of saying what no one else can say.” He encouraged me to write even more poetry, and in many ways, we were each other’s muse.

We got together regularly at the bistro for tequilas and delicious talk. Thom was a master raconteur, and the conversations ranged from literature to history to the nature of creativity, from Buddhism to science to corny limericks—which he loved to compose. Thom was an enormous presence who was the life of any gathering. He was very particular about whom he brought into his life, and I was blessed that he chose me. 

While working on his memoir, I got a rare glimpse into my friend’s childhood. To little Thom, John Steinbeck wasn’t famous, but just a big, fuzzy guy with a wry smile and a deep voice, full of stories and mysterious facts. Thom’s formative years were culturally rich, and he loved sharing the details with me; however, it was a mixed blessing being the eldest son of a legend. Thom was a well-known artist, photographer, and journalist in his own right. Yet whenever he was queried by the media, the burning question was always, “What’s it like being John Steinbeck’s son?” And therein, perhaps, lay the root of Thom’s lifelong battle with depression and addiction.

Toward the end of his life, Thom suffered from shortness of breath secondary to his emphysema, which he blamed on Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. But the more ill he became, the closer we grew—and our rare friendship was anchored in deep adoration and respect. When he became hospitalized, his wife said that I was the only one he wanted to see.

While we met under the auspices of him being my mentor, my role as a healer and friend became even more powerful in Thom’s later years, especially during the heart-wrenching time of his worsening illness and death. My role as muse took on a new dimension as I nursed both his body and spirit, and I was with him when he eventually passed. I held Thom’s memorial service in my home and delivered the eulogy. He had not finished his memoir, but I have emails saying that  that’s what his last wish was. 

A friendship and mentorship like Thom’s and mine happens only a few times in one’s life, if at all. Both our lives were transformed by shared passion, grief, and, finally, gratitude. Thom was an enthusiastic friend who inspired me with all his wisdom. One day he wrote to me, “We all need crumbs to follow out of the woods.” I will forever cherish his crumbs, and all the Buddhist principles that guided his own life.

Thom shared so much of his father’s wisdom with me, which I often shared with my students, such as: “If you want to write a short story, write two pages a day for ten days; if you want to write a novella, write two pages a day for fifty days; and if you want to write a novel, two pages for at least eighty days.”

I took Thom’s advice and wrote a short memoir about our friendship. It was my way of coping with my grief. I hope it will get published one day. Writing has always been my form of healing, and it was also the bond that united us. 

I believe that Thom is always with me. While I was giving his eulogy, a dragonfly hovered over my head; and so many times over the past three years while I’ve been out in my yard, a dragonfly has come to say hello. I know that it’s Thom telling me that he’s all right and that he’s thinking of me. This has been a powerful blessing in my life.

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