That was me you heard groan when the preacher stood up and said, “I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Tom Smith in life,” cause I’ve been to enough funerals to know the unspoken rest of the sentence is “so I’m just gonna’ stand up here and use my time to save your soul, to witness to you, and to get more votes for the Lord.”
But not so today.
We gathered together this afternoon to celebrate the life of Tom Smith, and oh what a fine and fitting celebration it was. I’ve been to more than my fair share of funerals – and I’ve thrown more than a few – so I know what constitutes a good memorial service, and Tom’s ranks right up there with send-offs for my friend Valerie and my Daddy.
After confessing to not knowing Tom, the preacher went on to read us snippets from Tom’s Facebook timeline, and through his selections, it was obvious that he grasped the Essential Tom. And not once – not a single time, I tell you – did he try to save our souls.
Eccentric . . . Stubborn . . . Caring . . . Creative. These are the recurring themes in Tom’s life, and we heard those words and their synonyms throughout today’s remembrances.
Tom’s younger brother, Marion, read a few entries from Tom’s journal, ending with a self-awareness piece which included the itemization of things Tom considered to be – not apologetically, though, mind you – his 12 most prominent faults.
John, another brother, read a touchingly tender letter from his daughter who likened a childhood visit to Tom’s house to entering a magic wardrobe and exiting in a Narnia of sorts, a magical place filled with things just waiting to be rediscovered. Tom was known to hold onto things, you see, in part because as the eldest, he considered himself keeper of the family history and in part because he was an artist who literally turned other people’s cast offs into captivating works of art.
Jim, twin brother to John, regaled us with a tale of teenage Tom’s good idea to steal a watermelon a day from Mr. Bowers’ neighboring farm. On those sweltering August days in Georgia, they’d steal the watermelon first thing in the morning, put it in a sack with a large rock for ballast, then throw it in the deep end of the lake to cool all day. While the three boys worked in the field chopping cotton and doing I don’t know what all, thoughts of that chilled watermelon waiting on them kept them going till quitting time.
Years later, for reasons that might or might not have something to do with redemption, the Smith boys paid Mr. Bowers a visit, taking a store-bought (not stolen) (at least I don’t think it was stolen) watermelon with them. The four guys sat a while on the front porch talking about this and that, and when the boys took their leave, Mr. Bowers stopped them.
“Boys, don’t forget your watermelon,” he called after them, nodding in the direction of the melon.
“That’s for you, Mr. Bowers,” Tom said.
“I don’t eat watermelon.”
“Well, why did you plant them every summer for as long as I can remember?” Tom asked.
“So you boys would have something to steal,” Mr. Bowers explained.
As Jim said, “NSA has nothing on Mr. Bowers.”
Now I’ve taken many rides on the roller coaster called grief, and I’ve spent this week creaking slowly up, up, up then crashing down so fast my eyes and ears became conjoined. This past week has snatched me around this corner then that corner, hurling me into the throes of memory and feeling.
I am mad . . . mad that Tom didn’t choose to throw everything the medical community has to offer at the cancer. And when I wonder if Tom knew and fully understood how much he meant to his community of friends and family, I feel sad.
I’m selfishly sad when I’m unable to stave off the cold splash of reality that I’ll never again wake up to find a note like this waiting on me: “Oh, and that piece on togetherness/space/40 years together was that good…..no smoke. Erma Bombeck couldn’t have done any better. Tom” Or an outline for a book he wanted me to write. Or stories about bullying and about his dad. Or an introduction, of sorts, to his niece Johanna (Johns’ daughter) with his plan to have me meet and mentor Johanna and help her tell her big and powerful story. Or a bag full of books he insisted I read.
But eventually . . . One Day . . . the roller coaster will slow, and the handle bars will release their grip on me. The madness will fade, and the sadness will melt, and both will be folded into the Glad I feel to have known Tom, to be changed for the better by the imprint he left on my life, and to count him always as cherished friend.
P.S. And though I don’t usually sing outside the shower because, well, let’s just say my daughter did not inherit her beautiful voice from me, today I imagined – by way of one of those imprints I told you about – Tom saying “Pfffft” to that and sang my lungs out, not giving one twit if I cleared out my side of the church or not.
(Which is just as much a miracle as the five loaves and fishes and the time I won the Sword Drill at Vacation Bible School.)