Friday, October 30, 2009

Tom's last night at home - New Year's Eve

This beautiful story was written by Theresa Dawn Strong and edited by her husband, my brother Michael. It is long. Perhaps the longest entry in this blog. It may also be the best. Thank you both from the bottom of my heart.

"As we sat in the car just before backing out of their drive way, for the very first time I witnessed my soon to be husband succumb to the emotions that had been building inside since he first learned that one of dearest people in his life had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Michael’s brother-in-law, Tom, was just 51 years old at the time of his diagnosis. Yet, with a tremendous amount of confidence, determination and faith, Tom and his devoted wife Theresa embraced their battle and continued to enjoy their life each day, never missing an opportunity to show gratitude for the gift of each and every moment. It was December 31st, 2008, nearly eighteen months since Tom’s diagnosis. Michael and I were wrapping up an incredible evening, which we had the pleasure of spending with Theresa and Tom. With an ever encouraging spirit about him, Michael offered them his unending support and unconditional love as they traveled down this very difficult road together. However, much to my surprise, after saying our goodbyes and making our way to the car with only the two of us present, and for just this moment, Michael lowered his guard and allowed himself to grieve.

Michael and I had been looking forward to sharing another “first” together. It was such an exciting time for us, being newly in love. This was our first New Year’s Eve. True to form, we decided early on to abandon all tradition by first enjoying a relaxing evening, and then getting to bed at a reasonable hour so we could snuggle and ring in the New Year with an early morning run. So, when we received Theresa’s invitation to come early for a light dinner, a good bottle of wine and even better company, we knew this would be the absolute perfect way to spend our evening together. There was no one we would rather spend our New Year’s with, so we welcomed the opportunity.

Theresa and Tom had become understandably protective of their time. Theresa was increasingly careful not to commit to things that could potentially be a bit more taxing on Tom than he might be able to handle on any given day. Therefore, knowing things could change at the last minute, we anticipated a call from Theresa that day saying we were a “go,” or a “no-go.” About mid-day, the phone rang, and it was Theresa saying we were a “go!” With one stop on the way, just a couple of hours later we were in route to their house, unaware of just how significant this night would eventually prove to be. It was a quarter to six p.m. and there we were in Central Market cruising the aisles for goodies to take with us. Pizza or sushi, pizza or sushi, pizza or sushi….Pizza it was! We threw in some crackers and hummus and we were on our way. Upon arriving at Theresa and Tom’s, we were greeted with friendly smiles, big hugs and, as always, lots of love. We made our way to the kitchen, huddling around the counter where Theresa had already started preparing some of her own yummy snacks. She poured the two of us a glass of wine, while Michael spent a few minutes talking with Tom about his day. After a little chit chat of our own, Theresa popped the pizza in the oven, and we made our way to the living room where Tom was already seated and looking comfortable, relaxed and very content.

Tom, Theresa and I had spent a good amount of time together earlier in the week at his rehabilitation center, so I was eager to see if he was ready for a rematch in one of his newest exercises, finger soccer. This game is designed to build hand strength, motor skills and hand-eye coordination. When I asked Tom about it, he gave me a bit of a peculiar look at first. I could see it hadn’t immediately jogged his memory; however, he shifted his posture and appeared as if he was searching through his mind to recall exactly what it was I was referring to. Seeing how quick to engage Tom was gave me my first indication of how he might be feeling physically. With a smile on his face, he worked through the thought process of remembering what it was I was talking about. Once it came to him, we shared a little laugh together. Based on his response, I thought this day was probably like the end of most days, in that he was a bit tired from various challenges, yet in good spirits. His energy that night seemed focused on being in the moment and sharing this special occasion with the two of us and his lovely bride.

