The Odd Couple

FLUX Times The Odd Couple
Images by Josiah Patterson

Here is a portrait of an unconventional friendship at life’s end. Meet Richard and Bundit.

“I don’t think it’s going too far to say that we love each other.” Richard Lowe, a 91-year-old retired urban planner, real estate broker, and pianist, is reflecting on the unlikely relationship that has defined the past five years of his life, and defines the ultimate generation gap. The other person in this collective “we” is Bundit Kanisthakhon, a 49-year-old architect and university professor who also lives in Honolulu.

“I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with this 91-year-old man,” Bundit tells me later. “But I do love him.”

If it surprises some people that both men, separately and unbidden, use that word—love—it’s understandable. After all, they are neither family nor romantic partners. And yet this is a love story. It is a story about a relationship that expands conventional notions of love and family and friendship. About loving across generations, across race and culture, and across a deepening political divide.

Most of all, it is a story about showing up. Again and again. Occasionally with chocolate cake.

I don’t think it’s going too far to say that we love each other.

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Before I tell you Bundit and Richard’s story—and it’s a story I will never tire of hearing or telling—I have to explain why I’m telling this story at all, how I fit into all of this.

I first met Bundit in 2016, one year after my wife, Allison, and I moved to Honolulu. He and his wife, Janice Li, who is also an architect, run the small but eminently creative office Tadpole Studio, which in 2014 was honored by Dwell for its Honolulu Museum of Art parking attendant station, built primarily out of repurposed bed frames. After I interviewed the couple as part of a survey of contemporary architecture in Hawai‘i, they invited Allison and me over for dinner. Bundit, who grew up in Thailand and is as curious and versatile a chef as he is an architect, made curry and a host of other dishes, which he prepared one by one in the galley kitchen of his and Janice’s Punchbowl apartment, a spare, concrete-floored loft where every piece of furniture came with a story: the airline beverage carts, the Linda Yamamoto sculpture, the Holoholo cab sign.

Most amusing were the apartment’s white walls, which served as a living and lived-upon canvas. Everywhere were doodles in black china marker: a rough trace of the couple’s dog, Dhut Dhut; a black circle that circumscribed the glow of a lamp, creating the appearance that the wax had corralled the light. The most eyebrow-raising doodle appeared on the wall behind the dining table. It was a cartoon speech bubble. Inside it said, “WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.”

My memory of meeting Richard is fuzzier. It was a year or two after that dinner at Bundit and Janice’s, and it must have been through Bundit, perhaps at a party or a lecture at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where Bundit teaches. I can’t recall the exact moment, and past emails and text messages are no help. In some ways, it felt as if Richard were simply suddenly there, omnipresent. He and Bundit seemed to go everywhere together—to class, to Bundit’s office, to parties and networking events. I began to expect that if Bundit was somewhere, Richard was nearby.

He was eminently likable, just like Bundit. He had a bright laugh, a crooner’s blue eyes. I was shocked to learn that Richard was almost 90 years old; his wry sense of humor and knowledge of current events made him seem decades younger. The only thing that belied his age was the caution with which he moved, taking a flight of stairs one deliberate step at a time, clutching the railing with a feeble-looking hand. Still, he seemed remarkably healthy. He lived by himself and every other week drove himself to his standing gig playing piano at Nico’s Pier 38.

Richard, I learned, had come to Hawai‘i in 1964, part of the team hired to design the Hawai‘i State Capitol. Before that, he had studied architecture at University of California Berkeley, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and enrolled in the urban planning department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His family had been wealthy enough to hire an architect to design their house in Woodland, California, and growing up in such a house had left Richard with an appreciation for design. As a child, he would sketch the mechanical armatures of the carnival rides that each summer arrived in Yolo County to tilt and whirl and pendulum back and forth.

