My brother and his trusty Bic lighter.
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 poise across 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.
Uncle Tommy with my Boy, taken two weeks before he died.