As we nibbled away at the appetizers, we each settled into our own comfy spot and Tom did the same. Michael and I were on the couch next to Tom’s chair. Theresa was across from us on a chair; perhaps it was the ottoman to Tom’s chair. The atmosphere was relaxed, open, warm and intimate. The energy in the room was the type in which everyone feels at home, as if you’ve been granted permission to kick off your shoes, curl your feet under you and snuggle up on the couch with a blanket. So, that’s just what we did. As I looked around the room, I noticed how much Theresa and Tom’s calming and gentle presence was greatly reflected in their home. Their loving connection, spiritual strength and confidence oozed from all corners. Our conversation flowed easily from one topic to the next. Theresa, or sometimes Michael, would reach out occasionally to give Tom a hand, but for the most part, he appeared on top of things and managing as best as one might expect or hope for. He looked especially well on this special occasion. Dressed in his usual comfy sweats and a t-shirt, Tom also wore a smile that I believe reflected his spirit that night. Theresa told us how Tom always loved this much celebrated holiday and never wanted to miss a minute of it. Theresa, on the other hand, did not always share the same level of enthusiasm, or at least she didn’t express it by staying up until midnight; however, every year, she did try to stay up as late as she could just for Tom. Since she was rarely able to hold her sleepy eyes open until stroke of midnight, every year, Tom was sure to wake her up and wish her a Happy New Year. I felt a little pitter patter in my heart as I thought to myself how considerate they were of one another. Even in tiny differences, they found common ground and created a lifetime of memories!

As the first pizza came out, Tom said a blessing over the food and gave thanks for the many things we all had to be grateful for. One thing I learned about Tom in the short time I had with him, was that he was always incredibly thankful. No trace of bitterness. No hesitation or doubt. His prayer of gratitude touched each of us so deeply that it brought tears to our eyes. Here was this man, whom we all loved, battling cancer, and on New Year’s Eve he asks God for nothing, only gives thanks. It was another reminder of why he was called “Big” Tom!

We’d been enjoying one another’s company for at least an hour as we bounced from one story to the next. We talked about everything from running, cycling, swimming traveling and holidays, to new friends and old friends and even ex-roommates who were never friends! As we began eating dinner, we did not miss a beat - not in eating nor in sharing stories. Throughout the evening, Michael and I tried to remain consciously sensitive to how Tom was feeling. While mindful of this, I began to notice something that I found incredibly amazing. I couldn’t help but notice how his body language shifted in response to Theresa. Occasionally Tom would appear to drift away from the conversation, as if it were getting lengthy, or especially when there were multiple people talking at once. Certainly, given the type of cancer Tom was living with, the challenge to remain focused grew harder as time passed. However, there was one particular subject that seemed to bring him back and hold his attention better than any other. That was Theresa. When Theresa spoke, Tom listened very intently. When she moved, his eyes followed her. And as often as Michael spoke of her, Tom’s eyes would light up and his smile would grow even bigger. He hung on every word she said, or that which was spoken about her. He looked at her with such admiration, affection and with great pride. Of course, it was no surprise, but that night it was so evident that Tom dearly loved his beautiful bride with all of his heart. It seemed to me that Tom and Theresa’s souls were completely connected, and the bond they shared so deep that even in this current condition, he was able to connect to her, and her very existence was life to him. This was incredible to witness - nothing less than beautiful, to put it simply.

It grew late, and we felt it was best for us to allow Theresa and Tom to wrap up the evening with some time for each other. Theresa moved forward and offered to help him up. He was reluctant. At first, I wasn’t sure if he didn’t want to get up or if he forgot that Theresa told him it was time to walk us to the door. After a couple of attempts to get Tom going in forward motion, Theresa asked why he was still sitting there. Tom

said, “I don’t want to get up, because I don’t want the night to be over.” His response was as touching as it was humorous. Touching, because it meant so much to us that he valued and enjoyed our time together as much as we had, and humorous, because it sounded like what he might have said on those past New Year’s Eve nights when Theresa was fading fast and Tom was waiting it out to the stroke of midnight. But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. And unfortunately, our time there was ending. We all moved toward the door and said our goodbyes. More big hugs for everyone just before making our way to the car.

At last, there we were in our car, just the two of us, silence echoing between us. I had sensed Michael’s emotions concerning Theresa and Tom rising to the surface on more than one occasion. This however, was the first time I was certain they’d reached his threshold. Finally, unable to contain it any longer, Michael burst into tears as he yielded to those mounting emotions he’d long since carried. From the depths of his being, tears flowed. Tears of pain? No doubt about it. However, I later learned those tears were so much more. They were tears of respect - respect for the way Big Tom and Theresa were being fused together, rather than torn apart by this illness. They were tears of love and tears of envy that honored the living spirit that grew stronger between them, especially in this most challenging stage of their life together. With all the love he had in his heart for the two of them, Michael grieved, he let go and he grieved.