Richard’s other childhood love was music. His mother played the piano, as well as the pipe organ at the Episcopal church down the road, and by age 14, Richard had commandeered his mother’s piano—a Steinway Model M that she had been given as a wedding present in 1917—in order to teach himself boogie-woogie tunes by artists like Pete Johnson. When his mother died at age 101, Richard had the instrument shipped from Woodland to Honolulu.

It was in Honolulu that Richard met Lorna Whitcombe, who had grown up in Suva, Fiji, the seventh of ten children. They were married in 1966, and had three children, Jennifer, Vanessa, and Jonathan. When Lorna died of cancer in November 2014, she and Richard had been married for 48 years.

In 2007, Richard attended a meet up for local alumni of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. What happened next could pass for the meet-cute of a Hollywood romantic comedy. The way Richard tells it, it was love—or rather that irresistible blend of attraction and curiosity—at first sight.

Richard was standing on the deck of the Hawai‘i Superferry (the location and reason for the meetup), which recently had begun service between O‘ahu and Maui. Professionals of all ages milled about, making small talk, sipping drinks. He spied Bundit on the other side of the ferry. “I said, ‘I want to know him,’” Richard recalled to me over coffee. There was something about Bundit’s smile, he said, “a certain activity that he exhibited. But we didn’t talk there. We didn’t meet.”

That would happen a few months later, at another MIT alumni event. Richard introduced himself to Bundit. And then? “Bundit fell deeply in love with me,” Richard said. He looked at Bundit across the table, where the three of us were sitting, Dhut Dhut curled up at our feet. Bundit smiled but shook his head, waiting, like a parent patiently expecting a child to fess-up to a fib.

Richard laughed. “I’m lying. I’m lying completely. But Bundit did say, ‘You have sparkling eyes.’ I’d never heard that before. I figured it couldn’t be anything other than a compliment.”

After that, the two stayed in touch. They bonded over a shared interest in music, architecture, urban design. Bundit and Janice occasionally invited Richard and Lorna over for dinner. When Lorna died in 2014, Richard started calling Bundit more frequently. By the time I got to know them, Bundit had given Richard a desk in his office and an email address at Tadpole Studio. When Bundit landed a tenure-track job at UH, he installed Richard there, enrolling him in the university’s Nā Kūpuna Program, which allows anyone over the age of 60 to attend classes free of charge, and invited him to sit in on his architecture lectures and critiques.

They were an odd couple. Bundit, a Buddhist immigrant from Thailand, whose childhood involved rebelling against his military general of a father; Richard, a former Marine born to an affluent family in the Sacramento River Valley. They were two men separated by nearly half a century and a fair length of the political spectrum: Bundit, a likely hippie had he been born 20 years earlier; Richard, a member of the Silent Generation who, in 2016, voted for Donald Trump.

These divisions seemed not to faze them. They were inconsequential compared to the main attribute the two men shared, which was an intoxicating childlikeness, a sort of youthful vigor and wide-eyed curiosity that could be fastened onto any person, place, or thing. “He has Peter Pan Syndrome,” Bundit once said of Richard, without irony, seemingly oblivious to his own boyish and rambunctious energy. To watch the two together was to feel as if you were watching a pair of ornery children. They teased one another and communicated in a private language of call-backs and inside jokes.

Richard was Peter Pan, Bundit one of his Lost Boys.

If Bundit and Richard were a pair, a dyad of unusual yet resonant notes, I was an occasional third, completing the chord. Bundit would text, inviting me to meet the two of them for breakfast or lunch. When in 2018 they were going to be featured on a local television program to present their architectural vision for Aloha Tower and Honolulu Harbor, they asked me to join them.

Part of what I liked about spending time with the two was that it felt like being granted access to an alternate reality. Inhabiting Richard’s life, even briefly, felt like getting a glimpse into a world I’d only seen in movies or television, a world of social clubs and high society. He would tell stories of Honolulu in the Swinging Sixties, of his friendship with the artist Jean Charlot, who, according to Richard, practically forced Richard and Lorna to have their wedding reception in his backyard in Kāhala, and of the time he was the entertainment for an art opening, playing piano on an elevated platform outside the gallery, flanked by two nude dancers.

