Last week, Frank Cummings flew from Atlanta to his son’s home in Oregon to die.
After months of inconclusive treatment for a rare blood disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia, Cummings had decided to let go, but first he wanted to say goodbye to friends Mary Jo Deck, Don Bender, people in his beloved Atlanta Friends Meeting, and to treasured former colleagues from Clark Atlanta University.
From the moment he lost his wife 10 years ago, Cummings knew that whenever death came knocking, he’d gladly open the door, but he would be the one in charge.
Carol Cummings had died within a few hours of what was probably thrombosis of the lung.
“It was horrible,” Cummings said. “She had no way of saying goodbye to anybody.”
Cummings had no intention of dying that way.
And so over seven days last week, he gathered with his closest friends to, well, have his final say.
“I want to ask you to think hard about how you are going to spend the rest of your life,” he told friends at a special luncheon given in his honor.
Now 75, Cummings had long sensed that his life was not entirely his own, that we are here not just for our own pleasure.
That notion was reinforced in 1951 when his parents went to live and work in Indonesia.
He was just an 11-year-old boy then, but it hit him that one could change the world, that indeed we were obligated to try.
His own life serves as an example.
After earning a Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard, Cummings accepted a teaching position at Atlanta University at the height of the black power movement in 1967, the same year he married his wife, Carol.
“I had this feeling that I should use my talents in a place where they could be most useful,” he said.
Cummings spent 20 years at AU, teaching physical chemistry, seven heading its chemistry department, and 10 managing the university’s $16,100,000 technical assistance contract with the USAID-funded Child Survival Project, which among other things, nearly eradicated polio in Egypt, developed the first method to measure maternal mortality, and set up 22 neonatal wards for low birthweight babies at hospitals across the U.S.
Outside the classroom and between raising their two sons, Andrew and Mark, the Cummingses signed on to work with Central American refugees, eventually opening their home to them.
“Our house became something of a little hotel in the late ’80s and through that Carol and I became associated with a small repopulation community for people who had fled El Salvador.”
Ultimately that’s where their hearts were, and rather than become a vice president at Clark Atlanta in 1997, Cummings chose to retire. He spent one year as interim director of the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee office in Atlanta.
In May 2001, he and Carol packed up to leave their modest home in Candler Park and boarded a plane to El Salvador.
They had no agenda really, but they soon decided they would focus on opening opportunities for youths. Cummings began volunteering in the schools tutoring and teaching English and math. The days turned into weeks, then years. Thirteen in all.
It soon became evident scholarships were needed to enable students to have a future in their own country rather than emigrate. With help from other groups, including the Atlanta Friends Meeting, he managed five scholarship programs, two of which are funded by his family.
“I think we’ve had about 160 students graduate over 12 years from the universities in El Salvador.”
But in the winter of 2014, Cummings felt himself getting weaker and weaker. Just walking the few blocks to the Suchitoto town center made him tired.
In late April, he went to see a cardiologist. Tests showed he was anemic, which didn’t sit well with Cummings. He flew here for a second opinion. Doctors at Emory diagnosed MDS and treated him with several rounds of chemotherapy.
A bone marrow biopsy last November showed he was on the verge of acute leukemia.
Cummings had no intention of undergoing more chemo. With or without it, he was going to die.
He set out traveling, first back to El Salvador to attend his grandson Ricardo’s high school graduation and then say goodbye to friends in Suchitoto, where he was treated to a surprise serenade by the high school symphonic band. He nearly laughed out loud when he noticed a few of the kids he’d taught in second grade.
After two good birding outings and a weekend trip to the beach with his son Andrew and family, he headed to California to spend time with his brother Roger and sister-in-law Mariko. He enjoyed a dinner with Carol’s family members.
Last week, he returned here to Dan and Marcia Klenbort’s home, where he and Carol had spent so much time and where he sat down to talk to me about his life.
Cummings first announced his impending death in an annual Christmas letter back in December.
2015, he wrote, had been dominated by illness. First came the MDS diagnosis, failed attempts at remission and then progression to leukemia.
“The standard treatment would likely kill me and at best add little to my well-being,” he wrote. “So this year’s letter is a form of bringing to a close the long time friendships with each of you.”
I met him at the Klenborts’ home Feb. 5, just as he was wrapping up his final goodbyes.
He had redone his will, drafted Marcia Klenbort to write his obituary, gifted various youth organizations in Suchitoto, including the high school and scholarship programs. He had placed a cap on his sons’ inheritance and noted who would get what was left.
“One benefit of dying early is you got this pile of money you can use to help ameliorate the wrongs of this world,” he said smiling.
On Feb. 10, Frank Cummings returned to Eugene to be with his sons. There he will ease into hospice care content with his decisions to slip away, his family at his bedside and him, humming along and sometimes conducting Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.
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