As the universe continued to unfold for each of us over the days and weeks ahead, it became clear that the emotions that emerged that evening were befitting. On December 31st, 2008, the four of us, Theresa, Tom, Michael and I shared our first and their last New Year’s Eve. It was also the last night Theresa and Tom shared in their home together. Special, significant, momentous, of great consequence – words seem to fall short of adequately describing the magnitude of this moment in each of our lives. Simultaneously, the life that Theresa and Tom shared together, at least here on this earth, was coming to a close, while the life that Michael and I were getting ready to embark upon was just beginning. I recognize and honor the evidence of the cycle of life and the wisdom of nature by acknowledging the gift that we were given. Their gift to us - a seed, planted deep within our hearts. It is a seed of gratitude and love. New Year’s Eve 2008 will forever serve as a reminder to us to give thanks in all things, and provide us with an understanding of how pure love really does conquer all. Even in separation by death, their bond, formed by love, is eternal. Exemplified by his actions, and in his final message to us all, therein lies Tom’s legacy; love truly is the greatest gift of all."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Walking for Tom with Mom and Dad 10/18/09

Once again my mom had a stellar idea. In celebration of Tom's life near his birthday we would walk around Memorial park with lanterns. A few nights ago, just when it was getting cold we bundled up, got Blossom in the car and met at Potbelly's sandwich shop in Uptown for some pre-activity fuel.

It reminded me of a story. About one year ago, Tom was undergoing his second radiation and no longer driving. Lots of people pitched in and drove him to his radiation including John Picciotto. After radiation one day John suggested they stop and have a sandwich at Potbelly's on 59. John said he wanted to go there because Penny (his wife) would not eat there with him. John's comment was mostly conversational. Penny would eat anywhere but she is not generally a sandwich eater. But Tom took it to heart.

A week later John (pictured on left) again took Tom. Tom had been hankering for a chicken fried steak so I pulled John aside and suggested if they go out to eat to take him to a place where this craving could be satisfied. On the way to lunch John suggested they head to a nearby Texas style place for some good southern cooking. Tom asked if instead they could go back to Potbelly's. John said 'sure' and they headed that way.

Later that day when I found out, I asked Tom why he did not get the CFS he wanted. He said John was so nice to drive; the least he could do is give John a chance to eat Potbelly without Penny finding out. Somehow shortly thereafter things managed to speed up to supersonic fast motion and I don't know that Tom ever got his chicken fried steak. I'll bet Tom happily gave up that meal so John could be happy. In some ways Tom was really amazing.

Anyway, back to the walk. It was cool. There was a slight breeze and all the stars were out. It was quiet. We lit the candle lanterns and kept a good pace around the park. We stopped half way in the gazebo and said some prayers. Blossom laid there and sighed and seemed to know how special this walk was. A few people gave us encouragement and one man asked a lot of questions about Tom. At the end a runner took our picture.

For all the miles, one hundred or more I expect, that Tom and I did running around the park, this lap was perhaps the most special. Thank you for the idea mom. And mostly, thanks for all the support and love mom and dad. It was a wonderful, wonderful night.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tom's Birthday Gift

Tom loved art. And he really loved the Art Festival. We started going when it was on Westheimer and made it back most years. So when it landed on October 10, Tom's birthday I decided to go. Alone. Almost.

Tommy and Lisa (brother and sister-in-law) often go so I thought I might be able to catch up with them. I was not sure it would happen so steeled myself for the adventure alone. Around noon "I put on my big girl panties" as the expression goes and headed out. I drove to the museum district and parked for free, took the train into downtown, followed the crowd, paid my entrance and started walking around.

Now I'm sure no one reading this can even imagine what the big deal is. How scary is it to accomplish this trip when I have travelled over a whole bunch of the world, a lot of it alone? But I was afraid. I'm afraid a lot now and I don't understand it but it sure turns going to an art festival an act of bravery as opposed to a casual way to spend the afternoon.

I was there an hour or so and Rebecca, a friend from back in the 70s appeared. We have a serious cosmic (or karmic) relationship which I will share with any of you over a cup of coffee. Shortly after we met with Tommy and Lisa. Laughter, wine, and some fun art later I was actually having a fine time.

Late in the day, we landed in the booth of Tres Taylor. ( Mr Taylor does the most wonderful paintings on tar paper and I just fell in love with them.