Part of what I liked about spending time with the two was that it felt like being granted access to an alternate reality.

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More than the stories, it was the relationship that intrigued me. Never have I seen two men behave more tenderly toward one another. Bundit held firmly onto Richard’s belt when Richard lowered himself into a chair, and slung Richard’s backpack over his own when the two had to walk up a flight of stairs. He cared for Richard through actions but also through knowledge. He knew Richard’s favorite dessert (chocolate cake), his most-used phrases (“Does that name ring a bell?”), his choir schedule. Richard reciprocated. He knew numerous details about Bundit’s life, including from the years before their relationship began. It was if the invisible barrier that typically separates two human beings had dissolved, leaving only permeable space.

For all of these reasons, I rarely turned down an opportunity to see the two of them. There was always an ostensible reason for our meetings—a research project or a magazine article. But lately I’ve wondered if Bundit orchestrated these gatherings mainly for Richard’s benefit, a form of intellectual fitness, creating opportunities for the three of us to spitball ideas and hatch new projects over lunch on the terrace at the Spalding House or a lazy breakfast at the Outrigger Club, living as if we had all the time in the world.

One day, I got a text from Bundit: “Tim please call me.”

It was Saturday, April 6, 2019. Bundit, Richard, and I had been meeting off and on to discuss a potential journal article, trading outlines and sample works. I assumed the text was about the project, and so I didn’t call back, not for a couple of days. On Monday, I finally got in touch with Bundit, still thinking it was about the article.

“Richard fell. He’s in the hospital.”

It was one of those moments when you feel your senses sharpen, a state of hyper-focus in which everything else seems to blur. Bundit’s voice, normally so light and cheerful, was solemn, laced with concern. He gave me the short version of the story: Richard fainted at the farmers market near his house. He had gone to the emergency room and was now at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific in Nu‘uanu. We made arrangements to visit Richard in a couple of days.

That Wednesday, Bundit picked me up in his truck, the hand-crank windows lowered in the heat. Dhut Dhut sat between us, his head on my lap. Bundit filled me in: Richard had collapsed due to a weakness in his heart. He had had a pacemaker put in and was, for the most part, stable. But it wasn’t clear whether he would make a full recovery. The biggest question mark was a blood clot in his leg. If it made its way up to his heart, or to his brain, it could kill him instantly.

I absorbed the news. I said I was glad Bundit had called. I definitely wanted to see Richard. Then, for some reason, I told Bundit that I had been considering writing about his and Richard’s friendship. This was true. My wife had been the first to suggest it, and I had been mulling how to approach the subject, but I didn’t have immediate plans to start writing. Movement to my left made me look over. Bundit was sobbing, his eyes red and wet. He said, “I’m afraid it might be too late.”

We arrived at the hospital and took the elevator to the fourth floor. Richard was in a wheelchair, his body slumped forward. He didn’t seem conscious. An IV bag dripped saline solution into one arm, and the left side of his face was covered in a dark gray bruise. I tried to assess the damage—a human instinct, though it is what we cannot see that often poses the greatest threat.

Bundit and I pulled up chairs. After a few moments, Richard woke up. I asked how he was feeling. He smiled weakly. “Better than I should, probably,” he said.

I visited Richard in the rehab hospital several more times. One day, I brought a selection of desserts from my favorite market: a slice of liliko‘i cheesecake, a haupia bar, and a thick wedge of chocolate cake. “That’s his favorite,” Bundit said, pointing to the chocolate cake and grinning. “Right, Rich?”

FLUX Times The Odd Couple
The English language doesn’t seem to have a readily available word to describe a friendship like the one between Richard and Bundit.

