He climbed trees not for the thrill
of the effort it took, but for the vantage point
Come here and look —
A whisper of wind licked the skin on
his arms and traveled the nape of his neck
as he sat in a notch near the top of the tree
where he could see
past the confines of his small yard,
past his small town,
to the mountains that encircled them.
Beyond that was a world he tried to imagine,
and time on the wings of birds flying past
promising promising promising
plenty more trees out there,
waiting for him to climb.
~~ For Tom, Tommy, Tomas
Begun on May 6, 2018 to mark twenty years. Still a work in progress.
My friend Alison is gone. In a blink. Like the flutter of a bird’s tiny wing. Suddenly and unexpectedly. I hate that there was no time to say goodbye. It sucks that we have no say in who we lose, and when. Life is hard enough the way it is. We should get to say a proper farewell to the people we love. And Alison was someone I truly loved.
That we met at all was a fluke. That when we did we became friends was as if preordained. I can’t remember whether I first hired her to pick my field or she hired me to pick hers, but that was the beginning. We chatted, because it was what you did on Farm Town. You talked to a total stranger who lived who knows where in the world because you could. In our case it turned out that we were 3300 miles apart with an ocean between us. We quickly sussed how much we both loved to read ALL THE WORDS in all the books (when we weren’t making art out of imaginary fields on virtual farms, of course). We friended one another on Facebook, and continued to talk over the Farm Town fence where we learned that we each had an only child we were awed by, and who, despite being opposite genders and nearly seven years apart in age, were remarkably similar in their temperament and interests. How could we not become true friends?
Eventually, we met in real life. I adored her daughter as she loved my son. We were like sisters once separated through no fault of our own, now found, and reunited. It was happy days again. It was happy days each of the handful of times we got to spend time face-to-face.
Alison had a wicked sense of humor. She was one of the sharpest wits I knew. But she was an introvert like me, and she would go quiet occasionally, when the world was too much for her, and I recognized that tendency in myself. There are times when words are not enough and only the space for silent contemplation will do.
Still, I wish I would have told her how brilliant I thought she was, how much she made me laugh. I wish I would have let her know those naughty (but erudite) words I looked up for writing on her cast when she broke her arm. (rantallion, bescumber, fustylug, stympahlist.) They would have made her laugh. We should tell the people we love that we love them. We shouldn’t take for granted that they will know how much they mean to us unless we do.
I wish I could have thanked her for the years we had as friends. I wish I could tell her how the light is a little dimmer now that she’s not here.
I never met Shannon Lewis Adams, but I woke up this morning thinking about him. I said his name out loud.
On September 11, 2001, he was twenty-five, about the age that my son is now. A baby, still, his real life just beginning — the one his parents had spent years preparing him for. Nurturing him; encouraging him. Loving him.
Fly, little bird, they may have thought then. Go out into the world and see what there is to see.
And Shannon flew. To a lofty building far from home.
I knew his father. We grew up in the same small area in the Adirondack mountains of northern New York. A place where most people are content to spend the whole of their lives. Lewis Adams had a shy sweet smile that traveled his face and was reflected in his eyes. I’ll bet his son Shannon did, too.
I picture a space in the universe where all the lost smiles fled to that bright September day. They are there still. We need just say a name and the space lights up with love.
Of all the names I know just the one. But it’s enough. One name, one face, one smile is all it ever takes to bring us to our knees. And still we say the name.
The boy in the photo above is my brother Tom. My mother named him Thomas, but we all called him Tommy. At seventeen he dubbed himself Tomas (pronounced toe-mas, accent on the second syllable). He took to wearing sunglasses and being quietly mysterious. It was the first of many personas he would try on for size while looking for how he fit in the world.
It wasn’t easy for him, figuring it out. He had a handicap from the start: Youngest of seven; born colicky, and needing a lot of soothing in a busy, boisterous family. He was often lost in the fray.
At two he fell through the heating vent in the bedroom floor, bumped accidentally by another brother as they jumped on my parents’ bed. He landed in the dining room below, barely missing the table. Astonishingly, other than scaring the hell out of us, and knocking the wind out of himself, he was fine.
When he was three, I dumped scalding hot food on him. Also an accident. A pressure cooker containing what was meant to be our dinner exploded when I tried to lift the lid. Tommy was standing by my side. I was blown backwards, while lava-hot meat and potatoes shot straight up from the pot and rained down on his back. I can’t remember how long he was in the hospital, but I do remember feeding him ice cream there. The scars never went away.
After that he managed to make it through the rest of his childhood and adolescence with only the usual bumps and scrapes. But he was always kind of quiet and a little aloof. He liked to climb trees where he would sit for hours looking out at the world. I asked him a few times what he thought about up there, but he wouldn’t tell me. I think he was dreaming what life could be.