From his website:

Tres Taylor was a biochemist for over 20 years. After visiting RA Miller in 1998, a Georgia folk artist, Tres believes a “paintbrush fell from the sky”. He paints about spiritual seeking, about love, Divine Love, peace, and joy. His subjects are usually monks, couples, and houses, but always the subjects are symbols of love. Tres’ medium is usually house paints and acrylics on roofing paper with putty, which enables him to draw freely, carving strong black lines.

Tres was kind, and generous and it was such a blessing to have met him. I often believe that nothing happens for a reason but encounters like this shake my resolve.

My Cosmic Drummer, which I decided to give to Tom for his birthday, hangs right inside our front door. I see it constantly.

Thanks to Rebecca, Tommy, Lisa, Tres, and Tom hanging around in the art or clouds or wine or somewhere, Tom's birthday really was a celebration.

Friday, October 9, 2009

10.10 Happy Birthday Tom

10.10 is Tom's birthday. So I am going to sing him happy birthday. But when you read the words I need you to picture it correctly.

Remember Marilyn singing to Mr. President? Start there. Then imagine the singer is many pounds lighter than Ms. Monroe but not nearly as curvaceous, or voluptuous. Both are blond. One is natural. Tonight's singer is in running shorts and a t-shirt and has wet hair from walking the dog. But in her mind it is a wonderful gown with sequins and full length.

The lighting is actually similar. While I am not under glaring lights in a huge theater I do have a very bright desk lamp shining in my eyes. The song's cadence is about the same in both cases. But tonight the song is neither sultry nor sexy. It is actually sad and quiet. And you can sing along if you want. Be sure and look at the pictures of Tom. It is the earliest (on right) and last birthday pictures I have of him.


Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday Dearest Tom.
Happy birthday to you.

I miss you baby.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tom the Best Man

The backstory: When Tom died, Nicole (my sister) and Austin (her boyfriend) decided to get married. Specifically, they decided on the night of Tom's celebration. Nic and Austin were so inspired by the love Tom and I shared that they chose to commit after over 14 years together. However, they were not comfortable asking me to be a part of the wedding since Tom had just passed. They were also not sure a big wedding was appropriate since they had both been married before and even within their relationship Nicole had been a runaway bride at least once. So they waited.

During the first few months Nicole asked me if I had any regrets. I had so many. I should have never left the hospital, we should have gone to the Mayo clinic,we should have never had meat in our house, and 100 more that would not have changed a thing. But one stood out. I wished I had taken Tom's name. For both of us I wish I would have been Mrs. Tom Lawrence.

In June, Nic and Austin decided to elope and spent the next two months planning a secret and wonderful wedding to be held in August, on their 15th anniversary, in Sedona. There would only be four invited guests, two of which were Betsy and Keene, N&A's very close friends. They were invited two weeks before the event.

I was another guest and I was never actually invited. I was tricked into coming with a variety of stories including birthday celebration, FBI awards, and time out of Houston. They wanted the wedding to be a surprise!

Tom was the fourth guest – Austin’s best man.

When I arrived in Phoenix (to surprise Nicole when she got the top secret award), we drove from the airport up to Sedona for a picnic and to pick up some art work. The fact that I had just traveled most of the day and we were about to drive five hours round trip for a lunch in 100 degree weather seemed perfectly normal to them. Of course there was no picnic, no art work and no top secret FBI award.

It was only after we arrived in the parking lot of the B&B did I learn that tomorrow Nic and Austin were getting married at sunset in a beautiful park right outside the town. Tom and I were invited.

The best of all was that Tom was going to attend as Best Man. Nicole and Austin had brought up the last little pebbles they had of Big Tom and I had a photograph of him that Betsy would carry during the ceremony. Nicole had selected a poem for me to read during the event. Coincidentally enough I had a copy of the book with the poem in it – and had brought it with me to read on the plane.
The wedding was perfect. At one point Austin and I kneeled next to a stream and I placed Tom’s pebbles in the water while Austin placed some of his mom, Geneva’s ashes. We cried and laughed and in the many hours of food and drink that followed toasted the Mr. and Mrs. Austin Barrett, Geneva, and Tom many times.

I can’t imagine there has ever been a dead Best Man before, but I know Tom did the job admirably. While he did not hold the ring, he was there in spirit, clearing the rain, and giving us a glorious view. Thank you Big Tom. Thank you for your love and for allowing us to love you. Thanks for being Austin’s Best Man. And mine.