Richard, who looked stronger and more alert than on our first visit but who still needed Bundit’s help getting in and out of the wheelchair, told me how the wait staff at Nico’s had discovered his love for the restaurant’s famous five-layer chocolate cake. After that, at the end of every gig, he would be presented with a giant slice, on the house. It was Bundit bringing him slices of Nico’s chocolate cake in those first few days in the hospital that helped Richard regain his appetite, Bundit told me later.

I remember thinking that Richard looked so happy that day, devouring his chocolate cake, that it felt as if he could have been 9, not 90. Just a little boy eating his favorite food in the world.

It was during my visit with the chocolate cake that Richard first told me about his son, Jonathan. It was just the two of us. Bundit had stepped out to make a call—he was always working in odd slivers and in-between moments, trying to fulfill his obligations even as he spent increasing amounts of time at the hospital, visiting Richard once, sometimes twice a day.

Jonathan had been a waterman. He was strong, bronze-skinned, a lifeguard for the City and County of Honolulu and an avid surfer. But he struggled in school and with his mental health, and eventually, after several doctor’s visits, Jonathan was diagnosed with clinical depression.

One day, in the summer of 1992, Richard and Jonathan were having a conversation. Richard must have expressed concerns, because Jonathan said, “Don’t worry. I would never hurt myself.” The next day he hung himself.

Jonathan was 21 when he died, which means he was born in 1971. If he was alive today, he would be 49, the exact same age as Bundit.

How do we determine our obligation to one another? What is the rubric for gauging our responsibility to those around us? Often, it comes down to blood, that ancestral bond we call family. I am more obligated to help my father than I am a random stranger. Other times, we make vows, promising to love one another “till death do us part.” After that, it gets messy. Some pledge allegiance to their countries, others to causes or cults. Some people become foster parents. But what prompts someone to devote themselves to the well-being of a person who shares no blood relation, is not his partner nor legal dependent, and has lived a life as different as conceivably possible from his own?

For Bundit, there doesn’t seem to be a choice. There is only an inescapable, uncontrollable urge to help those around him, to alleviate suffering when it is in his power to do so. Once, he rescued a pair of guppies from a flower vase in one of the university classrooms. He showed them to me, tiny silver missiles darting from one side of the fish tank to the other, and pointed to the female’s bulging belly. “Pregnant,” he said, smiling happily. He described this urge to care for others, human or otherwise, as a mysterious, metaphysical thing. He said it felt as if he had been helped in a former life. Now, he had no choice but to help others. He used the word karma.

The first time Richard called Bundit after a fall in 2015, Bundit responded without hesitation. This was early in their relationship. Lorna had died less than a year earlier, and Bundit and Richard were barely more than acquaintances. When Bundit reached Richard’s apartment, it was a mess. Lorna’s clothes and other belongings were piled everywhere so that even reaching the bedroom was practically impossible. More concerning was what he saw in Richard’s eyes: “He has no sparkles,” he said of that time.

It was Bundit’s turn to feel as if fate was thrusting the two men together. For several years, Bundit had been volunteering with Hospice Hawai‘i, helping patients and their families in the final weeks leading up to a patient’s death. But the conveyor-belt nature of end-of-life care had begun to take its toll. “At hospice, they teach you not to be attached. If they offer you anything, even a glass of water: nope, nope, nope.”

After taking Richard to the emergency room, Bundit asked Janice if she would be OK with him using the time he had been spending volunteering to help Richard instead. Today, the men see each other almost every day. They go swimming. They go for walks. They propose speculative planning projects. They’ve broken every rule in the hospice handbook.

FLUX Times The Odd Couple
Richard came to Hawai‘i in 1964 with a team hired to design the Hawai‘i State Capitol. More than 50 years later, and now at 91 years old, he still maintains a wide-eyed curiosity

Recently, the duo mapped every church in Makiki and began interviewing pastors as part of a project to reintegrate the churches and their dwindling congregations into the neighborhood fabric. That work has led to a project in one of Bundit’s architecture studios, where students are working with a local church to repurpose its vacant school building. Richard is a fixture at the architecture school, serving variously as guest critic and guinea pig, having been conscripted as an archetypal senior citizen for a student’s senior housing project.