Tommy lived with me three times in my life, beginning when he was Tomas at seventeen. I lived in Colorado then. He wanted to finish his last year in high school somewhere other than where he was born. We joined the local Y and worked out together, ran around the indoor track together, then went for donuts afterwards. He wore his sunglasses and skipped classes and shared falafel with the homeless guys who hung out in the park. At the end of the year he went back to my mother.
The next time he came to live with me I had just moved to Rhode Island. He slept in my basement and got a job as a cook in a nursing home within walking distance of my apartment. Eventually he met someone, and moved in with her. He got a job at Electric Boat and learned how to weld the seams of atomic submarines. In his down time he helped my husband and I build our house.
He had a baby with the woman he lived with, a boy who looked a lot like him. He took photos and put them in an album where he wrote things like from father to son and, a man with song and dance not to mention poiseacross the pages. Then the woman took the baby out of state and had Tom sign a paper relinquishing his paternal rights. He signed it because “it was what she wanted”, but it broke his heart to do so. He never saw his son again.
He tried to fill the hole by being a fabulous uncle to his nephews. He took them for walks and held their hands and watched cartoons with them. He listened to their dreams and understood.
The last time Tom lived with me his life had begun to unravel. By then he’d been diagnosed with a disease that would increasingly stiffen his spine and cause him pain. A few days after he moved in with us, he simply stopped going to work. He was tired of smacking his head on the insides of the submarines he was welding.
When I turned 35 Tom told me that I was old, being just 5 years from 40, as though 40 was near to the end of it all. He must have believed that, since he took himself out of the equation at 33. I’ve written about that choice in a more oblique form elsewhere on this blog.
Today is Tommy’s birthday. By his thinking he would be old. To the rest of my siblings–Amy, Kathy, Jaime, S.K.–and myself, he is still and will always be the youngest, the most fragile of us all who, nevertheless, keeps us buoyed and connected to one another by the memory of his life.
Happy Birthday, little brother. Tonight the light in my window shines for you.
I hadn’t intended to do a post on 9/11 today. Though, the fact of the day was on my mind as soon as I woke. I acknowledged the sadness tied to the date and then checked my email. There was one from my brother concerning festive plans for the weekend and I engaged myself in thoughts of a happier nature.
Later, while drinking coffee and glancing at the news on the internet, I thought of it again. I looked at photos of the various commemorations, read some of the comments and anecdotes from people who were there or experienced a near miss. Their words and the images filled the space I had meant for other things.
I am floored by the enormity of our collective grief. Almost everyone, it seems, knows someone who was directly impacted by that day.
My husband’s cousin and his wife both worked on Wall street. She worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the north tower of the World Trade Center, while he was in a building across the street. The sky was clear and blue on the morning of September 11, 2001, and because it was their first wedding anniversary, they decided to take the day off.
A guy I knew growing up in tiny-town northern New York was voted Most Likely to Succeed when he graduated from high school. He was a sweet, smart guy with unassuming charm. Years later his son succeeded in snagging a dream job on Wall Street. Ironically, also at Cantor Fitzgerald in the north tower. His name was Shannon Lewis Adams, and he did not have an anniversary to prod him into skipping work that day.
I’ve been in New York City many times in the last twelve years. But I could not bring myself to make the trip to that painful place in lower Manhattan until last November. I was stunned by how different it looked. The makeshift walls surrounding the site, the construction still going on. I think that it will be beautiful one day. On that afternoon, though, it felt desolate. My ears ached from the cold wind that was blowing, but I found what I was looking for.
I have nothing wise or special to offer up today. Just a tugging in my heart and a name. The name of a boy I didn’t even know, who was probably sweet and smart and unassuming like his dad.
The poesy he smells is so small we can barely see it in his pudgy fist. (We would have overlooked it — there were so many tiny flowers hidden in the grass that day.) It is a thing of wonder to him. As he is a wonder to us all. His curls and creamy skin, his brown eyes kissed by innocence.
See how he clutches his little dog? What a comfort it is to to him to have it, his reassurance for the times when the world is a scary place to be. (Remember when it was that simple?)
Had you known what the future held, you might have wished to stop time, to freeze that moment forever, because surely there would never be another so perfect. But then you would have missed the astonishing mystery of him as he grew into a man. A child so fierce in his conviction that he damn well KNEW when didn’t want to nap, and if you tried to make him he would scream until you got him up. You would have missed his shyness, his goofiness, his sweet, sweet laughter. His unflinching loyalty to the people he most loved.
Even between the grooves of anxiety and worry that spun the record of your relationship there was still laughter. Moments of silliness and forgetting. And love, always love. A child cries and a parent wants to hold him. That is the way of life. When that’s gone we grieve not only for our immediate loss, but for what might have been. We grieve for the potential that will never be fulfilled.
But there is this to keep: the memory of a sunny day and the single pleasure of watching a child smell a flower just because it’s there. A child who was then as he will forever be.
A beautiful boy.
n.b. For my dear, dear friend Andy whose loss I feel and whose pain I share. And for sweet Dillon. . . . and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.