Friday, November 22, 2013

A Great Man Gone


My dear, dear friend Tom Smith died yesterday. No-one loved a good story more than Tom, and no-one told a good story better than Tom did. He was our Geoffrey Chaucer, weaving tales about all of us on our long pilgrimage together. No-one loved to dance more than Tom and no-one we knew was quite as good. Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Otis Redding, the list goes on. Their music called to Tom and he called right back.
Tom was one of those professors who changed students' lives. All through the decades he changed students' lives. He was a medievalist who could teach tales and poetry from the past right next to contemporary poetry and fiction and make it all come alive.
When people asked him what he taught he simply said 'I teach students.'

 I've known Tom and his wife Shelley for more than fifty years. Tom was Curt's best friend in high school and was in our wedding.We went through the rocky roads of marriage together - separations, divorces, coming together, drifting apart.  Newport Jazz Festivals, Newport music, parties, long conversations, the civil rights movement, protests, conversations into the night, sleeping in the VW bus, packed with rhubarb pies and munchies. We danced on the hillside in Newport, rain drizzling and dancing on the tree tops, leaves blowing in the wind, twisting along in 1969 with Sly and the Family Stone singing We are Family. Between the stage and the hill, the National Guard walked back and forth to a completely different beat, no hips gyrating, no arms in motion, no rhythm. The hillside was alive with people dancing, the stage was filled with instruments wailing, dancing and singing. The National Guard never missed a beat. That experience lived with the four of us forever. A grand metaphor for much of life, we thought. And think.

Our kids grew up together, cramped in all together in the rooms of Watch Hill, catching waves, and walking through the Ocean House. At an Inn in Watch Hill we watched Richard Nixon resign.
We were family and rode through good and bad times together. We were one, but we also had individual relationships with one another. Tricky, but real. Tom and Shelly's son Ian and my son Rob were college roommates. They knew each other before they were born. Tom and Shelly's daughter Jessie came to watch Hill this summer to visit with my sons, Rob and Chris.
Fifty years of memories - patches of sadness interrupted and overcome by great times of joy. We were connected. Still are.
But the last four and a half years Tom has been under the relentless spell of Alzheimer's. The greatest storyteller in modern time hasn't spoken a word for more than two years. Not a word. Silent. Sleeping most of the time.
What happened to his words? What happened to his stories? Where are they now?  We have them and will be sharing them this holiday and probably forever. He was the man. Rest in peace, Tom, but every once in a while, stir things up.
A poem from one of Tom's favorite poets. From the Holy Sonnets:

By John Donne - 1572-1631

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Send us some stories.
 







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