I don’t need statistics to tell you that Bundit and Richard are in an almost nonexistent minority. I don’t need to marshall evidence or compile data to demonstrate that men emotionally isolate themselves as they get older or the measurable impact that isolation has on male life expectancy, especially following the death of a spouse. I don’t need to point to the epidemic of loneliness that doctors and psychologists say has spread throughout much of Western society. And so I don’t need to argue that, for all of these reasons that I have not given, it is not an exaggeration to say that Bundit saved Richard’s life.

I have tried to put language to what Bundit and Richard are to one another. I gather up all the labels that come to mind and try them on one by one. Nothing seems to fit. Friend is too trite, caregiver lopsided and transactional. Partner is more equal but carries romantic connotations, as well as an implicit commitment of the sort that neither man has made.

The computer makes its own suggestions: associate, compatriot, confidante, amigo. Companion comes closest. It comes from an Old French word, compaignon, which derives from Latin: “com” meaning “together with,” and “panis” meaning “bread.” Someone with whom we break bread. Is there a platonic act more intimate or ancient?

Later I learn that companion is a cosmological term as well: almost every star in the universe has a companion star, a twin born at roughly the same time. Relationship, it seems, is not strictly an earthly phenomenon, and I find myself well outside the realm of verifiable facts or even theoretical physics as I wonder: if two stars can be cosmic companions, could two souls?

I don’t need statistics to tell you that Bundit and Richard are in an almost nonexistent minority.

FLUX Times The Odd Couple
The unlikely pair bond over a shared interest in music, architecture, and urban design.

Ultimately, even “companion” falls short. Perhaps there is no word for what Bundit and Richard are. After all, language, like all forms of expression, reflects the world it attempts to describe. And yet words are also enabling. Perhaps if we had language for this kind of intimate, platonic love, we would see more of it in the world.

After months of in-patient rehab, Richard was discharged in May 2019. He still has the blood clot in his leg, but the doctors are monitoring it. The danger isn’t gone, but it has lessened. He can sit up by himself, walk without assistance (though Bundit lectures him when he forgets his cane), and has even begun swimming again. Richard’s daughter, Jennifer, moved into his Makiki apartment to be closer. Although he’s on a cocktail of medications, Richard said he feels as healthy as ever. The last time I saw him, he sat at his piano—the one he inherited from his mother—and played me one of the nearly 200 songs he knows by heart. He couldn’t remember the name of the tune. But he remembered how it went.

It is inevitable that the inevitable happens. Richard said he doesn’t worry about it. Bundit worries more, mainly because he wants Richard to have the longest, richest life he can. He wants to take Richard to Thailand. He even offered to pay Richard’s doctor’s way if he agreed to come along.

I’ve spent countless hours with Richard and Bundit in the course of writing this profile, and I’ve wondered how much of my decision to do it came down to simply wanting to spend time with them. Was I, as I suspected Bundit of doing, guilty of engineering opportunities for leisurely lunches capped with slices of chocolate cake? It’s possible. But it’s also possible that my motive was no different than it is with any other story, which is a persistent, quiet curiosity, an unescapable desire to collapse the distance between my experience of the world and that of another person. Which, when I think about it, is also what happens when we love someone.

Not long ago, Bundit and I were sitting in his university office. Dhut Dhut was dozing on his mat. I was describing the linguistic impasse I had reached, the insufficiency I had found in the English language to capture his and Richard’s relationship. Then Bundit offered a descriptor I hadn’t thought to try, a phrase every 5-year-old knows. He only had to say it once for me to know that it was perfect.

He said: “When Richard described me to his daughters, he said, ‘Bundit is my best friend.’”